Clapper Rails, or marsh hens, are marsh birds who hide in the tall grasses. They are rather numerous near the ferry dock, and trying to spot them can be entertaining while you wait for the ferry. They have a call(click to listen) rather like a clapping sound. Usually they are well hidden in the grass, but when the spring high tides come in, they have to move to higher ground. The last few days have been great for spotting them, and they move themselves and their chicks out of the way of the tides. I have even seen two whole families ushering chicks across the road from the impoundment to the marsh along Dewees Inlet drive.
According to Birds of North America, Rails form monogamous pairs for the nesting season, and both males and females play roles in nest-building, incubation, and railing and protecting chicks. They feed on fiddler crabs and other crustaceans, minnows, snails, and sometimes the seeds from marsh plants like Spartina. They are often in the marsh channels at low tide, walking deliberately and pulling fiddler crabs out of burrows. Enature describes their nest as: 9-12 buff eggs, spotted or blotched with brown, in a shallow saucer or deep bowl of dead marsh grasses, often domed.
Chicks are small and fluffy, and able to walk within hours of hatching, They look just like tiny chicken chicks. They are VERY hard to see in the marsh, especially against the pluff mud. My dad Bob and I watched for about an hour on Friday afternoon at high tide near the ferry dock. Because the tide was so high, the rails were somewhat concentrated in a particular area, and there were a number of loud territorial squabbles. When I went over to check it out, I could hear tiny peeping sounds, so I suspected there was a nest nearby, but with binoculars and a zoom lens, I was still unable to find anything but adults. Finally, after watching for a while, we realized that the chicks were black, and following the parents through the marsh. Even when you knew they were there, they were almost impossible to see. It’s probably a good thing: Clapper rail chicks are preyed upon by laughing gulls, raccoons, owls, mink, and foxes.