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.