04 August 2010

History of King Rail Continues at Vicinity of Platte Confluence

A recent observation of a King Rail at the La Platte Bottoms, continues its history of occurrence in the vicinity of the Platte River confluence.

King Rail at the La Platte Bottoms. Image used with permission of Duane Schwery.

On July 24th, 2010, Kathy and Duane Schwery, of Plattsmouth, noted a single bird east of Harlan Lewis Drive and La Platte Road, and got two pictures of the bird as it walked about the water and marsh vegetation of this season's wetland. Since they reside near La Platte, they have made a number of visits to this locale, and enjoy viewing the wide variety of species present, but had not noted "anything this interesting before," Kathy Schwery noted. Seeing the rail "was a case of being in the right place at the right time."

A few days later, on July 31st, a King Rail was reported at Forney Lake on the Iowa side of the Missouri River, according to the submission by Stephen J. Dinsmore, to the Iowa birds forum available online. There were also three Least Bitterns and the Virginia Rail.

Historic Legacy

History of the King Rail for this region within the valley of the mighty Missouri River, extends back more than 135 years.

The earliest known record for this rail was in October 1874, designated to the general locality of Sarpy County, as reported by Samuel Aughey.

On September 20, 1900, there is a record for Nebraska City, in Otoe County, on the southern side of Cass County.

"Nest of King Rail. Cut-off Lake, Omaha, Nebraska." Image courtesy Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.

A decade later, Frank Shoemaker first noted breeding activity on June 19, 1909 at Cutoff Lake, which is now Carter Lake, at Omaha. He wrote in his journal:

"A nest of King Rail; of rushes, just above water level among cattails and tules, the water being more than knee deep. There were five eggs, and four young just hatched, but active enough to pile out and swim about bravely. Took two photographs of the nest, under difficulties. The young birds were coal black, like young coots, for which I at first mistook them."

The following day, he noted one of the parent birds, with three eggs still in the nest. There were also nesting Least Bitterns in the same area.

"Got nearly exhausted in the swamp; wading to the waist in water with mud and reeds, cattails, tules, pondweed and duckweed, on a hot day, is strenuous, but very interesting with birds numerous and nesting."

In a subsequent letter, this bird enthusiast described his jaunts to the lake.

"Recently my 'walks' have been 'wades' most of the time, for there is a marshy tract near a cut-off which the river made years ago, north of Omaha, in which I have been studying the bird life. It is so thickly grown up with cattails and reeds that a boat cannot be used to advantage; the water is too deep for boots, even if they could be tolerated at this season of the year; and the region is too public for one to discard his sartorial shucks; so if one desires to go over this tract at all, it is simply a matter of getting in, clothes and all, and wading plenty. Much of the time I am in water to my shoulders, and not infrequently I have stepped into a hole and made it unanimous; but fortunately this has not happened when I had my camera on my back. There is no danger if one keeps his wits about him, and the returns on the investment beat any bonanza you ever hear of. The region is simply alive with birds, and during the past few years I have taken over 60 photographs of birds' nests, young birds, etc., in that region - red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, King and Sora Rails, Least Bittern (a magnificent series of over 30 photographs of this species), long-billed Marsh Wren, Pied-billed Grebe and many others."

At this same locality, another King Rail was noted on May 7, 1929, then again on June 28, 1930. Both reports were in the Letters of Information issued by the Nebraska Ornithologists' Union.

Four pertinent records are available for 1939, from Lake Manawa State Park, as reported by Bruce Stiles, for May 19 and 22. The highlight of his observations was a nest with eggs on June 6th. Two birds were noted on June 11th.

In 1967, Mr. and Mrs. Paul T. Heineman, of Plattsmouth, noted a single rail in a small pond at the Plattsmouth Refuge, or what is now known as the Schilling WMA, northeast Cass County.

On July 4, 1997, Babs and Loren Padelford noted one at Waubonsie State Park, in Iowa.

Another record for Sarpy county, was on May 14, 1994, as noted by Neal Ratzlaff.

The closest, and most recent sighting in the Nebraska region was August 5-16, 1997 in eastern Otoe County, as noted by S.J. Dinsmore. There have been regular sightings recently at Squaw Creek NWR, down the Missouri River a distance.

Continual Loss of Wetlands Along Missouri River

At Cutoff Lake, that setting was drastically altered decades ago by land development and other changes, and there was an extensive decline in bird diversity as the wetlands disappeared.

The marsh where the most recent sighting occurred, will be replaced by a highway interchange as Highway 34 construction proceeds.