Yellow Rails on a Fall Day in Iowa

I have made several trips in the past few years for the specific purpose of seeing Yellow Rails.  This spring Barbara and I went to the Anahuac Grassland Preserve east of Houston, Texas to participate in one of the annual “Rail Hunts” sponsored by Friends of Anahuac.  I reported on that trip earlier on this blog.  Suffice it to say that effort was extremely difficult and, in the end, fruitless.   Yellow Rail has been the only ABA Code 1 or Code 2 species that (1) I have never seen, and (2) can be seen regularly, though rarely, in Iowa.  So, if I could find one in Iowa, I would have a double delight-both a North American and an Iowa Life Bird.

A few years ago Carl Kurtz reported on the Iowa Bird Line that while harvesting prairie seed on his farm near St. Anthony, Iowa, he has seen Yellow Rails flush from the prairie grass in front of his moving combine.  I met Carl about 10 years ago when I went on the Board of Trustees of the Nature Conservancy (Iowa Chapter).  Carl had been a member for some time before I joined the Board.  About a month ago I contacted Carl and asked if it would be OK with him if I came up and rode the combine with him when he harvests this year, to try to add Yellow Rail to my Life List.  Last Saturday (October 16) he called me and told me that he had seen a Yellow Rail that day while harvesting, and that if I wished to come up to his farm on Sunday, if it wasn’t raining, he would be continuing the harvest on the field where the Yellow Rail showed up on Saturday.  I accepted readily.  Staining the deck would have to wait.

It did not rain on Sunday, and, in fact, it was a beautiful, sunny autumn day.   I arrived at Carl’s farm about 1:30.  He was just gassing up the combine.  I climbed up and we drove to the field and began combining the prairie seeds.  Within minutes, a Yellow Rail flushed from a few feet in front of the combine, and fluttered away from us  to a nearby ravine.  I got a great view, particularly advantageous from 10 feet up on the combine for spotting from above the white trailing wing patch which quickly differentiates the Yellow Rail from the Sora Rail.  We were both elated.  Carl asked if I wanted to go back, or continue with the combining.  I quickly accepted his offer to stay, and within an hour we had flushed 2 more Yellow Rails, both equally close and clear in the brilliant autumn sunlight against the golden-brown of the prairie.  After the 3rd sighting, Carl offered to let me operate (drive only; I certainly couldn’t be trusted with the other controls) the combine.  Although I grew up on a farm, we did not have a combine while I was there, so this was an exciting, first time experience.  I readily accepted and did a darn good job, too.  We finished the field and drove back to the house, where Linda, Carl’s wife, served delicious hot Lattes and homemade banana-chocolate chip bread.   This was the frosting on the cake of a truly delightful and memorable day, especially due to the warmth and hospitality of the Kurtz’s on their Iowa farm.

Carl then took me for a drive to see another 80 acre prairie that he has developed from what was formerly a badly degraded pasture.  He bought it a few years ago and it is now a place of rare beauty.  A small stream meanders between the hills and the area was populated by pheasants and sparrows, particularly a large number of Vesper Sparrows.

The Yellow Rails become my North American Life Bird number 706, and Iowa Life Bird number 328.  Thank you, Carl and Linda.

1 thought on “Yellow Rails on a Fall Day in Iowa

  1. Don, congratulations. Great story. You captured a lot of the fun of birding in having a bird that’s eluded you in the past and then is experienced with friends and in such a fun way. Unfortunately, not enough birders have seen a life bird from a tractor or combine. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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