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The Clapper Rail Calls at Dawn

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The Clapper Rail Calls at Dawn

A story about weird birds, supersensory perception, existential math, and the quest to make sense of nature

By Eric Simons July 2014 BAY NATURE | baynature.org

One hour before sunrise on the fog-shrouded Petaluma River, Julian Wood guides a small Zodiac gently toward a river bank he can’t make out, in scientific pursuit of a rare and elusive bird he doesn’t plan to see. Inky water laps at the side of the boat. Wood peers into the gloom, fighting the dark through bleary eyes. “I figure we’ll just go until we hit the bank,” he says. “Then we’ll be there.” A green-and-red navigation light perched on the bow cuts through wreaths of mist rising off the water’s surface. A black line of pickleweed emerges from the fog as the Zodiac closes in on land. Wood lets the boat glide to the marsh edge and then cuts the engine. At the front of the boat, Wood’s colleague Megan Elrod
grabs a clipboard and stands up. “Everybody ready?” she says. “I’m gonna start.”…The 18-mile winding path of the Petaluma River supports the largest ancient tidal marsh in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as thousands of acres of restored wetlands.

The California clapper rail. | Photo by Jerry Ting

The California clapper rail is a largish, brownish endangered marsh bird with carrot-stick legs and a long, glowing-orange bill. It is a subspecies of the common clapper rail, Rallus longirostris, and to keep it sorted the famed 19th-century Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway appended the subspecies name obsoletus: the long-nosed, obsolete rail. “Obsolete” makes the clapper rail sound pathetic, or fragile, or obstructionist: an endangered marsh relic from a bygone era forcing us by the nuisance of its continued existence into treading lightly around the edges of the Bay. It is not. The California clapper rail is bold, gregarious, and beloved. When a breeding clapper rail was found at the Heron’s Head Marsh in San Francisco in August 2011, it occasioned news reports. “It was mind blowing,” one birder told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Fimrite. “It was like running into your favorite rock star in a cafe and they are willing to talk to you. I was giddy for days. I’m still giddy.” The clapper rail is generally described by those who know it best as a marsh chicken. Its great tragedy, like the chicken’s, is tastiness: predators, humans in the Gold Rush era included, find the clapper rail delectable. It is also, like the chicken, high in character. “They have a kind of gait that has some, I don’t know, seductiveness — some kind of weird avian seductiveness,” says Erik Grijalva, who spent 10 years working amongst the rails as a field biologist with the Invasive Spartina Project. “They’re furtive. They look like they’re curious on the edge of propriety.” Julian Wood, who leads a clapper rail monitoring program at Point Blue Conservation Science, described also a certain fearlessness in their nature: on one recent trip, he said, he played a recorded rail noise to try and incite them to speak up from their hiding spots, and instead of yelling back at him, two rails suddenly emerged from the marsh, surrounded him and began to advance toward the boat in what, presumably, they found to be a menacing fashion. Wood motored slowly away. “No doubt they felt pretty good about themselves,” he told me.

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