Yellow Rails Found in Migration in MN?

Here’s an interesting report for you: yellow rails seen only!

There are details in that checklist for behavior and micro-site habitat. Later, another birder went to the site and found them around 7:30 PM: “They were chasing each other on the east side of the wetland on the north side of the road. They were splashing in some water in between two flooded rows of crops from last season. They the disappeared into the wet grass.” – Brad Abendroth (emphasis mine)

Another birder was able to see a bird the following day that he assumed was the same as the previously observed bird: “The water is about six inches deep. It is a flooded field. I flushed a bird in the same spot yesterday that was a small rail based on flight that was not a sora. I am convinced it was a yellow rail.” – Steve Gardner

On a quick read-through of the 1st 2 observations, I was optimistic about this incredible and rare sight! As I thought more about it, though, the OH yellow rail debacle came to mind. Basically, 50+ (and some of them excellent!) birders over the course of 4 days went to a sorghum farm to observe yellow rails, until they were discovered to be button quail. Button quail is a non-native species kept sometimes on farms or otherwise in captivity. This event, though, showed the possibility of the non-native species being found in association with agriculture (The 3rd comment was in response to the thread, where I basically quoted Paul Hurtado’s article and opened up an ID debate.) So right now, I’m sorting out the evidence between 2 hypotheses: the birds observed were either yellow rail or button quail. (Obviously, there could be complications/intervening explanations or other hypotheses, but this post will focus on those 2 alternatives.)

In my mind, here’s where we stand with these sightings:

PROS

  • occurs in a geographic location at the right time of year for it to plausibly be yellow rails in migration
  • habitat: “The wet grass is basically identical habitat to the place where I tried for this species at McGregor Marsh. If one was to walk out to where they went after I saw them in the wattery corn stubble, the water level would probably go up an inch or two below the bottom of the calf.” – Brad Abendroth (edited for punctuation)
    • wet grass
    • shallow water
    • retreat into wet grass cover from being out in the open

CONS

  • corn stubble/hanging out between row crops: yellow rail are known to use rice fields in winter, but corn stubble isn’t their typical cover, and would seem to favor button quail.
  • conspicuous behavior: the reports were all seen only in the same location, 2 days apart, and given the incredible rarity of seeing yellow rails out in the open, it raises suspicion.
    • flight: yellow rails don’t flush easily, yet the 3rd observer flushed a bird (though I don’t have information on how close he was)
    • clumsiness: the reports indicate splashing and chasing, which is much unlike the stealthy behavior of yellow rails
    • time of day: all sightings occurred broad daylight/evening

INCOMPLETE INFO: ID MARKS

  • only Steve Gardner saw the bird in flight, and the lighting was low, so beyond the comment: “The wings appeared light on the back edge…” there is no definitive information about the extent of the white on the secondaries. This is the best visual ID mark for distinguishing between button quail and yellow rail.
  • only the original observer, Brad Nelson II is sure of the bill shape, though Brad Abendroth (2nd observer) does seem to recall the bill shape being “rail like” and unlike the quail.

It would be really neat if these are indeed yellow rails out in the open during migration. I hope other observers are able to follow up and gather more info/ID marks!

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