Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Yellow Rail - Coturnicops noveboracensis
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General Comments No bird in North America is more secretive and difficult to see than a Yellow Rail. And, because they seldom utter a sound while in migration or in winter, its distribution and abundance will always be somewhat incompletely known. To see one in North Carolina either requires luck, or a determined, usually group effort, to flush one from its marshy and wet field habitat. Yet, there have been several remarkable counts in the state, owing to birders being on hand during the burning of the Beaufort (town) airport for several winters in the 1960's-1970's. Sadly, such has not happened in recent decades, and the method to see one is for a group to walk tightly behind a rope, especially a weighted one, and see what birds flush in front. Yellow Rails inhabit brackish marshes and damp, grassy fields in the lower Coastal Plain, usually where the vegetation is about knee-high.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank S2N
Global Rank G4
Coastal Plain Winter resident and migrant. Abundance speculative because of secretive nature, but probably uncommon (and certainly not rare in a few places) in the eastern Tidewater zone and parts of the Outer Banks, south to central Carteret. Perhaps less numerous farther south near the coast, but suitable habitat is less common (i.e., most marshes are salty and not brackish). Sites such as Bodie Island (including at Oregon Inlet), central Carteret, and the Lake Mattamuskeet area have yielded several records. Very few records farther inland, where apparently a casual transient. Winters inland probably to about the Lake Mattamuskeet area. Mainly mid-Sep to mid-Apr. Peak counts: 50, Beaufort airport (during a burn), 13 Mar 1969; 20, same site, 17 Feb 1971. A most notable non-burn total is 3, seen or heard by parties at two sites, on the Bodie-Pea I. CBC on 28 Dec 2019.
Piedmont Transient; poorly known, with only about 7 reports for the entire province. Presently considered to be an accidental to casual spring migrant and a casual fall migrant; most dates are between 1 Sep and 4 Oct. Records are from Wake, Falls Lake, Duke Forest, Greensboro, Charlotte, and south of Charlotte; all are of single individuals. The two spring records are: one found in a mowed hayfield near Rutherfordton on 28 Apr 2006, and one flushed on several occasions (and photographed in flight!) in southern Mecklenburg on 30 Apr 2020.
Mountains Transient; casual, with three reports, all from Buncombe: 1, Weaverville, 19 Oct 1894; 1, Swannanoa, 10 May 1984; and 1, Fairview, 10 Nov 1989.
Finding Tips The best marshes for an attempt at Yellow Rail stomping are at Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras point (near the tidal pond), North River marshes near US 70, and possibly at Ocracoke Island. You might also try some rock clicking in late afternoon or at dusk, to see if a bird will call back (or play a tape recording). Likely, you will hear nothing, but what the heck?
Attribution LeGrand[2023-03-09], LeGrand[2020-08-03], LeGrand[2020-04-18]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.