Florida wildlife agency to add rarely seen eastern black rail to endangered species list
They slip through the wetlands like a ghost in an ancient forest.
Rarely seen or heard, the eastern black rail is one of the more mysterious birds in a state full of aviarian oddities.
And their habitat is disappearing fast as climate change and development claim wetlands.
To help combat those threats, the state will likely add the black rail to its list of endangered species this week.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioners will vote on the change as part of the consent agenda, which is usually reserved for innocuous issues.
Consent agenda items are typically passed without a presentation or discussion.
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There may not be a lot of contention about the black rail, but it is an important part of the ecology, experts say.
"Black rails are the most secretive of the secretive marsh birds and one of the least understood bird species in North America," said Bryan Watts, director of the College of William and Mary's Center for Conservation Biology. "They stay to the dense overhead vegetation and are like mice in the marsh moving through runnels and very reluctant to fly."
Discovered in 1760 in Jamaica, the eastern black rail is protected federally under the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 and is listed as threatened or endangered by seven states, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Also called little black rail, the little red-eyed crake, and the black crake, black rail populations across much of the eastern United States have plummeted in recent generations.
FWC says the change will help better align Florida's endangered species list with the federal version.
"The proposed rule change is for the purpose of maintaining consistency among state and federal lists of protected species," the staff report reads. "Approval to publish proposed draft rule and file for adoption without further hearing, unless requested."
Little known about the rare birds
The species is partially migratory in its home range. Beyond that, not a lot else is known about these elusive birds.
"For decades birders could not even associate their distinctive call with the bird because they were so elusive," Watts. said. "Now, they have declined to such a great extent over much of their range that the younger generations of birders have never had the opportunity to even hear them."
Black rails were one of three species once found in wetlands along the Atlantic Coast.
"It was formerly listed as endangered in Connecticut but is no longer believed to exist there, resulting in its removal from the state’s list," a report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reads. "Most of what is known of the eastern black rail has been assembled from more than 100 years of literature, museum specimens, and unpublished observations.
They like areas of high tidal marsh, areas that are vulnerable to rising sea levels, climate change and speculators looking to make money from developing what's left of Florida's historic shoreline.
"Sea-level rise has basically flooded them out of that habitat," Watts said. "Within the rail group they use habitats at the dry end of the continuum from periodically wet farmlands to upper flood plain wetlands to dry areas within the Everglades. They only occur in the dry coastal prairies of the Gulf Coast and Florida and within relatively dry freshwater wetlands."
Historically, black rails bred from the Caribbean north up to the Atlantic Coast and even Massachusetts.
"Over the past 30 years we have witnessed catastrophic declines throughout much of the range," Watts said. "Florida and Texas are now the strongholds for the species with Florida likely supporting more than 50% of the population. We need to backstop the decline in Florida, stabilize there and try to utilize Florida as a base of restoration for the rest of the range."
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