GAUTIER -- "Bird!" Someone shouted in the distance, signaling about 20 people to start sprinting toward the voice.
That is, as much as one can sprint in the bumpy, grassy and muddy land of the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge.
Headlamps and flashlights bouncing, a group of researchers, refuge workers and volunteer birders
were in search of the rare and elusive yellow rail on Monday night.
Kelly Morris, a graduate student at Mississippi State University, is leading a study on the bird, which flies here from Canada in the winters.
The yellow rail is a bird of conservational concern, a national watchlist by the American Bird Conservancy and National Audubon Society. It is also a focal species for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's migratory bird program, which means its conservation is a priority.
Mark Woodrey, a research coordinator with the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve who has also been working on the study, said not much data exists on the bird, especially on the Gulf Coast.
"Nobody's really looked for these birds outside of Texas and Oklahoma," he said.
Morris said the chances of seeing the bird in the wild are very low.
"There's really limited observation of these yellow rails in general because they're a secretive marsh bird," she said.
The birds rely on heavy groundcover, blending in with their surroundings. They tend to hide rather than fly away when startled.
That's why Monday's group walked along long, weighted ropes that dragged along the ground.
When a yellow rail was spotted, the closest person carrying a net would sprint toward it. The birds did not usually go too far and would freeze when surrounded.
"Once you spot the rail, it's pretty much a game of Duck-Duck-Goose, basically chasing it down with a hand net," Morris said. "It's pretty fun."
At the end of the night, the researchers took measurements, and blood and feather samples, then released the birds.
The study started in 2012, and last year funding allowed Morris and her fellow researchers to spend most nights out banding and collecting data on the birds. They did not get as much funding this year, though, and have been coming out about once a month since the birds arrived in late November.
Not only are they filling in a data gap, she said, but the study will also show how the crane's refuge is beneficial to other species.
"We really think that they're a great indicator of the health of the pine savanna ecosystem," she said.
The ecosystem is one of the most diverse and endangered in the country. At 5,216 acres, the refuge contains some of the largest swaths of wet pine savanna left untouched.
The ecosystem is also dependent on fire management, which keeps the woody plants in check and allows the smaller plants to thrive.
Morris said the study will also look at how the yellow rails respond to the fire-managed area.
Woodrey said they hope to continue the study in the future.
"We'd really like to keeping it going," he said.