Many birders visit wetlands hoping to see an Eastern black rail – a sparrow-sized black bird with white spots and red eyes. But Erik Johnson of Audubon Louisiana says this tiny bird has a big reputation for secrecy.

“Very few birders actually are lucky enough to have ever seen a black rail,” he says.

And now there are fewer to find. Over the last two decades, their populations have plummeted to only about 3,000 birds because of habitat loss in inland areas and sea level rise.

The Eastern black rails that live along the coast prefer a narrow band of shoreline, where the land transitions from soggy to dry.

“Too many storm surge events during the nesting season, and just the general encroachment of sea level rise, narrows that band in such a way where it becomes less and less suitable to the black rail,” Johnson says.

The species was recently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Johnson says the listing highlights the need to reduce carbon pollution in order to slow sea level rise.

“Because the black rail is such a mythical and beloved species,” he says, “it has a real potential for helping sound this alarm and bringing more attention to those issues.”

Reporting credit: Stephanie Manuzak/ChavoBart Digital Media.