Rare Bird Makes First U.S. Appearance

The Rufous-Necked Wood-Rail bird has been spotted in New Mexico. Jeffrey Gordon/American Birding Association

The Rufous-Necked Wood-Rail, a bird native to Central and South America, has made its first North American appearance near San Antonio, New Mexico. Its natural habitat is in rain forests and coasts, making it especially strange that the bird seemed right at home in dry, New Mexico.

Avid "birders" have been rolling out in force to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge after Matt Daw, a member of the Bureau of Reclamation's southwestern willow flycatcher survey team, captured the first appearance during his day off on July 7.

He had been trying to get video of a Least Bittern when the Rail "photobombed" catching the young bird watcher by surprise. "There was a Least Bittern just chilling on the mud flat," Daw said recounting the first sighting, "he came out in the open so I decided to just jump up on the side and take a video and got a little surprise in the background." This surprise, of course, was the multi-colored bird, just slightly bigger than a chicken, known as the Rufous-Necked Wood-Rail.

This sighting of the rarely seen, yet not-so-shy bird is now one of many as people crowd to the refuge. "We get most of our visitors from November to February. This is our typical slow season," Aaron Mize, the deputy refuge manager, told ABC News, "we are thrilled that the bird is here. It's been great for the refuge and the community."

Typically, visitation is less than a hundred people per weekend at the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge during the summer but this month it has seen hundreds, if not thousands of people per weekend, according to Mize.

Despite the many people who have seen this particular bird, the Rufous-Necked Wood-Rail is rarely seen even in its natural habitat. Even 82 year old Sandy Komito, the famous birder who set the North American record for seeing the most species in one year, has only seen it once on his many excursions. "I've only seen it once before and that was in 2005 in Mexico," Komito recounts. "It's a rail and rails are notorious for hiding in marshy places or in tall reeds."

Rails are also known to be strong fliers and prone to vagrancy, perhaps giving an indication of why this particular bird is in New Mexico rather than its normal habitat. "It's difficult to say why it came here. It may have been under stress in its environment," Komito told ABC News, "its senses would tell it to fly somewhere else and New Mexico may have been the most likely place to head toward."

The visit was exciting but brief, as the last sighting of the bird was on July 18th, the day after Komito got to see the bird at the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. "It's too soon to tell where it went or if it is still there… but if it has left, I'd be one of the luckiest guys ever to see it the day before," Komito said.

People are still holding out hope the bird is hanging around and the bird watchers continue to crowd the refuge. "There are a lot of optimists and the search continues," said Mize, "even if it has left it really highlighted the importance of environmental tourism!"

Mize has been encouraging the questioning public to visit the refuge's Facebook page for daily updates on the bird.