THE ULTIMATE SNIPE HUNT
At 7:30 p.m. April 14th, an intrepid band of fifteen, including some of the State’s most celebrated birders, ventured forth onto a relict patch of soggy tallgrass prairie in central Missouri.
For reasons which will become more clear as our tale progresses, except for our leader and your humble informant, names are withheld to protect the innocents.
The group had been drawn together by Tim Barksdale, sometime bird-finding magician for a well-known nature tour organization, who was said to have conjured up six Yellow Rails in the same field the night before, capturing one. The object of the expedition was repeat performance for a larger audience.
The night was gloomy. Low clouds obscured a full moon, creating an eerie glow over the hummocks of grass in which the rails purportedly were hiding. Due to advancing age, or otherwise, most of us wore glasses. A light drizzle covered these with glistening droplets of water.
Barksdale organized his beaters into a line. No more than an arm’s length was to separate one from another. At either end a Safari-type light was held high. Two more were placed strategically between. The rest of us held flashlights but were ordered not to turn them on until a rail was spotted. Barksdale explained that the flight of the flushing birds was easier to follow in diffused fluorescent light. Once the bird landed, a dozen spotlights would converge on it. Illuminated from all directions, the bird, if not dazzled into submission, would be like one of Joe Louis’ ring opponents. It could run, but it could not hide.
Barksdale explained that Yellow Rails fly downwind when they flush. We must have the wind directly behind us, else the birds, once airborne, would veer of to go with the wind. With the wind from behind, we could expect the birds to fly straight ahead.
The group positioned itself at one end of the field with the wind from behind, then started forward. Relentlessly, the marchers bore down on the cowering birds. Almost immediately, something fluttered up and disappeared into the gloom. "There goes one!" Barksdale yelled. He began to run forward, his Safari light gyrating wildly. Not knowing we were supposed to follow, the rest of us hung back, and the bird was not located. Nevertheless, Barksdale was ebullient. "It took us forty-five minutes to flush the first one last night," he announced. "This is a good sign."
The line reformed, and the march began again. Soon another shape flickered ahead. The Safari lights charged. The rest of us rushed madly after. We all surrounded a patch of grass. Eleven flashlights snapped on. Alas, the quarry had already run. Or hidden. Or flown the coop.
For two more hours the same scene repeated itself. The line formed. The marchers marched. A shape rose up. The Safaris rushed. The flashlights flashed. A patch of prairie was spotlighted. It was empty.
Altogether, we put up about twenty fluttering shapes. Three or four of the smallest were passed off contemptuously as "sparrows." A larger one was called a Sora. The rest were presumed to be Yellow Rails. A few claimed to have seen the Yellow Rail’s distinctive white wing patches on what seemed to me just a momentary blur of movement through the light.
Meanwhile the rain continued. Cold water seeped into the shoes and behind the collar. Most of us had prepared for cold April wind and soggy footing, but not for the strenuous exercise of rushing around in the dark. Moisture working its way in from the outside was met by perspiration working its way outward. It became necessary to wipe glasses every few minutes. First the handkerchief, then the shirt became wet also. The glistening droplets became a film of water, then a smear. The visual experience was reminiscent of a night scuba dive over a bed of seaweed.
At this point, the redoubtable Barksdale announced, "We’re doing something wrong." A conference was called. Some conferees suggested turning on all the lights as we marched. Others favored proceeding with all lights off. Someone suggested we form a big circle and converge toward the center. Someone else announced he would sit in the car and wait until Barksdale caught a Yellow Rail. Finally, we agree to form two lines. One, composed of four Safari light bearers, would go to the end of the field and make a sweep back, driving the rails toward the other line, which would wait quietly with flashlights. At the right moment, two walls of glaring lights would suddenly confront the trapped fugitives from both directions.
I was in the stationary line. The Safari lights moved in single file down the field. They wheeled slowly and started back. Suddenly a shout went up. Searchlights began to move about the sky. The probing beams momentarily exposed something with a wingspan of several feet, like a World War II bomber caught above a city. The indistinct creature seemed to some to have the markings of a Marsh Hawk, to others the shape of a Short-eared Owl. The experts divided equally on the identification.
After flushing the Marsh Owl or Short-eared Hawk, as the case may be, the Safari line advanced again. The next frightened bird hurtled directly at me, then lifted at the last moment and shot past with a momentum guaranteed to propel it into the next county. I thought I noticed dangling legs. A Yellow Rail! (Or maybe a Sora). The Safari lights continued to approach. The space between us lit up. Just grass.
At ten o’clock, my party of three agreed that we would try a final assault, then head for home. Hoping against hope, we marched for the last time. Once more, we rushed forward as a blurred object catapulted into the night, giving a Meadowlark’s loud, chattering alarm call. Again we snapped on our lights. The illuminated grass still showed no avian life. Then, I remembered that a Meadowlark approximates a large Yellow Rail in shape and coloration – except that the former has white outer tail patches while the latter has white inner wing patches.
We trudged off to our car, heads bowed, discouraged. The Meadowlark was now singing its whistled song, as though celebrating a new day. However, the prairie was dark and empty. In the distance, four lights receded in single file toward the black void of night, like primitive torchbearers on their way to an occult ceremony.
As we drove away, I finally realized why we had failed. No one had brought a bag in which to shine his flashlight. In our fascination with the most modern techniques of Yellow Rail hunting, we had ignored the basics!
© 1988 Robert G. Fisher