The Gray-necked Wood-Rail

Last month, I was using our most unique room at Xandari, Villa 20, as an office for a while. I say most unique — despite the fact that we have a Star Suite (Villa 27) — because 20 is constructed in a completely different way from all of Xandari’s other buildings. It is a round structure with a natural thatch roof, and it has huge windows affording about 180 degrees of view into the wooded gardens above the orange orchard. It so happens that this vegetated spot, not too far from the river that creates the southern border to Xandari’s property, is one of the stomping grounds for the Gray-necked Wood-Rail, a resident species of bird that is more often seen than heard, not only because it is extremely secretive and suspicious, but also incredibly loud.

As you can see in the final footage of the solitary individual above, they move cautiously while looking all around them for threats, and they move quite quickly when they perceive one. I considered myself very lucky to get a shot as clear as the one above last year on the property of Monte Azul in Costa Rica, but during these past few months back at Xandari I’ve gotten a surprising amount of good looks at the rails here as well. This is partly due to the great view from Villa 20, where, while working at my desk, I was able to spot an individual repeatedly forage in the garden outside. It was so wary, however, that on most occasions the moment I lifted my camera it detected the movement and sprinted off downhill, back into the denser vegetation. These are the only photos I ever got from the villa, though they’re better than the potential view with your odds of spotting a rail on the average walk through our trails, it would seem.

The video above, from two separate days last week, represents the longest amount of time I’ve had the fortune to observe the species, and also proves to me that there are several individuals on property, as I’d thought there might just be a single breeding pair. Listening to their calls (most of the noise you hear in the first clips are the rails, with a Plain Wren and Montezuma Oropendola, and maybe a squirrel, interjecting a couple times too), you can see why Richard Garrigues, author of the authoritative field guide on Costa Rican birds, describes the vocalizations thusly: “the resounding chorus brings to mind a group of drunken chickens.” In fact, it is often the first bird call you’ll hear in the dawns at Xandari, as well as the last at dusk.

A behavior that I was excited to see (and record!), and which I haven’t been able to find anything about in some cursory research on the species, is the rushed chasing away of other rails by one individual that seemed to be protecting a small patch of territory, perhaps as some sort of display. After all, the nesting period for the Gray-necked Wood-Rail is April-September, so there might be a mating ritual that precedes breeding, though it is surprising that nothing of the sort is mentioned in several web resources or the legendary Alexander Skutch‘s paper on the species in Costa Rica. Of course, this was just one observed instance of the behavior, so I’ll have to keep an eye out for more examples of the territoriality.

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