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Saving the Bay starting with the Clapper Rail


The California Clapper Rail is a bird that likes to be heard, but not seen. But today, on this windy morning at Arrowhead Marsh in Oakland, they aren’t too vocal. In order to find them, Vivian Bui scans the air with a big metal antenna, attached to a receiver, while she listens through big headphones.

“We currently have two California Clapper rails with radio transmitters attached to them, and each bird has a different frequency.” This is a process that’s called telemetry, Bui explains, “We have a receiver and other gear that we use to listen for their signal, and we bring with us a compass and a GPS, so we can get the compass bearings and triangulate their locations,” she says.

Bui works for the United States Geological Survey, “The closer the birds are, the louder their radio signal sounds.”

For the past three years, she’s been researching the Clapper Rail’s every move.

“We can study where they like to go at high tide, at low tide, at different times of the day,” she says.

The Clapper Rail is tiny- about the size of your fist. It’s brown and orange, has a big yellow beak, and if you’re lucky enough to see one, Bui says they're pretty cute.

“I think they’re adorable, which is not scientific at all, but they're very photogenic,” Bui says. The birds also have a call that sounds like they are laughing.

It’s this laughing, rattling, and clapping bird call that gives the Clapper Rail its name, and it does sound a bit like they’re laughing at something.

California Clapper Rail Territory

Here at Arrowhead Marsh in Oakland, in a tiny pocket of marshland squeezed between Interstate 880 and the Oakland Airport, there are over 80 California Clapper Rails hiding in between tall grass. That  number however, is nothing compared to the amount of birds that used to make this marsh, and others like it, their home.

“Clapper Rails used to be so numerous that there are counts of restaurants serving Clapper Rails on their menus that's how many there were, clearly that’s not the case anymore,” Bui says.

That was back in the early 1800s when a Clapper Rail was served with a baked potato. After nearly being hunted to extinction, the extensive filling and diking of the Bay destroyed most of the Rail’s salt marsh habitat.

“California Clapper Rails used to range from Humboldt Bay down to Morrow Bay,  and a lot of tidal salt marsh that used to be here in California has disappeared, so most of what’s left is here in the San Francisco Bay.

It all connects

Since the 1970s, a few state and federal strategies tried to bring the Clapper Rail population back to historic numbers. There were only 200 Clapper Rails in the 90s, now the population hovers around 1000. The Rail’s recovery is part of a billion dollar federal plan for Bay Area marshes.

It also protects the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak, Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse, Suisun Thistle, Soft Bird's Beak, and California Sea Blight, and attempts to finally remove them from the list of endangered species, says Valary Bloom, who works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. She helped write this 50-year restoration plan. I meet up with her during one of  her field visits at a large marsh called Cullinan Ranch, just outside of Vallejo. Bloom describes it as the heart of a very unique ecosystem in California.

Cullinan Ranch is just one pocket of marshland included in the plan. The restoration plan also targets 500 miles of other wetlands, stretching from Arcata Bay near Eureka, all the way down to Morro Bay near San Luis Obispo. But the majority of the plan centers around the San Francisco Bay, the San Pablo Bay, and Suisun Bay. Like most things in San Francisco, it comes with a hefty price tag.

“One point two billion [dollars] is pricey, but work in the bay is going to cost,” Bloom says.

A huge price, but Bloom stresses that this isn’t any additional tax money but  funds that were already available, and its organizations like hers that were tasked with divvying it all up. They thought the marsh was one of the best areas to invest in because it’s all interconnected. In the past, marshes were regarded as wastelands, places for new subdivisions, highways, and airports and the land has been overlooked.

Bloom says marshes serve a very important purpose. They're really critical for flood protection, and they also filter contaminants, make our water cleaner, and improve our air quality.

“So, is it worth it? Yes. For this situation I think it’s within reach, it won’t be easy and it’s not going to be immediately but I think we can recover this ecosystem,” Bloom adds.  

Cleaning up a nesting ground

Back at Arrowhead Marsh in Oakland, a group of students are cleaning up trash from the levees. The water is filled with pieces of styrofoam, broken glass bottles, even needles.

Shay Ottaviano is seven years old. She’s been learning about the Clapper Rail habitat at Arrowhead for a while now, and came out here today in hopes of seeing one.

“If the bird eats the rubber, it’ll get stuck in their belly and it'll not make them feel good. They'll get sick, she says. “ I collected three whole bags of garbage from all over there rocks and we're saving the Clapper Rail.”

Finally Vivian Bui spots the clapper. It’s really close to shore, perched on a rock, and ruffling its brown feathers, preening itself with its long beak. She looks on, pleased.

“How a Clapper Rail is doing is indicative of how the marsh is doing overall,” Bui says. So if the marsh is strong, it can not only support the Clapper Rail or the harvest mouse, but also the larger ecosystem that we’re all a part of.


Angela Johnston is the Senior Producer of Uncuffed and an editor in the KALW newsroom. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism and graduated from KALW’s Audio Academy program. She’s worked for KALW in numerous roles - from the deputy news director, to the health and environment reporter, and she's covered everything from lead poisoning to climate change. Her work has aired on KALW, KQED, Reveal, and The Pulse. She also freelances as a producer and editor for Cosmic Standard and AFAR Media. Outside of work, she loves to swim in the bay, surf small waves on her longboard, read, backpack, cook, and garden.