Erik Johnson of Audubon Louisiana holds a black rail caught in a Cameron Parish marshland near the Gulf of Mexico on Jan. 11, 2019. (Photo by William Widmer)

Louisiana scientists hunt for elusive marsh bird before its habitat sinks under the sea

CAMERON PARISH – On a late-winter night, a small group of mosquito-bitten scientists and college students drag paint cans full of BBs and bolts through a remote marsh south of Lake Charles. With spotlights and fishing nets at the ready, they take high steps over tangles of long grass, hoping the clattering will flush out their quarry—a red-eyed, sparrow-sized bird that few people have ever seen.

Three hours into the march, as expectations fade and leg muscles start to quake, someone yells the two words the surveyors have been waiting to hear.

“Black rail!”

Jonathon Lueck, a bearded graduate student in a raccoon-skin cap, drops the dragline of cans and races after the bird. It flies a few yards, then falls back to the safety of the grass, where it lives in an underworld of tunnels and hideouts. Lueck swings his net and misses. He tries cupping his hands over the wily rail, but it slips from his fingers. Erik Johnson, Audubon Louisiana’s director of bird conservation, catches up and drops his net in the nick of time.

“Wooo,” Johnson yells. He scoops up the rail and holds it gently for all to see its dappled, gunmetal-gray feathers. “The bird that doesn’t exist.”

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