Swamp Creature Resurfaces in Cuba

A long-lost marsh bird is found, thanks to the persistence of an ornithologist and his team.

Zapata Rail. Allan Brooks/Wikimedia Creative Commons

What’s it like to see one of the world’s most elusive birds, a species of that hasn’t been documented in more than forty years? Ornithologist Andy Mitchell says he felt a shiver go down his spine when he spotted Cuba’s critically endangered and incredibly elusive Zapata Rail in November. The bird, which was a regular in Cuba’s Zapata swamp back in the 1930s, has rarely been spotted anywhere since. There are no photographs or sound clips of it; only a dozen or so specimens are scattered in museums around the world.

Mitchell’s discovery was announced earlier this week by BirdLife International, which helped fund the rail search. He first began making trips to Cuba in the early ‘90s, and for the past decade, he’s been keen on finding the critically endangered Zapata Rail. Until last year, though, Mitchell’s efforts to get funding for a research project in Cuba were stymied by political sanctions. At the end of 2013, he was finally able to secure a grant from BirdLife, but it still wasn’t enough to pull off the project. In swooped British soap magnate and birder Mark Constantine (owner of the company Lush), who rescued the mission with a generous cash infusion.

Fully bankrolled, Mitchell arrived in Cuba with plans to try two methods of capturing the rail: first, by placing traps around the Zapata Swamp, and second, by cutting narrow strips through the reeds and using trail cameras to monitor them. But the first plan had to be scrapped when a crucial component for the traps—chicken wire—wasn’t available on the island. Mitchell and his three colleagues, Arturo Kirkconnell, Curator of Birds at the Natural History Museum in Havana, and brothers Orestes and Angel Martinez, both naturalists, forged ahead with plan B, slicing four strips through the saw grass reeds. The strips couldn’t be too wide because rails don’t like to cross open areas, Mitchell says.

The team hit the jackpot on the second-to-last day of the month-long project. After hearing a rustle in the reeds, Mitchell peered through his binoculars and caught a glimpse of red. This must be the Spotted Rail, a more common bird that also makes its home in the Zapata swamp and has a bit of red on its beak, he thought to himself.

“I then realized that the red went [all] the way around the bill, whereas on the Spotted Rail it’s just a spot at the base of the bill, so I started to get a little bit excited—this is in the space of about five seconds—and then the bird walked out into the middle and I realized there were no spots on it at all. Its beak was completely different,” Mitchell says. “I realized I was looking at the bird we’d been searching for.”

The bird stood there for a moment, then wandered off in the direction of another observation strip. Twenty minutes later, Angel Martinez also saw a Zapata Rail; they believe it was the same bird.

Sadly, neither sighting was captured by the trail cameras. Nor did recorders, running four or five hours of everyday, capture the bird’s call on tape–at least they don’t think so. Trouble is, there has never been a confirmed recording of the Zapata Rail’s call. (A few recordings made in the ‘70s actually turned out to be from a Spotted Rail.)

Listening to the tapes at the end of the day, Mitchell tried to use a process of elimination to identify a call that might belong to the Zapata. “You would have the other swamp birds—the herons, the egrets, the [Spotted] Rail—calling and we were looking for that one thing that didn’t sound like any of them,” Mitchell says. “And we never heard anything! Not one different thing.”

The team’s theory is that the Zapata Rail’s call is either very similar to one of the other rail’s, or, more likely, that it doesn’t call at all. “We think it’s probably silent,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell will continue working on this hunch. He’s heading back to Cuba this week, specifically to Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata, where authorities are increasing patrols in the area where the bird was sighted. With any luck, the new measures will help the Zapata Rail thrive and reproduce, so that future visitors can be caught off guard by the bird, scuttling unseen through the swaying sawgrass.

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