Support for Status Assessment and Conservation Action Plan for the Eastern Black Rail across the Northeast Region

RCN Topic
Identification of Regional Focal Areas and Corridors for the Conservation of Species of Great Conservation Need in the Northeast

The eastern Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis jamaicensis )is the most endangered bird in the Northeast region of the U.S. and along the Atlantic Coast.  Populations have declined by 85% in the Northeast since 1992 and have reached dangerously low levels.  Black Rails now breed in only a dozen or fewer locations per state within its breeding range.  It is unlikely that Black Rails will persist in the Northeast without timely and appropriate conservation actions.  Funds from this grant will be used to partially support the creation of a Status Assessment and Conservation Action Plan for the Black Rail across the Northeast planning region.  Specifically, the funds will partially support a project facilitator that will provide the value-added synthesis for information resources gathered, facilitate the collection of information from an established consortium of agencies, biologists, academic institutions, and land managers of the Eastern Black Rail Conservation and Management Working Group and to construct the action items needed for a successful conservation campaign.   The funds will also support a workshop for members of the working group and other interested persons to take an active part in creating the documents.  The final products include a Status Assessment report.

The black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) is the most secretive of the secretive marsh birds and one of the least understood species in North America. The eastern black rail (L. j. jamaicensis) is listed as endangered in six eastern states and is a candidate for federal listing. Nearly all of what we know about the population exists in bits and pieces scattered throughout more than 100 years of literature, museum specimens and unpublished observations. The objective of this project is to identify, collect and compile all information pertaining to the breeding population along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts with the intention of developing the historical context needed to inform future conservation efforts.

The historic breeding range of the eastern black rail appears to have included coastal areas from south Texas north to the Newbury Marshes in Massachusetts and interior areas west to the eastern slope of the Appalachian Mountains. A total of 1,937 occurrence records were found within this area between 1836 and 2016. Credible evidence of occurrence was found for 21 of the 23 states including 174 counties, parishes and independent cities and 308 named properties. Based on breeding evidence and seasonality of occurrence 34 (19%) counties were classified as confirmed, 97 (56%) as probable breeding and 43 (25%) as possible breeding. Many of the named properties are well-known conservation lands including 46 (15%) national wildlife refuges, 44 (14%) state wildlife management areas, 26 (8%) state and municipal parks and many named lands managed by non-governmental conservation organizations.

A relatively soft estimate of current population size for black rails within the study area is 455 to 1,315 breeding pairs including ranges of 55 to 115 and 400 to 1,200 for the Northeast and Southeast regions respectively. More than 75% of the overall estimate is accounted for by South Carolina, Florida and Texas with the latter two having high uncertainty ratings due to extensive areas of potential habitat that have yet to be assessed. This collective estimate is approximately 40-50% lower than the estimate derived during the Southeast and Northeast black rail workshops held in 2014. The difference reflects ongoing declines, an increase in survey coverage of geographic gaps and a more thorough assessment of available information.

Black rails within northern areas have experienced a catastrophic decline including a contraction of the northern range limit from Massachusetts to New Jersey a distance of approximately 450 km. Study areas in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and North Carolina that were surveyed in the late 1980s and early 1990s and again over the past two years have documented a 64% decline in occupancy and an 89% decline in birds detected equating to a 9.2% annual rate of decline. Maryland has experienced a 13.8% annual rate of decline. South Carolina has experienced a 4.7% rate of decline over the same time period. No information is available to assess trends for areas south of South Carolina.

Black rails within the study area have primarily been documented within sites with tidal salt marsh as the primary habitat. Of the 308 properties with documented use, 186 (60%) were salt marshes, 49 (16%) were impoundments, 36 (12%) were freshwater wetlands, 20 (6%) were coastal prairies and 17 (6%) were grassy fields. Of the sites documented within salt marshes, 65 (35%) were along the lee side of barrier islands with the remaining in estuaries or along unprotected coastlines. Impoundments included waterfowl management units, rice fields, wetland restoration or mitigation sites, spoil deposition sites, abandoned mines and farm ponds.

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The black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) is the most secretive of the secretive marsh birds and one of the least understood bird species in North America. The eastern subspecies (L. J. jamaicensis) has undergone a southward range contraction over the past one hundred years and populations in the mid-Atlantic appear to have declined by as much as 90% over the past thirty years. Recent changes have led to concerns within the conservation community and urgency to learn as much as possible about the requirements of the form and its historic status and distribution. Much of the collective knowledge of the eastern black rail along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts is scattered in bits and pieces throughout more than 100 years of literature. An identified need has been to gather available literature together to compile what is known and to identify information gaps moving forward.

The objective of this effort is to compile a bibliography of published and unpublished literature focused on the eastern black rail along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of North America. This effort follows previous projects that have compiled working bibliographies for the closely related California black rail (L. J. coturniculus) in 1980 and the mid-western or inland population of the eastern black rail in 2012.

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