Alabama: Return to the Rail’s Nest

Bill Finch, the director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, is blogging for Cool Green Science about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Conservancy’s efforts in Alabama to protect shellfish reef restoration projects there from the coming slick. Read all his posts.

The rail’s nest in Grand Bay marsh is empty.

Seeing it was a jarring reminder of how much time has passed — as if I were watching my own children leave home.

It’s been almost two weeks since Sergio and I first found eight speckled eggs beneath the tent of dried marsh grasses, just above the tide in Alabama’s Grand Bay. We wondered then whether mother rail could hatch the eggs before the oil moved on shore.

We didn’t dare imagine then the spill would still be pouring into the Gulf, that every morning we would wake up anxious, half-wishing it would never come, half-wanting it to come and be done, so we wouldn’t have to wish again.

The momma rail had other anxieties. She had laid her ambitions for the spring more than a month ago, a few days before the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon.

Then, it was a simple spring, as simple as a spring can be these days along the Gulf of Mexico. She had prepared the best she could for all the usual perils rails have faced for eons on the coast — marauding racoons, spring storms, disease, competition for a daily meal of snail or fiddler crab. If half a brood survives two months, she’d be as successful as a momma rail could hope to be.

She faced other perils a rail might not be prepared to contemplate. For decades now, there have been fewer and fewer places for a new year’s crop of rails to go. The coastal marshes where rails nest — and where most of North America’s seafood harvest is produced — have been disappearing at a stunning rate.

Some marsh is filled outright, some choked with runoff and waste. The rest is squeezed — between the houses competing for a picture window view and the seas that have been rising steadily, about a foot in the last century. The retreating marsh has few places left to go, and neither does a sturdy cohort of young rails.

The rail lets out a yelp. What’s troubling her right now is the six-foot shadow looming over her nest, and all the attention she’s been receiving in the last two weeks.

Rails are secretive birds. They slip beneath the thick marsh grasses, announcing their presence, but not their location, with a raspy, wooden clack. They rarely fly and never far. The chicks, black balls of fluff, hit the ground running, piling out of the nest and into the shallow water of the marsh within a day or two of hatching.

The rail’s not calculating how much oil is gushing uncontrolled, maybe uncontrollably, from a hole in the Gulf. She only sees the great disaster in front of her nest, a conspicuous pool of bare muddy earth, where film crews and scientists drawn here by the spill have trampled out a bull’s eye in the thick cordgrass.

Every day it doesn’t come ashore, there’s a chance for a miracle. My friend Ben says that when I ask him what he thinks will happen next. I was surprised to hear him say it. We never talked about miracles before.

My best guess is that rails don’t expect miracles. They just want some privacy and enough marsh left to raise their young.

(Image: Clapper rail in New Mexico. Image credit: jerryoldenettel/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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