Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. September 8, 1901. [Rail Hunting at Nearby Watery Expanses]. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 36(343): 18. Portion of column.

Forest, Field and Stream.

Again, for the first time for three or four years, local gunners are having great sport with the rail, both clapper and sora, out at Cut-off and over at Manawa and Mud lake; in fact, at all the near-by watery expanses with swampy shore lines. It seems that the rail are plentiful here about every four years, although they are to be found in fair abundance yearly. They were incredibly plentiful at Cut-Off in 1893, again in 1897 and are to be found this September in large numbers at this famous old resort. The rail, cunning and pretty as they are, and as desirable as they are from an epicurean standpoint, are not hunted very extensively in this part of the country—owing, no doubt, to the plenitude of larger and, erroneously considered, better game. There are but few feathered morceaux that can be compared, when properly served, to either the sora or clapper rail, and twenty years ago, along the Kankakee river, we used to kill them by the thousands.

They are indeed a mystic little sprite of the marsh and river beds, delicate in texture and more susceptible even to the cold than the upland plover. Let the slender green leaves of the flag in the low places once begin to droop, and the rail will go as if by the stroke of a magician's wand. The first decided evidence of the debut of Jack Frost, with his invisible paint brush, and away they go a-wing for the softer and gentler climes to the south.

But I repeat, the present is proving a great season for these delicious and delicate birds in this vicinity. All of our adjacent lakes, on both sides of the Missouri, all the low-lying and reed-covered swail lands in this particular locality, are fairly swarming with them, and just now the gunners are harvesting them by the dozens. As an evidence of their plentifulness it is only necessary to state that myself and a Chicago friend bagged some sixty odd over at Big lake Wednesday afternoon. Had we been able to have retrieved all we knocked down among the tall tules and in the mushy mires, we would have beaten this by a third, at least. During the past fourteen years it has been my pleasure to especially observe the autumn's plentifulness of these cunning little marsh hens, and while I have speculated considerably on the causes for this quadrennial visitation of the rail, I am unable to advance any real convincing theory. Years ago, when they showed up one September in uncommon numbers, I thought they had selected this region on account of the extensive drying up of many of their other usual haunts at that time, but that was evidently not the cause for they have been here every four years since in equal numbers. However, the sportsman who would like to take a crack at the incomparable little corncrake, had better be up and stirring, for the evening winds are rapidly crisping, and, in a few more revolutions of the earth, the birds will be gone, and then the gunner must turn with longing eyes for the coming of the teal, the yellowlegs, jacksnipe and later the bigger ducks and the opening of the chicken season. Our nights and mornings are growing keener and keener with the passage of every twenty-four hours; the weeds and grasses have already begun to hang their dusty heads, and blots of topaz and relieving the cottonwood's universal green, and streaks of the summer's life blood have been splashed among the maples. In a few more weeks not only the rail, but all our warblers, will have mysteriously vanished.

But a few more words about the rail. It used to be, years ago, in the far east, and is today in the middle states, that the annual call of no class of feathered game was looked forward to in the early fall with such eagerness as was the case with this whimsical and mystic little marsh hen, about which cluster so many weird myths and entertaining stories. In the old days, back on the Atlantic seaboard, the sportsmen did not believe that his feeble flight could carry him on such journeys as he was said to make, down from the far north. In the early fall, and on to the green savannahs and embowered lagoons of the gulf country later. They were rather inclined to credit the old legend that Mr. Sora was today a pert little bird of the air, tomorrow a gnome, and will-o'-the-wisp of the malarious and gruesome marsh, or a frog that could plunge into, burrow down and hide in the slime and mud. Although the rail is reared on all our fresh water lowlands his range extends far up into the land of the aurora borealis, where his stay, in the very heights of summer, is brief, indeed. He does all his long distance traveling by night, the brighter the moon the better, dropping down into our wild rice fields and beds of flag and smartweed, that he knows so well, at the break of dawn, and there rests and feeds, until luna shows her face the next night, when he rises, goes straight up into the air until at a great height, when on he goes like a sable meteor of a golden realm.

There is no more simple bird than the rail, no bird of more deliberate flight, when upon his feeding grounds here, and no bird easier killed. And yet you must be quick on the trigger. The little clapper, when disturbed, along the edges of Cut-Off, only shows himself above the tules and saw grass a moment, while he sort of tumbles through the air for a few yards, to the shelter of thicker cattails or willow scrub, where you can neither wade nor push a boat.

They are fond of a gale, and often arise when one is blowing, in sheer abandon of sport, and allow the wind to catch their slender shapes and sweep them away to certain destruction, it seems, far out on the lake. On such occasions they make just about as hard shooting as do the reticulated flight of the jacksnipe. In pleasant weather, such as we have had during the past week, it is a measly shot indeed, who cannot grass nine out of every ten rail that flushes before him. But rare indeed, is the retriever who can recover half he knocks down, for the wounded rail is skillful in hiding himself in the tangle of the marsh. If you will kill them dead, their black plumage makes them easy to bring to pocket.