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CARLSBAD FWO: Final Clapper Rail Release of 2009 a Success
California-Nevada Offices , October 27, 2009
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Clapper rails in their carriers awaiting transport to the Kendall-Frost Marsh. (photo: USFWS)
Clapper rails in their carriers awaiting transport to the Kendall-Frost Marsh. (photo: USFWS) - Photo Credit: n/a
Chris Sulzer holds a clapper rail while Charles Gailband attaches the leg bands. (photo: USFWS)
Chris Sulzer holds a clapper rail while Charles Gailband attaches the leg bands. (photo: USFWS) - Photo Credit: n/a
The Kendall-Frost Marsh, managed by the University of California Land and Water Reserves System. (photo: USFWS)
The Kendall-Frost Marsh, managed by the University of California Land and Water Reserves System. (photo: USFWS) - Photo Credit: n/a

by Jane Hendron, Carlsbad FWO
The final release of captive bred light-footed clapper rails for the 2009 season took place on October 27, 2009.  Staff and volunteers from the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge's Sweetwater Marsh Unit, the City of Chula Vista’s Nature Center, the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, the Orange County Water District, and SeaWorld San Diego rounded up the elusive clapper rails in holding pens at the Chula Vista Nature Center.

Once the clapper rails were captured, they were placed into small pet carriers, weighed, and loaded into vehicles for transport to their new home in the wild.  For the last release of the season, a total of seven clapper rails were released to the wild at the Kendall-Frost Marsh, a 40-acre reserve in Mission Bay that is owned and managed by the University of California, San Diego.

Of the seven birds released at the Kendall-Frost Marsh, two were from eggs taken from the wild and hatched at SeaWorld San Diego; two were parent-reared at SeaWorld San Diego; one adult male no longer needed for captive breeding at the Wild Animal Park was released; and the remaining two were from eggs produced by a captive-breeding pair living at the Chula Vista Nature Center.

Over the course of the 2009 season a total of 42 captive-reared clapper rails were released to the wild as part of a coordinated effort to recover this native wetland bird of southern California.  Since the start of the captive-rearing and release program in 2001, more than 250 clapper rails have been released into native salt-marsh habitat from Santa Barbara County south to the Sweetwater Marsh Unit in Chula Vista, California.

Once the birds arrived at Kendall-Frost, staff and volunteers slogged their way across the uneven marshy terrain to an area that provided suitable cover for the young birds.  Prior to actual release, each bird was fitted with two separate leg bands.  One tag identifies the year the bird was released, a second tag provides a unique number that is registered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Bird Banding database.

Once the leg bands were attached, the birds were placed back into their carriers then transported a few more yards to the release point.  The carriers were gently tilted on their ends with the opening facing towards the open marsh.  And on a final count of THREE, the carriers were opened and the rails flew free in the wild for the first time in their lives.

"This release was so rewarding,” said Chris Sulzer, a Volunteer at the Chula Vista Nature Center.  To see the birds that we watched hatch in captivity and watched as small babies now fly off into the wild is amazing!"

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

Light-foot clapper rails were historically distributed in coastal salt marshes from Santa Barbara County south to San Quintín Bay, Baja California, Mexico. Loss of salt marsh habitat to development, dredging operations, and oil production was the primary cause of the sharp decline in the species.  Other threats include predation by feral cats, rats, and raptors.

“These releases are one of the high points of our conservation work," said San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Biologist Brian Collins.  “It is a great feeling to see one of these rare birds fly free.  It is so inspiring to work with so many dedicated individuals, most of whom are volunteers, who are helping not only to conserve this precious native American bird, but also educating the public about the wild and endangered beauty that exists around us, to foster an appreciation for conserving these species for future generations to enjoy.”

The light-footed clapper rail was included on the first U.S. List of Endangered Native Fish and Wildlife, published on October 13, 1970, which preceded the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.  In 1974, it was estimated that only 300 light-footed clapper rails remained.  Today, thanks to the efforts of many partners and successful protection and restoration of some of southern California’s coastal salt marshes, the light-footed clapper rail population has reached a high of 443 pairs.

However, recovery of the light-footed clapper rail is still not secure and efforts must continue to protect, manage, and enhance the native habitat for the species.

Brian Collins, Wildlife Biologist, San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex, and Charles Gailband, Program Manager-Animal Collection, Chula Vista Nature Center contributed to this article.


Contact Info: jane hendron, , jane_hendron@fws.gov



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