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Effects of Management Practices on Wetland Birds

Bibliography on Survey Methods for Yellow Rails

Note: Most surveys of breeding Yellow Rails have been conducted at night (Devitt 1939; Stalheim 1974; Stenzel 1982; Bart et al. 1984; Savaloja 1984; Bookhout and Stenzel 1987; Gibbs et al. 1991; Grimm 1991; Burkman 1993; Stern et al. 1993; Robert and Laporte 1997; Prescott et al. 2001, 2002; Lundsten and Popper 2002). One popular method of locating Yellow Rails is mimicking the call by using two stones, pieces of metal, or bone and waiting for a response (Devitt 1939, Stenzel 1982, Savaloja 1984, Bookhout and Stenzel 1987, Grimm 1991, Stern et al. 1993, Robert and Laporte 1997, Lundsten and Popper 2002). Tape-recorded calls can be used in the same manner (Gibbs et al. 1991; Grimm 1991; Daub 1993; Prescott et al. 2001, 2002). Another technique used in locating Yellow Rails is the use of trained dogs (Walkinshaw 1939, Stalheim 1974, Stenzel 1982, Bookhout and Stenzel 1987, Robert and Laporte 1997). Dogs can be used to locate Yellow Rail nests and to flush adult birds. Some sources of methods were not reviewed. They are listed at the end of the annotated bibliography.

Annotated articles

Bart, J., R. A. Stehn, J. A. Herrick, N. A. Heaslip, T. A. Bookhout, and J. R. 
     Stenzel.  1984.  Survey methods for breeding Yellow Rails.  Journal of 
     Wildlife Management 48:1382-1386.

Line and strip survey methods for use in censusing Yellow Rails were described. Fieldwork was conducted in Michigan at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge and Manitisque River State Forest in 1981 and 1982. Four transects that were 1.6 km long were used for the line survey method. Observers took bearings on calling birds and estimated distances to the calling birds from predetermined points. When possible, data on the same bird were collected from more than one point along the line and the bird was located using triangulation. Using the strip method, observers walked four transects and searched throughout the entire 0.4 km wide and 1.6 km long plot. Surveys were conducted in mid-June between 2230 and 2330 hr. When Yellow Rails were not calling, the surveyors would imitate the call by clicking two stones together. Habitat was studied with the aid of color infrared photos. Interpretation of the photos was aided by plant community and water depth data that were collected at more than 150 sites throughout the study area.

In 1982, 52 calling rails were recorded (number of Yellow Rails observed using each type of survey method was not given).

The strip transect proved to be a more feasible survey method than the line method. Major advantages of the strip transect were that the length and width of transects could be adjusted to the terrain. The major disadvantage was that only those birds within the strip could be counted for statistical analysis, even though considerable time might have to be spent in locating birds just outside the plot. The author stated that estimating distances and bearings to calling Yellow Rails was difficult while using the line method. Several factors such as movement of the rail, environmental features, and weather affected the ability to determine the exact location of the calling bird.

Bookhout, T. A., and J. R. Stenzel.  1987.  Habitat and movements of breeding 
     Yellow Rails.  Wilson Bulletin 99:441-447.

The habitat, movements, and breeding biology of the Yellow Rail were studied at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan, 1979-1980. The study area was a seasonally flooded wet sedge meadow with water depths 30 cm or more in the spring that receded to only moist soil by mid-summer.

Two stones were clicked together to imitate calling males. Hand nets and spotlights were used to capture Yellow Rails that were lured by the call imitations. Capture attempts were conducted between 2200 and 0400 h. A pointing dog was used to locate females and males that did not respond to the call. Radio transmitters were attached to ten captured Yellow Rails.

A grid composed of 121 50 × 50-m plots was placed on the 30-ha study area and 100 0.05-m² plots (10 × 50 cm each) were randomly selected. Stem density, vegetation height, height of senescent sedge (Carex spp.) layer, and plant species were recorded within each plot. Plant species categories were woolyfruit sedge (C. lasiocarpa), other sedge species, rushes (Juncus spp.), bluejoint (Calamagrostis canadensis), other Gramineae (other than bluejoint), herbaceous species, willow (Salix spp.), and other woody species. Four 50-m² stem-density plots were centered around locations of calling males outside of the study area. Within the stem-density plots, 10 random locations were chosen and at each location all stems within 0.5-m² (2 plots) or 0.25-m² (two plots) plots were counted and categorized according to the vegetation species listed above.

Burkman, M. A.  1993.  The use of fire to manage breeding habitat for Yellow 
     Rails.  M.S. thesis.  Northern Michigan University, Marquette, Michigan.  
     67 pages.

The response of Yellow Rails to habitat created by fire and the efficacy of using prescribed fire to enhance and maintain habitat for breeding Yellow Rails were examined. The study was conducted during 1991-1993 at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Passive audio surveys were conducted during the breeding season to determine Yellow Rail use of the plot pairs. Strip transects were walked the length of the plot (plot size was approximately 16.2 ha) and bearings were taken on calling rails. The author stated that the call of the Yellow Rail could be heard at a distance of 1 km; therefore the sample area of the strip transects was a 2-km wide area along the length of the plot and a 1-km semicircle at the end of the plot. Surveys were conducted from late May to mid-June and began at 2330 hr.

Vegetation measurements taken on each plot at 12 random sites each year were mean percent cover, mean percent cover of woody vegetation, height of woody vegetation, total horizontal cover, height of herbaceous vegetation, herbaceous vegetation biomass, herbaceous species composition, and stem density. Water depth and pH also were recorded at each plot.

Daub, B. C.  1993.  Effects of marsh area and characteristics on avian 
     diversity and nesting success.  M.S. thesis.  University of Michigan, 
     Ann Arbor, Michigan.  37 pages.

Daub examined the relationship between marsh area, species richness, and nesting success in 20 marshes located near Minnedosa, Manitoba, from 1991-1992. Parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds also was examined. All marshes were semipermanent or permanent, and ranged in size from 0.1-19.3 ha. Avian censuses were conducted along the perimeter of marshes by placing a randomly chosen, 100 m × 15 m transect, along which nest-searching also occurred. The 15 m portion of the transect included 5 m of emergent vegetation and 10 m of open water. Each transect was walked for 45 min. Each marsh was surveyed three times during the breeding season, about every two weeks. Playback calls were used to elicit responses from American Bittern, Virginia Rail, Yellow Rail, and Sora at the beginning, middle, and end of each transect during every survey. Nesting success was determined using the Mayfield method. Measured marsh characteristics were water depth, vegetative composition (line-intercept technique), and width of vegetation growing in standing water.

Devitt, O. E.  1939.  The Yellow Rail breeding in Ontario.  Auk 56:238-243.

The author described several observations of Yellow Rails and the finding of a single nest in Ontario. Most of the observations occurred at the Holland River Marsh, approximately 40 km (25 mi) north of Toronto from mid-June to July.

Yellow Rails were located by clicking two stones or pieces of metal together and waiting for a response. If a response was heard, the author would approach the area from which the sound came and imitate the call again. Observations were made with the aid of a high-powered flashlight.

The Yellow Rail was occasionally heard during the daytime, and became much more active just after sunset. The calling period extended at least from 25 May to 27 July.

Gibbs, J. P., Shriver, W. G., and S. M. Melvin.  1991.  Spring and summer
     records of the Yellow Rail in Maine.  Journal of Field Ornithology

New and historical observations of Yellow Rail in Maine were reported, suitable habitat was described, and history of the species in eastern North America was given. Although the Yellow Rail is a regular fall migrant in Maine, only one publication (Knight 1908) described the species' occurrence in the state. The authors located calling Yellow Rails at four sites in eastern and central Maine in May and June 1990. A total of six singing males were detected. Of the four sites, two sites had two calling males each and two sites had one calling male each. Although the range of dates within which the Yellow Rails were heard falls within the egg-laying period of Yellow Rails in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, nesting was not confirmed at the four wetlands.

Vegetation height, stem density (sedge, rush, and grass stems/m²), height of dead vegetation mat, and water depth were measured at the wetlands within 25, 0.1-m² circular plots located randomly in the wetlands. Yellow Rails were located using tape-recorded calls. Surveys were conducted from 30 min after dark until dawn, May-July. The prime calling time in June did not start until 2130-2200 hr.

Grimm, M.  1991.  Northeast Wisconsin Yellow Rail survey.  Passenger Pigeon 

Possible breeding sites of the Yellow Rail in northeastern Wisconsin were located by listening for calling adults. Survey methods included using tape-recorded calls and mimicking the call using two stones. Using historic sites and other areas within the type of habitat preferred by Yellow Rails, surveys were conducted between 20 May and 16 June in 1989, and 26 May and 25 June in 1990. Surveys were conducted between 2200 and 0200 hr. Some sites were surveyed with the observer walking and stopping at intervals to listen, some were approached using a canoe, and others were surveyed from the adjacent road.

Popper, K. J., and M. A. Stern.  2000.  Nesting ecology of Yellow Rails in 
     Southcentral Oregon.  Journal of Field Ornithology 71:460-466.

Nesting success by Yellow Rails was examined in the Wood River Valley, Klamath Co., Oregon, and habitat at nest sites was described. The study occurred from 1995 to 1998. The breeding season began as early as 13 April and extended as late as 13 September. Nests were located using a 1.5 m stick and pulling back the vegetation wherever the possibility of a nest existed. Nest searches were conducted from May through July.

The authors found 34 Yellow Rail nests of which eight were active when found and 26 were inactive when found. Plant species occurrence within a 1-m² plot surrounding the nest was recorded. Ocular estimates of percent cover of live and senescent or dead vegetation as well as bare ground were recorded.

Prescott, D. R. C., M. R. Norton, and I. M. G. Michaud.  2001.  A survey of 
     Yellow and Virginia rails in Alberta using nocturnal call playbacks.  
     Unpublished report by the Alberta Conservation Association, Edmonton, 
     Alberta.  20 pages.


Prescott, D. R. C., M. R. Norton, and I. M. G. Michaud.  2002.  Night surveys 
     of Yellow Rails, Coturnicops noveboracensis, and Virginia Rails, Rallus 
     limicola, in Alberta using Call Playbacks.  Canadian Field-Naturalist 

Current distributions of Yellow Rails and Virginia Rails were determined by conducting nocturnal field surveys using call playbacks at 404 sites in Alberta from 17 May to 6 July 2000. This included 17 sites that were visited twice and five sites that were visited three times. Current distribution was compared to historical records. Objectives of the study were to identify sites where the species historically occurred, conduct surveys of those sites to determine whether the species still was present, identify suitable habitat and new potential breeding sites, and gain a better understanding of the habitat requirements and calling behavior of the species to improve the effectiveness of field surveys.

Historical locations for Yellow Rail and Virginia Rail were obtained from the Biodiversity/Species Observation Database, the Alberta Bird Checklist Program, Alberta Bird Atlas database, known published reports, museum collections, the Breeding Bird Survey database, provincial publications, and internet news group publications.

Nocturnal surveys were conducted between 20 May and 25 July and began at sites in the southern portion of the province to reflect earlier arrival of birds there. Past studies indicated that the probability of detection for these species during a single visit was 75%. When logistically possible, second visits were occasionally made to some sites. In the cases of older sites that were not well described, 2-5 areas of suitable habitat within 5 km of the expected location were surveyed. Alberta Bird Atlas database records were compiled by 10 × 10 km² blocks; 2-5 areas of suitable habitat were surveyed within these blocks. All surveyed sites were visited during the daytime to identify access points, identify new areas of potential habitat, record dominant vegetation (percentage of cover types [standing emergents, open water, bare ground, shrubs, or trees]), record wetland permanency (permanent, semipermanent, or seasonal), and georeference the site using a global positioning system. Dominant vegetation categories were cattail (Typha spp.), bulrush (Schoenoplectus spp.), sedge (Carex spp.), or mixed (cattail/bulrush/sedge).

Surveys were conducted between sunset and sunrise, using calls of conspecifics to increase the probability of detection. Call playbacks were obtained from commercial sources and played from a height of about 1.5 m and a volume between 80 and 95 db. Although surveys were conducted under a range of conditions, periods of >20 km/hr winds or heavy rainfall were avoided. Steps in conducting surveys were as follows: 1) three-minute listening period, 2) three, 20-second playbacks of Yellow Rail calls ("clicks") separated by 20 seconds of silence, and three 20-second playbacks of Virginia Rail calls (two sets of descending "grunts" and one set of combined "kadic-kadic" and "kicker" calls [vocalizations most often used in territorial calling and mate attraction]), and 3) a final three-minute listening period. Data recorded included number of birds calling during each of the pre-playback, playback, and post-playback periods, air temperature, wind speed, precipitation or fog, percent cloud cover, moon phase (new, <half full, >half full, or full), moon visibility (visible, obscured, or absent), and time of night (early = 1000 to 1159 h; middle = 2400 to 0159 h, and late = 0200 to 0530 h).

Yellow Rails were found in seasonal wetlands containing sedges. They were most likely to be detected when there was little or no moon, and during the darkest part of the night. Virginia Rails were found in a wide variety of semipermanent and permanent wetlands. They were detected more often when the moon was more than half full and relatively unobscured by clouds. Playbacks were more effective at detecting Virginia Rails, as the number of spontaneously calling individuals was lower (55%) than for Yellow Rails (80.4%).

Reid, F. A.  1989.  Differential habitat use by waterbirds in a managed wetland 
     complex.  Ph.D. dissertation.  University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri.  
     240 pages.

Avian use of seasonally flooded wetlands on the Ted Shanks Wildlife Area in northeastern Missouri was examined from 1981 through 1985. Habitat partitioning of six waterbirds (Sora, King Rail, Yellow Rail, Virginia Rail, Least Bittern, and American Bittern) were studied during spring and fall migration. Breeding and foraging ecology of King Rails, and the response of wading birds to controlled drawdowns of a managed wetland, also were examined. Observations of birds were made at specific flush sites in the spring and fall of the year. Birds were flushed by walking the entire wetland area or using strip transects. Surveys were conducted from April to late May and mid-August to mid-October between 0700-1000 hr and 1700-2000 hr.

Robert, M., and P. Laporte.  1997.  Field techniques for studying breeding 
     Yellow Rails.  Journal of Field Ornithology 68:56-63.

Techniques for capturing Yellow Rails and locating nests were discussed and the effectiveness of methods was compared. From 1993 to 1995, Yellow Rails were captured and banded in southern Quebec in marshes along the St. Lawrence River, the Saguenay River, and Lake St. John.

Yellow Rails were captured at night (generally between 2230 and 0330 hr) using two techniques: waiting and approaching. In both techniques, the males were slowly approached until the observer was within 15 m. If the male stopped calling during the approach, the observer stopped and did not proceed until the male began calling again. In the waiting technique, a 2-m² area of vegetation was flattened in front of the observer and two stones were clicked together to imitate the call of the Yellow Rail. When the rail entered the flattened area, a headlamp was shone on it and an attempt was made to capture it with a hand net. In the approaching technique, the rail was located and a large spotlight was shone on it (in hopes of immobilizing the bird). The bird was then approached without making any sudden movements. While keeping the light on it and continuing to imitate the call, an attempt was made to capture the rail using a hand net. Initially, a 30-cm diameter net was used, but capture rate was low. The authors switched to a 47-cm diameter net and a 65-cm net, and determined that the latter size was too large. The 47-cm diameter net appeared to be the most effective size in capturing rails.

Yellow Rails were captured 183 out of 330 attempts (55.5%). Only one female was captured. Robert and Laporte captured 66.7% of the birds with the waiting attempt, 9.3% by approaching, and 24% by approaching after waiting had been unsuccessful. In 1994-1995, the capture rate was 24% higher with the combination of approaching and waiting than with either of the techniques individually. Powerful lamps were needed only when implementing the approaching technique. Two people were more effective at capturing Yellow Rails than one person operating alone.

In 1994 and 1995, pointing dogs were used to locate Yellow Rail nests. In 1994, a German short-haired pointer and a French pointer were used for 18.5 and 7.8 h, respectively. In 1995, the German short-haired pointer was used for 8.8 h. Only the German short-haired pointer found nests--five in 27.3 hours of searching. The effectiveness of using a dog for Yellow Rail nest searching depends on the dog's abilities and training, the dog's handler, and probably the weather conditions. A pointer may be extremely effective at finding Yellow Rail nests, especially in humid conditions.

Robert, M., and P. Laporte.  1999.  Numbers and movements of Yellow Rails along 
     the St. Lawrence River, Quebec.  Condor 101:667-671.

The authors surveyed Yellow Rails from late May or early June to late August 1993-1996 by systematically counting calling individuals. Counts were conducted when winds were <15 km/hr from a 16-km gravel road at points spaced 400 m apart between 2230 and 0330 hr. Observers listened for 2 min at each point and occasionally imitated the species' call by striking two stones together. The authors commented that, although the species' calls sometimes could be heard as far away as 1000 m, interference from flying insects, calling insects, and calling amphibians reduced the maximum audible range to approximately 500 m.

Savaloja, T.  1984.  Yellow Rails of Aitkin County.  Loon 56:68.

Savaloja described the general procedure by which people attempted to observe Yellow Rails in Aitkin County, Minnesota. Observations usually were conducted in June at approximately 2400 hr. People stood around in a circle with flashlights and with coins or stones, and clicked the coins or stones until they attracted a Yellow Rail. When the rail responded, the participants aimed their flashlights at the area from which the call came.

Stalheim, P. S.  1974.  Behavior and ecology of the Yellow Rail (Coturnicops 
     noveboracensis).  M.S. thesis, University of Minnesota.

The adaptation of rail behavior to different types of habitat, especially in relation to vegetation density, was examined at a marsh southwest of Waubun, Minnesota, in Mahnomen and Becker counties during 1971 - 1973. Yellow Rails tended to avoid flying during the day, and were more easily flushed at night. Yellow Rails were captured using drift traps and at night with nets (by aid of dogs and spotlights). Captured rails were marked with colored leg bands and transferred to a study pen at the University of Minnesota's Cedar Creek Natural History Area near Minneapolis where behavior could be studied. Behavior of captive Yellow Rails was observed in a study pen located at the capture site during 1972. Stalheim discussed the ecology, behavior patterns, breeding cycle, and breeding patterns of the Yellow Rail.

Stenzel, J. R.  1982.  Ecology of breeding Yellow Rails at Seney National 
     Wildlife Refuge.  M.S. thesis.  Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.  
     106 pages.

The habitat use, movements, and breeding biology of the Yellow Rail were studied at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan, 1979-1980. The study area was a seasonally flooded wet sedge meadow with water depths 30 cm or more in the spring that receded to only moist soil by mid-summer.

Yellow Rails were detected using audio surveys. Dogs were used to locate rails that did not respond to calls. Individual rails were lured close enough to be captured by hand or with a hand net by imitating their call. The Yellow Rail call was imitated by tapping a pocket knife against the femur bone of a young deer or by tapping two stones together. Captured Yellow Rails were banded and equipped with radio transmitters. Surveys were conducted at night from late April to mid-July. The author stated that a dog was essential to the location and capture of Yellow Rails that did not respond to the imitation call. The author also stated that Yellow Rails flushed more readily at night, and that night seemed to be the best time to pursue Yellow Rails with the aid of a dog.

In 1980, the 30.25-ha study area was divided into 121 sections and vegetation was measured using 100 randomly located 0.05-m² plots. The total vegetation height, the height of the senescent layer from the ground, and stem density were recorded.

Stern, M. A., Morawski, J. F., and G. A. Rosenberg.  1993.  Rediscovery and 
     status of a disjunct population of breeding Yellow Rails in southern 
     Oregon.  Condor 95:1024-1027.

The distribution, abundance, and breeding status of Yellow Rails in southcentral Oregon were determined. Roadside surveys of Yellow Rails were conducted every 0.5 km using an electronic call or by mimicking the Yellow Rail call using two rocks. Surveys were conducted in areas where rails had previously been heard. Fieldwork coincided with the peak breeding season for Yellow Rails (April-July). Surveys were conducted between 2200 and 0400 hr. Yellow Rails were located at 26 sites in Klamath County and at two sites in Lake County.

Walkinshaw, L. H.  1939.  The Yellow Rail in Michigan.  Auk 56:227.

The history, migration, nesting, weights and measurements, voice, behavior and distribution of the Yellow Rail in Michigan were discussed. A springer spaniel dog was used to flush Yellow Rails during the study. Because of the cryptic behavior of rails, the author believed that a dog would be necessary to study Yellow Rails. Birds were flushed in daylight hours. During June 1934, June 1935, and May 1937, the author observed or heard 64 Yellow Rails.

Lundsten and Popper.  2002.  Breeding Ecology of Yellow Rails at Fourmile Creek, 
     Wood River Wetland, Mares Egg Spring, and additional areas in southern 
     Oregon, 2001.  Report submitted to the Bureau of Land Management, Klamath 
     Falls, Oregon.  33 pages.

The status, site fidelity and return rates, and nest site characteristics of Yellow Rail were studied in the Klamath Basin, Oregon, from 1995 to 2001. Research was conducted on three main study areas: Fourmile Creek (640 ha), Mares Egg Spring (30 ha), and Wood River Wetland (12 ha). Various other locations were surveyed for Yellow Rails.

Surveys were conducted from 12 April through 28 July in 2001 following the same methods used in past years (Popper et al. 2000). At the three main study sites, surveys were conducted approximately once every 10 days, between the hours of 2200 and 0500 from 30 April to 28 July. Surveys at additional sites in the Wood River Valley were completed once a month, and more often if rails were detected. Areas outside the Wood River Valley were surveyed once or twice during the 2001 breeding season. Male Yellow Rails were counted by systematically walking through the site, within about 500 m of potential rail habitat. If no rails were heard calling, two stones were used to imitate the call of the male and to elicit a response (duration of listening/imitation calling not specified). Surveys were not conducted on windy or rainy nights. Any rails heard were approached and their locations were recorded using a Global Positioning System. Some sites were surveys from the road only. When conducting road surveys, the observers would stop once every 0.5 km to listen and imitate the call if males weren't calling. If approaching the position of an individual bird was not possible, two compass bearings were recorded to get an approximate location.

Yellow Rails were captured by approaching calling males and imitating their calls by tapping two stones together. A headlamp was used to illuminate the area in front of the observer while imitating the Yellow Rail call. When a rail moved within 1.5 m of the observer, an oversized butterfly net (0.7 m × 0.5 m with a 1.5 m handle) was brought down on the bird. Captured birds were banded and weighed (method not given). If the rail did not approach the observer, the observer would approach the calling rail and attempt to see or capture the rail.

Areas of suitable habitat (identified by prior experience, calling males, or evidence of a nest) were searched for nests using 1-3 people walking systematically through the area lifting dead vegetation. Nests were marked with flagging. Timing of hatching was estimated by floating eggs. After a nest became inactive, eggs were measured. Width, height, and depth of the nest cup and nest canopy were recorded, as well as percent coverages and maximum height of vegetation within a 1 m² plot around the nest. Average water depths at Yellow Rail locations were recorded; water depth was measured in each of four cardinal directions 0.5 m from the location of a calling male or from the location where one was seen. Water levels also were recorded every 10 d at seven permanent gauges located at Fourmile Creek, one gauge at Wood River Wetland, and one at Mares Egg Spring.

The following sources may provide more information.

Conway, C. J. 2002.  Standardized North American marsh bird monitoring 
     protocols.  U.S. Geological Survey, Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife 
     Research Unit, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.  17 pages.

Marion, W. R., T. E. O'Meara, and D. S. Maehr.  1981.  Use of playback 
     recordings in sampling elusive or secretive birds.  Studies in Avian 
     Biology 6:81-85.

Slack, R. D., and K. L. Mizell.  1999.  Monitoring King and Yellow rails in 
     Texas.  Page 47 in Proceedings of the marsh bird monitoring workshop.  
     U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Denver, Colorado.

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