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ECU graduate student Carol Brackett, left, gives directions to a research team in search of the rare King Rail in a northeastern North Carolina wildlife refuge. Field assistants Alexandra Mankofsky, center, and Elizabeth Lesley look on. (Photos contributed by Dr. Susan McRae)


ECU research team studies King Rails on Mackay Island

June 21, 2012

ECU News Services
An East Carolina University biology professor is leading a team of researchers hoping to get a rare peek at an elusive bird hiding in the marshes of Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge in Currituck County.

Dr. Susan McRae, a faculty member at ECU and the North Carolina Center for Biodiversity, is working with graduate student Carol Brackett and field assistants Chelsey Faller, Elizabeth Lesley and Alexandra Mankofsky. The team is tagging and tracking the rare King Rail to learn more about the birds’ migratory habits. The researchers have captured 10 birds so far and located 49 nests.

For two years, McRae and her team have been wading through muck and marsh in search of King Rail nests. In most places, a sighting is rare. The King Rail population is so sparse that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service consider it a priority.

McRae said bird-watchers are more likely to find the King Rails on the Knotts Island refuge than elsewhere in North Carolina. Visitors to the Mackay Island Refuge have a good chance of seeing the long-legged bird darting across the road.

“They do come out in the open in Mackay Island and that’s a pretty rare thing to see,” McRae said.

An adult King Rail
“King Rails are secretive creatures and remain a hidden minority in the marshes. Yet there is a good chance of spotting one on Mackay Island,” said McRae. “I don’t know anywhere else where you can pretty reliably see one without straying too far from the parking lot.”

“Little is known so far about the King Rails’ habits,” said McRae. Their nests in the marshes are not easy to locate. A pile of crayfish shells may be a clue that a bird is nearby. The birds blend in with their surroundings – and when they turn tail, they are so narrow they are barely noticeable.

“That’s where the saying, ‘thin as a rail’ comes from,” McRae said.

A new aspect to the study is the use of radio telemetry. Radio transmitters are attached to a small sample of breeders, allowing the researchers to monitor what parts of the refuge the King Rails use and whether they stay at Mackay Island year round, or if they migrate elsewhere for the winter. Small samples of blood also are collected to assist in genetic testing.

“We have developed species-specific genetic markers that will allow us to analyze genetic variation in captured birds on regional and temporal scales. If birds caught at different times of the year are genetically similar, it may mean they don’t move around much,” McRae said. “The markers can also be used to compare this population with other populations, for example, on the Gulf Coast.”

McRae’s team is encouraging public participation in the research. A brochure at the refuge explains how visitors can contact the team if they spot a King Rail.

Funding for the research is provided by a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until 2013. McRae’s team follows a study by N.C. State University that focused on what makes the Mackay Island site so attractive to the birds.

An adult King Rail, far right, is shown watching over chicks, at lower left and just left of center.

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