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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

SAN DIEGO NWR COMPLEX: Milestone Marked as 400th Clapper Rail Released by Recovery Program

Region 8, November 20, 2013
Charles Gailband, breeding coordinator for
Charles Gailband, breeding coordinator for "Team Clapper Rail," hands a captured clapper rail to a volunteer to prepare for transport to Kendall-Frost Marsh Reserve in San Diego. - Photo Credit: n/a
Both male and female Light-footed clapper rail are identical in plumage.
Both male and female Light-footed clapper rail are identical in plumage. - Photo Credit: n/a
Measuring and applying bands to the birds prior to release.
Measuring and applying bands to the birds prior to release. - Photo Credit: n/a
Light-footed clapper rail identification bands as Lisa Cox waits for volunteers to arrive.
Light-footed clapper rail identification bands as Lisa Cox waits for volunteers to arrive. - Photo Credit: n/a
San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex project leader, Andy Yuen (center), assists Charles Gailband band a clapper rail during the release event.
San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex project leader, Andy Yuen (center), assists Charles Gailband band a clapper rail during the release event. - Photo Credit: n/a
The final stop: The last of seven captive raised light-footed clapper rails released on Tuesday flies out of its carrier at Kendall-Frost Marsh Reserve near San Diego.
The final stop: The last of seven captive raised light-footed clapper rails released on Tuesday flies out of its carrier at Kendall-Frost Marsh Reserve near San Diego. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Jon Myatt

The wild population of the endangered bird, the light-footed clapper rail increased by seven birds this week after biologists released seven zoologically-bred birds into the UCSD Kendall-Frost Marsh Nature Reserve on Tuesday, Nov. 19.

Tuesday’s event marked the release of the 400th captive-bred clapper rail to the wild, a milestone for “Team Clapper Rail,” a public-private conservation partnership led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Kendall-Frost Marsh is a 40-acre reserve nestled in a popular Mission Bay recreational area, owned and managed by the University of California, San Diego.

The hope is that these captive bred birds will stay in the area and breed with other clapper rails that are known to live there, according to Brian Collins, a wildlife biologist and refuge manager for Tijuana Slough and San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuges.

"This release into the wild of these endangered birds is cause for celebration,” said  Collins. “The 400th bird raised within this program marks a milestone… and is evidence of the success of our cooperative endangered species recovery efforts.”

The light-footed clapper rail is a marsh bird with long legs, long toes, and grows to about 14 inches in length. It has a slightly down-curved beak that it uses to probe for invertebrates, clams, insects, and other food sources. Both males and females are identical in plumage, with their cinnamon breast contrasting with the beautiful streaked plumage of their grayish brown backs, and gray and white barred flanks.

The birds released this week were raised in a captive breeding program operated by “Team Clapper Rail”, a partnership between three breeding centers (SeaWorld San Diego, the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park and the Living Coast Discovery Center in Chula Vista). Other important contributors to the species recovery program include the U.S. Navy, the Unified Port of San Diego, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Huntington Beach Wetlands-Conservancy, the UCSD Nature Reserve System, and Terra Peninsular in Baja California, Mexico.

The breeding process begins when eggs are incubated and hatched at Sea World, the Safari Park, and the Living Coast Discovery Center. Chicks are either naturally raised by both rail parents or in some cases, by keepers at SeaWorld, who have developed a hand rearing protocol for the species that includes the use of “parent rail” hand puppets to minimize human contact.

When the chicks are around 60 days old, they are transferred to Sweetwater Marsh on the San Diego Bay NWR and placed in enclosed pens in habitat that mimics the natural marsh. The chicks are closely monitored by biologists and volunteers to ensure that they meet behavioral criteria for survival in the wild. Once they pass this “proving” stage, they are released into target wetlands throughout their natural range in southern California.

The goal of these releases, explains Collins, is to maximize the genetic variability and demographic viability of the population, by maintaining and recovering sub-populations of these birds in each coastal wetland where they may be encountered.

Each bird is fitted with two separate leg bands prior to release. One band identifies the year the bird was released and a second silver band provides a unique number that is registered with the Service’s National Bird Banding database. Some birds in previous releases have been fitted with radio tracking devices.

These marking methods are essential to ongoing monitoring and research efforts, explained Collins, as reencountering released rails gives essential information to biologists to measure the success of their program’s efforts.

Since the beginning of the captive breeding program in 2001, 401 fledgling rails have been released into native salt-marsh habitat that extends from Santa Barbara County south to the U.S.-Mexico border. The species entire range consists of coastal wetlands from Santa Barbara County in the north to Bahia San Quintin, in Baja California, Mexico.

The light-footed clapper rail is one of three sub-species of clapper rails in California (all are endangered) and was listed as an endangered species in 1973. A year later, it was estimated that only 300 individual light-footed clapper rails remained in the wild in the U.S.

Since the light-footed clapper rail’s range extends into Baja California, to address conservation and recovery of the species and the coastal salt marsh habitats it depends upon throughout it natural range, an exciting new partnership between conservation scientists in the U.S and in Mexico is beginning.

Team Clapper Rail now includes representatives of the Mexican conservation organization, Terra Peninsular. Terra Peninsular works to conserve and restore coastal habitats in Mexico throughout the species southerly range.

Today, thanks to the efforts of the Team and their supporters, and by protection and restoration of coastal salt marshes, the U.S. clapper rail population in California has reached an estimated total of 525 mated pairs in 2013. This is the highest recorded number since monitoring of the species began in the early 1970’s.

Collins explained that it's important to restore wetlands and the species that live in them.

“Such projects help raise awareness and make people more aware that we have our own endangered species that need our help here in the San Diego region,” he said. “By recovering the clapper rail, by restoring the coastal habitats it depends upon, we also restore and recover vital ecosystems that benefit many other species, including people.”

He added that the clapper rail is an important part of the environment and his hope is that projects like this will help the species continue to re-establish itself.

"Coastal wetlands are among the most productive and valuable habitats we have." he said. "If we can recover this species, in this context where great biodiversity is intermixed with millions of people living in urban environments, that means there is hope for other species and other habitats in other places as well. "

-- FWS --

 

Jon Myatt is the digital communications manager at the Pacific Southwest Region external affairs office.

Contact Info: Jon Myatt, 916-414-6474, jon_myatt@fws.gov