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Orange County Focus

SEAL BEACH : Biologists' Efforts Help Clapper Rail

September 07, 1993|SHELBY GRAD

After nearly disappearing, the rare light-footed clapper rail shorebird is making a comeback along the marshy grasslands of the Seal Beach National Wildlife Preserve.

The clapper rail population has increased from five pairs to more than 65 pairs in the last decade, thanks in large measure to the efforts of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists.

And this fall, officials plan to launch a new project that they hope will increase the numbers of these brownish, long-beaked birds that are about 14 1/2 inches long.

To bring back their distinctive call, wildlife experts will be replanting cordgrass--a type of grass that is particularly important for clapper rail breeding and nesting--in an area near Anaheim Bay that has been dug up over the years by fishermen.

The tall cordgrass contains dense elastic structures that hold clapper rail eggs when high tides roll in, said Dick Zembal, supervisory fish and wildlife biologist for the service. Without the cordgrass, the eggs can easily be washed out to sea with the tide.

"If the cordgrass isn't tall enough, the water overtops everything," he said.

Officials plan to gate off this egg-nesting area to prevent the grass from being trampled and to give a measure of protection to the delicate eggs.

The project is the latest in a decade-long fight by biologists to keep the clapper rails in Seal Beach.

Officials have placed floating nesting vessels among the cordgrass. The vessels serve as protective "beds" for the eggs, floating above the water during high tides, Zembal said.

To help keep the birds alive once they are born, the service has attempted to remove from the preserve cats and foxes that prey upon them.

Zembal hopes to soon start work on a project that involves flushing fresh water into the cordgrass area. Zembal hopes that the fresh water will cause the cordgrass to grow taller, providing further protection for the eggs.

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