The light-footed clapper rail lays her eggs along the banks of Upper Newport Bay and carefully hides her nest under a canopy of cord grass.
But nature's balance has been upset here. And the bird can only watch helplessly as predators such as skunks and foxes ravage her retreat, killing her nestlings.
Because housing tracts and roads criss-cross the San Joaquin Hills between Irvine, the Newport Beach shore and Laguna Beach, coyotes have trouble reaching the bay. As a result, the coyote's prey--red foxes, skunks and cats--multiply to unnatural proportions and threaten the survival of the clapper rail.
Only 131 pairs of the rare birds are left in Newport Bay, and if they are wiped out there, the species will probably become extinct. About 70% of the United States' clapper rail population lives in Newport Bay, said Dick Zembal, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Clapper rails are secretive birds rarely seen in the open. About the size of a crow with a long beak, tawny breast and a back dappled in gray, cream, brown and black, the rails slip quietly through the marsh, feeding on snails, fish and clams.
The birds used to live from Santa Barbara to Baja California, but now they have few places to go, since about 95% of the state's saltwater marshes have been paved or drained.
"The light-footed clapper rail is Orange County's endangered species," Zembal said. "Every marsh has had a problem."
The plight of the bird is a sign of the ecological trauma unfolding in the coastal canyons of the San Joaquin Hills.
The canyons have about 25 square miles of nearly pristine habitat--a mix of shrubs, grasses and trees called coastal sage scrub--that feeds and shelters species such as deer, coyote, rabbits, lizards and songbirds.
But wildlife biologists say the habitat in the area is already so fragmented and disturbed that animals have to cross 5 miles of suburban landscape to reach the San Joaquin Hills from the Santa Ana Mountains. The last mountain lion in the area was seen four years ago, and deer and coyotes are dwindling.
The proposed San Joaquin Transportation Corridor could cut off more wildlife migration routes from canyons to the bay, which could finally spell the end of the clapper rails, Zembal said. One area of special concern is Bonita Creek, a major route used by coyotes, he said.
Steve Letterly, environmental manager of the county's Transportation Corridor Agencies, said the agency has not decided on the specific design of the toll road, but the agency is committed to building as many animal crossings as possible.
Most of this territory is owned by the Irvine Co., which for 20 years has been planning a 9,400-acre development in the canyons between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach called Irvine Coast. About 2,600 homes will be built.
Monica Florian, vice president of strategic planning for the Irvine Co., said the project was the most thoroughly studied in the company's history, and its planners tried to minimize ecological damage by retaining large amounts of open space.
"In the long term, if it's turned into a biological desert, that's no good for anyone," she said. "We're here for the long term, so we care about these areas."
More than 7,000 acres, or three-quarters of the land there, will remain open space, including Crystal Cove State Park. The company also has agreed to sell a large stretch of Laguna Canyon for a public preserve, and has vowed to retain half of its remaining 64,000 acres in Orange County for open space.
The Irvine Co. has asked the Nature Conservancy to manage its network of open space to ensure that animals can survive.
Biologists, however, warn that it won't do much good to save 2,150 acres of Laguna Canyon without ensuring that it is linked to nearby wilderness areas with wide, east-west corridors for animals.
"It sounds like a lot (of acreage) on the surface, but unless it's connected to habitat in the back country, in the long run there could be problems," said Michael Soule, a UC Santa Cruz environmental scientist whose studies have shown that animals die out if restricted to isolated patches of land.
The Irvine Co.'s map of open space shows few large east-west corridors linking them, which Zembal said could be a major flaw.
"It's like a string of pearls," Zembal said. "If these pearls are out there by themselves without string connecting them, then each pearl isn't viable and the necklace may fall apart."
If biologists had a wish list of Orange County habitat they want to protect, most would rank Gypsum and Coal canyons at the top.
The side-by-side canyons east of Anaheim Hills link the Santa Ana Mountains with Chino Hills State Park, giving mountain lions, deer and other animals a broad home range.
If animal pathways in those canyons are cut, about 55 square miles of prime habitat in the Chino Hills would be unreachable from the mountains, and wildlife could be cut off from water in the Santa Ana River.