Notes from the Field | Rally the Rallidae

Californica clapper rail
California clapper rail at Arrowhead Marsh in Oakland. Photo by Jon Backus.

If you were to venture out onto the shoreline of the Bay along certain salt marshes you just might be lucky enough to hear an abrupt and loud sound — “KAAK KAAK KAKAK!!!!!”

You would be hearing California’s very own Railus longirostris obsoletus, or the more commonly known California clapper rail. It’s not the type of bird that one would expect to win any popularity contests or Ms. Bird U.S.A. What with its secretive nature, it prefers to hide amongst the reeds and cordgrass deep within a salt marsh.

The California clapper rail is not much of a looker — except for its long orange beak and white rump, these birds blend into the foliage perfectly. Despite living exclusively in marshes, the clapper rail isn’t very good at swimming or flying. But, this chicken-like marsh bird has quite the following.

This sub species of the more common East Coast Clapper Rail is endangered with their population only numbering around 1,000 birds. Their family, Rallidae, has historically lost more species than any other family of birds. This is not surprising because many of these rails had a remarkable tendency to colonize remote islands, diversify, and then lose, or almost lose the ability to fly. Rails range in size from the tiny black rail to the extremely rare Takahes of southern New Zealand.

The history of the decline of the California clapper rail is linked to the large human migration to the bay area that occurred during the gold rush in the 1850’s. It just so happened that our clapper rail tastes a lot like chicken. The rail became a delicacy served up to people living in San Francisco, and with hundreds of thousands of acres of marshland ringing the bay there were no shortage of clapper rails to go around.

Luckily, the wholesale slaughter of these birds came to an end with the passing of the Lacey Act (and later the Endangered Species Act) which was meant to preserve game birds and water fowl and is now used to protect and preserve wildlife AND plant life. But, threats continue today, mainly from the loss of the bird’s habitat. The secretive nature and inability to fly very well does not make it easy to for it to escape this destruction.

But, all is not lost for our marsh chicken, there has been a massive effort by the federal and state government along with other organizations to protect, monitor, and save this bird from extinction. (From March through July is California clapper rail breeding season, so if you do see or hear a rail at this time please try to keep your distance so they can have a successful season.)

If you would like to learn more about the California clapper rail or any of the other unique flora and fauna that live in bays marshland come out and volunteer with me on our Community Restoration Programs where you can help turn the tide by restoring habitat.

Notes from the Field | Where is your water… shed?

Jack  with map
Jack gives students a bird’s eye view of our local watershed.

Have you noticed a recent upsurge in interest concerning the health and resilience of the Delta in light of the proposed Delta tunnel plan? This got me thinking about how little we see of our watersheds and how they affect our lives, and the lives of plants and animals that also call these watersheds home.

I must admit I am a bit of a history and map nerd, so I jump at any chance to combine those two subjects in my work. As a Restoration Project Specialist, I lead Save The Bay’s Restoration Education Programs, which gives me the opportunity to explore the ecological history of the Bay through maps. I often start programs with a map of the Bay from space so that students can get a bird’s eye view of their home and the surrounding geographical features and landscapes that encompass this region. When teaching students about watersheds, I love using a relief map of California because it helps them see the immensity of the San Francisco Bay watershed which extends the length of the Central Valley. The maps help students understand the myriad of uses and stressors that we have put on such an important, fragile and interconnected ecosystem.

I recently wrote about my restorative hike through Redwood Creek in the Oakland hills where I discovered the headwaters of the San Leandro Creek watershed. This exploration got me excited to find other watersheds around the bay. I came upon an awesome website created by the Oakland Museum that sheds some light on these hidden creeks and streams. Spring has sprung so I encourage bay area residents to explore these green spaces and learn more about your local watershed!


Notes from the Field | A Legacy of Service

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

National Day of Service
178 volunteers planted 2,323 native plants to help restore the Bay over MLK weekend.

This quote by Martin Luther King Jr. encapsulates the importance of community engagement in our every day lives. His peaceful crusade against unjust war, poverty, and discrimination has inspired many individuals to act collectively to achieve real and just change in their broader communities.

Over the past weekend Save The Bay was an official participant in the National Day of Service in honor of MLK. One of our goals was to help re-vegetate a once barren levee in the Palo Alto Baylands. It was a beautiful, clear, and crisp morning and I was excited to have 50 volunteers from all walks of life.

I was struck by how naturally these people, who were complete strangers, worked together to reach a common goal. There were volunteers who took it upon themselves to haul mulch and water for everyone else to use. I saw some that realized the soil was tough for others to dig in, so helped them out by making the holes for our native seedlings. By the end of the day we had put over 800 plants in the ground! Everyone left with a sense of place and purpose.

Building a healthy and thriving community starts with the simple truth that we are all connected and we are all in this world together. Dr. King’s message of putting aside our individualistic concerns for the greater good reminds us that our community extends to everything around us — from the trees and birds to the Bay itself. Bay Area residents are blessed to be living in such a unique and wonderful place that provides us with food, water, commerce, and recreation. By actively engaging in our environment, like removing invasive species, trash cleanups, and planting native seedlings, we can begin to see the connection and impact we have on the ecosystems that sustain us. A healthy Bay means a healthy community.

Join the spirit of service by volunteering at one of our restoration sites throughout the Bay Area!


Notes from the Field | California’s Bounty

Arrowhead Marsh
A glimpse of the diverse ecosystem of California — Red-winged Blackbirds fly over Arrowhead Marsh in Oakland. Photo: Rick Lewis

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area I spent my time exploring the multitude of wonderful and diverse parks and open spaces that dot the landscape. Each place has a unique history and I never ran out of new things to discover. As the seasons changed I found new plants and animals right in my own backyard. As I grew older I ventured further from my home Bay getting my hands wet river rafting the American and Trinity rivers or backpacking in the Emigrant Wilderness high in the Sierra Nevada. These experiences opened my eyes even wider to the immense biodiversity that exists in California. Think about the vast array of ecosystems found all around this state; from the giant Redwood forests to glaciated mountains to the salt marshes that ring the Bay; these places support an outstanding variety of plant life.

California is so unique that Conservation International has designated it as a biodiversity hotspot. These hotspots are also experiencing a significant amount of habitat loss. Of the 7,031 vascular plants found in our hotspot, 2,153 are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else. These plants grow in part of the California Floristic Province, which is marked by Mediterranean-type weather with wet winters and hot drought conditions during the summer and fall. The barriers that made it so difficult for the first waves of pioneers to reach the golden fields of California were the same factors that protected it from outside genetic influences from other places, allowing unique species to prosper here. The high peaks to the east and north, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the wide expanse of arid deserts in the south aided what we see today.

It is up to us to protect these endangered and endemic plant communities. As Californians, let’s take pride in our unique home and become better stewards of the land around us. These plants have taken millions of years to evolve in balance with their surrounding. More recently, people have had an enormous impact on California’s natural wonders. Our state is quite bountiful, but instead of working outside the forces of nature we must find a balance with these important and beautiful places and endemic plants. Human interactions with the land put many endemic plants at risk of extinction, but human intervention can help preserve them.

Save The Bay is dedicated to protecting and restoring native plants in salt marshes that make up a part of this amazing ecosystem. If you want to learn more about the native plants that grow in our biodiversity hotspot, sign up to volunteer on one of our restoration programs!


Notes from the Field: Thanks for Cleaning Up the Bay on Coastal Cleanup Day

Coastal Cleanup Day 2012
Thanks to all of our volunteers! Photo: Vivian Reed

A big thanks to all of those who participated in cleaning up the San Francisco Bay as part of California Coastal Cleanup Day!  Save The Bay was one of many organizations that spent the day cleaning up our local waterways. We held cleanups in two places that are in desperate need of some care and attention: the Guadalupe River in San Jose and Damon Creek in Oakland. Check out our Bay Trash Hot Spots website to vote on which local waterway we should cleanup next!

Here are the stats from Coastal Cleanup Day:


70 volunteers

1,800 pounds of trash (over 25 pounds per person!)

San Jose

75 volunteers

900 pounds of trash (12 pounds per person!)

I had a wonderful day helping organize our amazing volunteers who showed up in force on Saturday.  I want to give a special shout out to the awesome students from Apollo High School in San Jose who were very impressive in their effort to clean up Guadalupe River.  It was great to see the community coming together to make their Bay, their home, a more safe, clean, and beautiful place to live.

The giant mound of rescued trash was clear evidence of how much our teamwork and effort paid off.

Coastal Cleanup Trash
Volunteers pulled strange items from our polluted waterways.

The garbage we found was an assortment of things big and small that you might use or see in your daily life: tires, grocery carts, food wrappers, cigarette butts, bottles, Santa Claus Christmas decoration, a baby stroller, and the list goes on.  All of these things found their way from our streets and into our watershed.  Many folks were surprised to hear that people were not just dumping garbage here, but that this waste was traveling great distances from our streets to our storm drains to local creeks and rivers and finally out into our beautiful Bay.

In just 3 hours, we collected enough Styrofoam to fill a 30 gallon bag. I was amazed at how much there was and how easily it broke apart creating an even bigger mess.  The Styrofoam that we collected paled in comparison to what we could not reach. The city of San Jose has been a leader in the fight to reduce trash pollution with a strong plastic bag ban, let’s see them continue this tradition with a similarly strong ban on this equally harmful pollutant!

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to over 7 million people and our actions affect one another even if we don’t realize it.  Trash from our cities is the number one threat to the health of the Bay and surrounding communities. Our efforts during Coastal Cleanup show us that through collective action we can make a difference.  We can all do our part to help reduce the amount of waste we produce, from the simple action of using  reusable bags and containers to cities and counties creating laws that ban single use plastic bags and polystyrene.  We are lucky to live in one of the most diverse and unique places on the planet. Let’s do more to keep it that way!

View photos from our cleanups on Facebook.