Tropical bird's arrival in N.M. sparks frenzy

A Rufous-necked wood-rail walks along a New Mexico marsh.
A Rufous-necked wood-rail walks along a New Mexico marsh. (American Birding Association)
Posted: July 25, 2013

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - There's a frenzy erupting in the birding world, and the Rufous-necked wood-rail is to blame.

Never before has there been a recorded sighting of a Rufous-necked wood-rail in the United States, but for the last two weeks one of the birds has been right at home among the cattails at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Typically, the species is found along the coasts and in tropical forests in Central and South America.

The sighting has prompted emergency plane reservations and impromptu road trips reminiscent of The Big Year, the comedy starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson that brought to life the annual competition among birders to identify the most species of birds in North America in a year's time. The difference here is that no one expected they would get to check the wood-rail off their list.

It didn't take long for Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association, and his wife to jump in their car and make the nearly seven-hour drive from Colorado to the southern New Mexico refuge. He said that seeing the wood-rail was like being dealt a royal flush.

"Rails kind of have a reputation for being secretive and staying out of sight," he said. "To see a big, colorful rail and to see it walking around out in the open is just really special. Then, you can add the dimension that it is not only far, but hundreds if not thousands of miles from where you would typically see it."

The phones have been ringing off the hook at Bosque del Apache since the bird, about the size of a small chicken, was spotted on the morning of July 7.

Matt Daw, a member of the Bureau of Reclamation's southwestern willow flycatcher survey team, was getting video of a least bittern at the edge of the marsh when the wood-rail decided to interrupt.

"The bittern literally got photobombed. This thing came running out of the cattails and the camera kind of shakes. It's really kind of funny," said Aaron Mize, the refuge manager. "In the birding world, they're saying it's the best photobomb in history."

One of the nation's premier birding spots, the refuge attracts tens of thousands of people over the fall and winter months as throngs of snow geese and sandhill cranes migrate through the Rio Grande Valley.

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