No. 60–Under the Radar Marsh Life, Part 1

There are secretive critters in our estuarine marshes that many are unaware of, most have never seen and one species even I was ignorant of till recently.

The first and probably better know of the four creatures we’ll cover is the Atlantic Coast clapper rail (Rallus longirostris crepitans). How’s that for a mouth full? Actually, I’m told it’s quite a tasty little bird.

Also known as the mud hen or marsh hen, 21 subspecies are scattered “from Massachusetts southward to Florida, and around the Gulf Coast to Mexico. Also Pacific Coast from central California southward to southern Mexico and up the Colorado River. Also in Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and both coasts of South America.” *

If you’ve spent any time at all near our marshes you’ve no doubt heard the clacking sounds coming from the grass. With some patience you may be able to observe the little noise maker as it moves about in search of food. If it is nearby, simply follow the sound with your eyes and you may be rewarded to see your quarry emerge from cover.

What you’ll see is a sleek but somewhat awkward looking bird about 12 inches in length with a compact body and strong legs. It has a 20 inch wingspan but rarely flies preferring to move through the dense marsh under story with measured steps and caution. It has a long down-curved beak and a comical nervous tick-like twitch of its short tail. Well camouflaged for its environment it sports gray cheeks, a brown back and vertically striped gray and brown wings. This coloration is particularly effective in winter months when the thick lush stands of spartina grass are thinned by the annual die back.

Clapper rails in all their ranges feed primarily on aquatic crustaceans plus fish and plant matter to a lesser degree. Keep an ear and patient eye out and you may be able to tell your friends you saw the racket maker.

While you’ve no doubt heard the parable of the tortoise and the hare, it would be a bit of a reach to draw a local connection. It’s doubtful the Gopher Hill tortoise found in the sand hills around Ridgeland ever wanders this far from its home turf but ,yes Alice, there are rabbits in our estuarine wonderland.

Another under the radar creature, the marsh rabbit (Sylviagus palustris) inhabits the southeast Coastal Plain from Virginia south, is found throughout Florida and on the Gulf to Alabama.

It is darker and smaller than its eastern cottontail cousin, has shorter ears and lacks the distinctive fluffy white tail. Unlike other members of the rabbit family they are excellent swimmers and will bolt for the water when threatened. They’re able to float beneath the surface with only their nose and eyes exposed.

Marsh rabbits are most active at night holing up in dense cover during the day. Their main predator is the great horned owl and those foolish enough to venture out during the day run the risk of falling prey to hawks. Gators take their fair share and foxes and mink are also a threat. The young are vulnerable to rattlesnakes and water moccasins.

I’ve come across marsh rabbit sign a number of times, have found the remains of two over the years but have seen only one in the flesh.

Next month we’ll peek into the lives of two more secretive creatures that call coastal marshes home. One of which, as mentioned at the top, was a total surprise to me. It gave me a pause of appreciation for how little I really know of this great wonder that surrounds us with such subtlety.

* “All About Birds” – Cornell Lab of Ornithology.