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 | Planting Experiments at Byxbee Park

Save The Bay’s habitat restoration team has been working to re-vegetate transition zones along the Bay’s tidal salt marshes for close to 15 years. We primarily focus on planting the inter-tidal upland ecotone in order to create refuge for endangered California clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse. This zone has been severely impacted around the Bay shoreline, leaving minimal natural ecotones intact.

At Bxybee Park at the Palo Alto Baylands, the ecotone separates the marshlands and land-fill mounds. This area is crucial to support wildlife, especially during high tides events. This was evident just last week as 9.5 foot tide flooded the park and spilled waters onto the trails and roads. Save The Bay is restoring this ecotone with native plants, which will create upland refuge for wildlife during storms.

Last year Save The Bay attempted to restore this zone by installing over 3000 native plants, including 12 species. Our monitoring records showed that after 1 year of planting at Bxybee park very few species survived.

Byxbee low survivorship
After 1 year of planting at Byxbee park, very few species survived.

Based on these results, we decided to implement a new process and strategy. We pulled together our resources, pondered many reasons for our failed attempt and created an experimental design to enhance planting conditions. Since the rain fall from 2011 was late and minimal, we included a treatment to mimic last year’s planting plan. We want to test whether that lack of rain and late rains were the key contributing factors to our plants mortality.

Byxbee scarifying
One treatment we implemented is called “Scarifying”. This treatment scraps the surface soil about 3 inches deep reducing compaction, allowing aeration and enabling water retention. This will also help our volunteers to plant in more malleable conditions.
For treatment 3 we reached out to Zanker Disposal and Recycling for compost. Four trucks delivered fresh, nutrient rich compost to the site.
Planning with partners
We carefully discussed the plan with our partners  to execute the design properly.
Staff spread compost
Save The Bay staff assisted in moving compost to the edges.
Help from Palo Alto Baylands rangers
We had incredibly useful help from the Palo Alto Baylands Rangers and their machines which allowed the compost to be spread, evenly and in a timely manner.

We used colored plot markers to identify the different treatment areas that were composted, scarred, not treated and both scarred and composted. This will guide us in our planting installation as we have already begun to install more than 4,000 native plants to this site, this season.

Our goal is not only to be re-vegetate the area to provide critical habitat to endangered species, we also want to learn best management strategies to apply at other sites around the Bay. When working with highly saline and very compacted soils we must make adjustments in order to create viable growing conditions. Stay tuned to our monitoring results and please join our planting programs at Bxybee Park to participate in this experiment.

— Laura Wainer, Senior Scientist/Restoration Projects Manager

Notes from the Field | An Endangered Species for Dinner?

California clapper rail
During the Gold Rush, locals dined on the now-endangered California clapper rail. Photo: Rick Lewis

Thanksgiving is a time for offering thanks, extending generosity, and spending time with family. It is also a time for celebration and feasting. We overflow our plates with buttery mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and of course, roasted turkey, but what was on the menu around the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1800s? You might be surprised.

In 1848, a carpenter from New Jersey found gold in the American River near Coloma, California – approximately 20 miles northeast of Sacramento. As more people  arrived in San Francisco with hopes of striking it rich, the Bay Area’s population exploded.  During this time, the natural resources of Northern California were quickly depleted – thousands of acres of forests were cut down for development, waterways were contaminated with waste, and fish and other animals were over-harvested.

Among the most significantly impacted animals was the California clapper rail – a medium-sized, grayish brown, flightless bird that lives exclusively in the marshes surrounding San Francisco Bay. Once in the tens of thousands, the California clapper rail’s abundance, ease of capture, and taste that resembled chicken, made it a staple in the diet of miners, and a regular dish on menus throughout the SF Bay region.  By 1990, primarily due to decades of over-hunting and the loss of over 90% of marshland habitat to urban development, salt production, and agriculture, the clapper rail population had plummeted to less than 500 birds.

Once an abundant and popular menu item, the California clapper rail (Rallus longirostris obsoletus) is now listed as an endangered species. Thankfully, due to the collaborative efforts of Save The Bay and our local restoration partners  to protect and restore our remaining wetlands, the rail is slowly making a recovery. With the continued support of thousands of student and public volunteers each year, Save The Bay has been restoring critical habitat, with a goal to re-establish 100,000 acres of wetlands for a healthy and sustainable Bay.

Now that is truly something to be thankful for!

Want to help Save The Bay restore vital habitat for the California clapper rail? Volunteer with us. 

Weekly Roundup November 9, 2012

weekly roundupSanta Clara voters passed Save The Bay-endorsed Measure B on Tuesday, which will speed restoration of the San Francisco Bay shoreline and provide money for flood control and water improvements for another 15 years. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the East Coast is looking into ways to protect itself from future events. From giant sea walls to marshes around Manhattan Island, nothing is off the table. Here in the Bay Area, we are beginning the process of long-range planning for similarly severe storms and sea level rise. Meanwhile, out in the marshes, migratory birds have begun to arrive in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, where they will spend their winters. And permanent Bay resident, the endangered California Clapper Rail is increasing in numbers along the Martin Luther King Regional Shoreline, as a result of habitat restoration by Save The Bay and the East Bay Regional Parks District.

Silicon Valley Mercury News 11/6/2012
Santa Clara County $548 million parcel tax for flood protection, water cleanup and projects approved
Santa Clara County voters passed a $548 million parcel tax to fund flood control, environmental cleanup and other water projects at the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

KQED 11/6/2012
How a Sandy-Type Storm Could Short-Circuit Silicon Valley
First the good news: The Bay Area has plans in place for a storm as big and bad as Sandy.
Now the bad news: Planning is about as far as it goes. We haven’t built new levees or seawalls, moved electrical equipment higher up, or relocated much of anything out of the flood plain.
Read more>>

Bay Nature 11/8/2012
In age of superstorms, Bay Area prepares for every inch of water
With the Northeast still reeling from the affects of superstorm Sandy, there’s been quite a bit of chatter out here on the Pacific about our own vulnerabilities to large tropical storms in the age of climate change.
Read more>>

The New York Times 11/3/2012
Protecting the City, Before Next Time
If, as climate experts say, sea levels in the region have not only gradually increased, but are also likely to get higher as time goes by, then the question is: What is the way forward ?

San Francisco Chronicle 11/7/2012
Birds arriving at north-state wetlands
On a flooded rice field in remote Yuba County, a small flock of tundra swan ended their long journey this week and settled in the water in front of us. Off to our right, about 100 snow geese bobbed about.
Read more>>

KALEV 11/5/2012
Saving the California Clapper Rail
In the Gold Rush era, California Clapper Rails were hunted by the thousands.
Today, habitat loss is equally fatal to this secretive bird, one of the largest rails, measuring 13-to-19 inches from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail.