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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

SEAL BEACH NWR: The Last Release of the Season for Light-footed Clapper Rails

Region 8, September 29, 2011
The rails are finally set free! Partners from FWS, Friends of Seal Beach NWR, Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, Chula Vista Nature Center, Sea World San Diego, and members of the Light-Footed Clapper Rail Study & Management Team  all encourage the shy birds to fly out from their travel boxes, and into their new marsh habitat.
The rails are finally set free! Partners from FWS, Friends of Seal Beach NWR, Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, Chula Vista Nature Center, Sea World San Diego, and members of the Light-Footed Clapper Rail Study & Management Team all encourage the shy birds to fly out from their travel boxes, and into their new marsh habitat. - Photo Credit: n/a
Seal Beach Refuge Manager, Kirk Gilligan, explains the process of banding the rails, and locations of release sites on the Refuge. Chula Vista Nature Center's Charles Gailband, holds a rail ready for its banding, to display during the introduction.
Seal Beach Refuge Manager, Kirk Gilligan, explains the process of banding the rails, and locations of release sites on the Refuge. Chula Vista Nature Center's Charles Gailband, holds a rail ready for its banding, to display during the introduction. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Lisa Cox, San Diego NWR Complex

Away they go! Fifteen, four-month old light-footed clapper rails, were released on September 29 – the last release of the season. After being gathered up in their individual boxes at the Chula Vista Nature Center’s enclosures in the morning, a long drive followed to the cordgrass-rich marshes of Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). Not many peeps came from the rails during the ride, but their calls were heard as soon as their feet touched the new soil.

The Chula Vista Nature Center (Nature Center) has been involved in the breeding program since its launch by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) in 1997; in partnership with SeaWorld San Diego, and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Now in its 10th year, the light-footed clapper rail breeding program has contributed to producing over 300 endangered clapper rails for release back into the wild. Besides staff from the San Diego NWR Complex, Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station Environmental Office, Nature Center, USGS, Sea World, and Friends of Seal Beach NWR; Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach Commanding Officer Terry Auberry and Executive Officer CDR Douglas Harold also participated in the release.

“The Seal Beach NWR is extremely grateful to be the recipient of this cohort of rails. We recognize the great deal of work that goes into the captive breeding program by so many folks from a number of different agencies, and they are all very passionate about their work," said Kirk Gilligan, Refuge Manager for Seal Beach NWR. "This release should provide for an increase in the genetic diversity of our population and thus increase its overall health since the population of clapper rails at Seal Beach was believed to be less than 10 individuals at one time due to predation from the non-native red fox."

Most clapper rails in the breeding program incubate and rear their chicks naturally, but some eggs produced by the pairs are artificially incubated and reared by hand at SeaWorld San Diego. Both naturally raised and hand-reared fledgling clapper rails are transferred to proving enclosures at the Nature Center where they live in conditions that mimic a natural marsh… on the Sweetwater Marsh Unit of the San Diego Bay NWR. During their time in the pens, the fledglings are monitored to ensure they develop natural foraging and survival skills before they are released to the wild.

Director of Conservation and Communication at the Chula Vista Nature Center, Charles Gailband, commented on the importance of the release site:

“Seal Beach NWR and Naval Weapons Station represent a significant amount of coastal salt marsh habitat, something incredibly rare today. Although the wetlands at Seal Beach have most of the attributes needed to sustain a healthy clapper rail population, it is isolated from other clapper rail habitats to the north and south. Subsequently, most light-footed clapper rail subpopulations are faced with a genetic bottlenecking. The captive breeding and release efforts are geared towards providing not just numbers, but also new bloodlines to coastal wetlands in southern California.”

The 965-acre Seal Beach NWR is unique in that it has been jointly managed by the Department of the Navy and the Fish and Wildlife Service since 1972. Dedicated volunteers and members of the Seal Beach Friends group are also involved in projects for the recovery of the clapper rail; such as constructing man-made rafts that imitate nests for the rail pairs. Besides clapper rails, other endangered and threatened species who call the refuge home include:  the California least tern, peregrine falcon, and Belding’s savannah sparrow.

In addition to the ongoing partnership among the Service, the Nature Center, SeaWorld San Diego, and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park; bilateral recovery efforts with Mexico have been in place since 2008 with clapper rail population surveys in Baja California.

Contact Info: Lisa Cox, 619.476.9150 ext. 106, lisa_cox@fws.gov