After a couple days sitting in a conference room with a lot of air conditioning, it was time to go to Rota, an island just north of Guam in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands. We woke up early on Friday to take the first plane out.
Suzanne and the DAWR folks crated up the rails that were going to be released that day on Rota and met us at the airport. The rails were quiet while we waited to get checked in and go through security.
Guam rails in crates on the way to Rota for release
After a very short flight (about a half hour), we arrived on Rota and went straight to the release site. We released 14 birds that morning. They had released rails at this site a couple weeks earlier. This batch was the last to be released at this site this summer.
Megan releases an endangered rail on Rota.
Rails have been released on Rota for many years now. The population there is considered an experimental population since Guam rails aren’t indigenous to the island of Rota.
Much like the release on Cocos, it was very exciting to open your hands and let the rails go. I wished them all the best as we sent them on their way. Feral cats on Rota can cause problems for native birds (including other critically endangered species, such as the Mariana crow, which has only 150 individuals left). Efforts are being made to reduce the cat population to help not only the rails but those other bird species.
While we were on Rota, we went out every sunrise and sunset to play rail calls in previous release sites. Since rails are territorial, they’ll typically respond to these calls. This strategy helps determine the island’s rail population.
The conservation team finds previously released birds by playing rail calls. This can inspire a response from the territorial species.
One evening while we were listening for a rail to return the call (and not having any luck), Joe spotted one crossing the road about 25 feet from us holding a lizard in its beak. It really highlighted that the call backs are less than 100 percent reliable.
Megan Ross, Ph.D., is vice president of animal care at Lincoln Park Zoo and coordinator of the Guam Rail Species Survival Plan®.