Historical Bird Records: How Much Should We Believe? Black Rail, Greene County, NY 1963

For those of us who are interested in the avian history of New York State, the efforts by the New York State Ornithological Society to archive and make searchable 57 years of their Kingbird Journal  are nothing short of amazing.  Especially for someone like me, who has only been alive a little more than half as long as the Kingbird, it has given me great insight into the birds and birders who covered Region 8 (Eastern New York) before me.  But with these great stories and birds, comes some trepidations on my part, I just don’t believe some of these reports.

The first “No way!” moment I read, came from the 1963 V 13 #3 Kingbird.  In the report from that Spring, a Black Rail was reported from Vly Marsh in Catskill on May 18.  Black Rail, has a very limited range in New York, pretty much relegated to a few isolated pockets of salt marsh along the south shore of Long Island.  Because of its small size and secretive habits and difficult to get into habitat, it likely is under reported, but has never been common.  Many field guides still list Black Rail as rare and local inland, especially along major river valleys.  Its status away from the coast is more or less a vagrant, although it may very rarely breed, somewhere! 

 Now the observer who reported the Black Rail was well known, was listed as an observer long before and long after this particular sighting and was familiar with the area.  The Region 8 editor, describes the sighting as “convincingly described”, but no details as to what made the description convincing!  My argument is look at the date, May 18.  By this date at least some Virginia Rails, which would have been fairly common along the Hudson River marshes would have had downy chicks.  A well known ID pitfall of Black Rail is its similarity in size and color to the chicks of both Virginia Rail and Sora, both of which would have been found in the marsh.  A sighting of a small black rail in mid May, if indeed that’s all there was, is certainly not enough to make this report convincing. 

Now, to make this even more interesting… On September 19, 1963, the same observer, along with another, reported Black Rail at the same location.  Again, the Region 8 editor simply says the sighting was “convincingly described”.  Now this sighting holds more potential.  Given the mid September date, the chances of a late brood of either Virgina Rail or Sora are pretty low, but not impossible. In my opinion there is a good chance that a small black rail, is in fact a Black Rail.  Since it was seen by the same observers, who were reliable, this September sighting makes their sighting from the previous May, more credible.  But without specific details separating it from young rails in May, or even in September, I have a tough time accepting either record.  As such, Black Rail remains on my hypothetical species list for Region 8.

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6 responses to “Historical Bird Records: How Much Should We Believe? Black Rail, Greene County, NY 1963

  1. Presumably the Region 8 editor knew about potential confusion with Virginia Rail chicks, correct?

    Mid-May is a good time for various odd birds to be passing through. I suspect that quite a lot more rails pass through than birders ever find simply because rails are so cryptic. That goes just as much for Black and Yellow Rails as for more common ones like Clapper and Virginia. So I’m not quite as skeptical of the record.

  2. Nice analysis Will. I wish NJ would publish something similar. It would make my job as a regional editor much easier. How can I make high count, early record, etc. claims in my reports without all of the historic data available to me?

  3. I hear you Patrick!

    If one could go back in time and set up some organized means of archiving field notes for future researchers, that would be ideal. Unfortunately, birders’ field notes are often not preserved, unless they are ornithologists whose papers get deposited at some academic archive. The notes of “hobbyist” birders are often regarded as so much trash to be tossed out once the birder has shuffled off the mortal coil. We have already lost a huge amount of information because of this and will continue to do so unless there’s a change in attitudes and practices. In any case, if the “convincing descriptions” of these Black Rail records were available today, you could refer to them and draw your own conclusions about the quality of the documentation supporting the claimed sightings.

  4. I had a similar experience with this same species!!

    I remember that I was called because this species was seen in the Reserve in which I worked in Puerto Rico. The source was from four different people in which I could trust the judgement of only one of them. I rapidly went to the site and what I found were chicks of a Yellow-breasted Crake (Porzana flaviventer). Which I have to admit was a very awesome find also. In the same site I also saw chicks of other rallids like the Common Moorhen which are also black but larger. The black Rail is reported in P.R but I am also very skeptical of this sighting and I am dying to see this species.

  5. Hey, Will, Go right to the source. Ask the observer yourself. He is still alive and living in retirement in another state. He has family with the same name in the area, and could easily be tracked down. Maybe he still has his field notes and those darn details !

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