Many people know about endangered species found in Africa, Asia, and South America, but very few know that there are endangered species found in their local ecosystems. I had the opportunity to help survey the wild population of the light-footed clapper rail at the Tijuana Estuary. The light-footed clapper rail is an endangered bird found along the coast of Southern California and northern Baja California.
Each year in the spring the wild population is surveyed at about 30 coastal wetlands to determine the number of breeding pairs in the wild. A team of volunteers, including myself and several team members from SeaWorld San Diego, stationed ourselves throughout the estuary with a map and pen in hand. We listened to hear the birds call to each other.
A pair of rails will call in the evening and early morning, giving a call known as “clappering.” Because this call can be recognized as coming from two rails calling together, it is also known as the “duet” and is indicative of a pair defending a territory, ready to or in the process of breeding. Single males and females are also distinguishable by their unique calls and behavior. By careful listening, correct interpretation, and mapping we can define the makeup of the population in each of the wetlands that still have rails. This is the fourth time that I have participated in a population survey and I haven’t seen a wild clapper rail yet. They are very good at hiding so that predators can’t find them.
The clapper rail recovery program is a partnership between the three breeding centers (SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park and the Living Coast Discovery Center), along with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Navy, the United Port of San Diego, the California Department of Fish and Game and independent wildlife biologists (together known as Team Clapper Rail) for the survival of this critically endangered species.
Team Clapper Rail recently released eight endangered light-footed clapper rails into Paradise Marsh in National City. These highly endangered marsh birds are the second release of the breeding season and are essential in order to increase the genetic diversity of the Southern California population. Since 2001, Team Clapper Rail has successfully bred and released more than 300 clapper rails.
Annual surveys indicate that the introduction of zoologically-bred birds and other conservation efforts are paying off. Wild rail populations are at their highest level since yearly censuses were begun in the 1980s. The population has grown from as few as 142 pairs in 1985, to at least 500 today.
It is amazing to be a part of an organization dedicated to conservation of this species and many more. To learn more about the Clapper Rail Study Team, please visit www.clapperrail.com.