Friday, July 27, 2012

In search of the Clapper Rail

“As the marsh hen builds her nest on the watery sod, I will build me a nest on the greatness of God.” –Sidney Lanier

Those of you who’ve read Give My Love to the Chestnut Trees know this quote by American poet Sidney Lanier plays a significant part in the theme development of the book.

I’ve seen the marsh hen—in reference books, during online research, and in my imagination. When I first began writing this story several years ago, I thought it’d only be a matter of time before I saw the marsh hen, the bird ornithologists call a Clapper Rail, in its native habitat.

But I was wrong.

The Clapper Rail is an elusive bird and even experienced watchers sometimes have trouble spotting one.

At times, the bird seemed almost a legend to me--something of nineteenth century lore, only remembered in the writings of Lanier, never to be seen again.

Every time I was in the salt-water marsh area, I’d scan the reeds, searching for any sign of it.  But in all these years, I’ve never even caught a glimpse of one.

This week while out biking, I decided to take a path which follows the marsh on one side. Beside it runs a little creek, which seems to run even at low tide. I stopped a moment beside it to rest in the shade from the intense heat, and caught sight of a bird emerging from the reeds. It walked a few feet, and then it saw me, skittered into the marsh, and disappeared.

Could it be? It had the hen like body, but I wasn’t sure about the beak. It’d all happened so fast, just a few seconds. The photograph I took of it could just have easily been a rabbit as a bird, the picture was so blurry.

Later in the week, I went out again—same path. I stopped where I’d been earlier and sat down, trying to be quiet. Again, I spotted what I thought might be the bird, but it vanished in a split second into the marsh.

Discouraged, I hopped on my bike and kept riding, searching, scanning, and hoping. But not a feather or beak of anything resembling a Clapper Rail.

I turned around and headed back. I surprised a Green Heron, which rose from the creek, and when I turned to see it, I saw not only the Heron, but also another bird preening in the reeds. I gently laid my bike down, grabbed my camera from my bike bag, and crept close. It never even saw me. Just kept grooming.

It was a Clapper Rail, and I had a front row seat.
Clapper Rail or Marsh Hen

I watched for a long time. And when I left, it was still there.

I told almost everyone I met that day about my spotting. Many who’d lived in the area a long time had never seen a Clapper Rail, or it’d been years since they’d spotted one.

I know for some, all this can seem about as interesting as watching paint dry, but for me it’s a real thrill. All this watching of birds isn't because I don't have anything else to do or because my life is free of concern. I don't know how to explain this, but when I take the time to really observe the wonders in this world, it brings healing to me, even if my heart might be breaking.

I think of a verse in “How Great thou Art”:

When through the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze:
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee;
How great thou Art, how great thou art!

The amazing opportunity I had of seeing the Clapper Rail makes me want to praise God for his greatness. He could have given us a black and white world with a narrow mix of creatures. But he didn’t. On my chart of birds of the water and water’s edge just in this area, there are dozens and dozens.

Perhaps, you won’t see a Clapper Rail today, but all around you are wonders just as compelling. Take the time to observe what God has done and to praise Him. If you're walled in somehow, if your physical circumstances are barren of beauty, look up for the Psalmist said "The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands..." (Psalm 19:1)

And let us join Lanier in building a “nest on the greatness of God.”

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