On October 16, 2008, I witnessed a piece of conservation history. Seven light-footed clapper rails were released at the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge in Seal Beach, California, 23 miles (37 kilometers) south of Los Angeles. Two of the birds were hatched and parent-raised at the Wild Animal Park in the off-exhibit bird breeding compound (or BBC), where I work as a senior bird keeper. (Read a previous blog, BBC: Clapper Rail Chicks.)
At BBC, there are currently two breeding pairs of light-footed clapper rails. The keepers are strictly hands-off with the birds, unless an emergency arises, in order to allow for the pairs to raise their chicks as “wild” as possible. Once the chicks have fledged, or rather, are able to eat without assistance from the adults, they can be moved to the Chula Vista Nature Center, 37 miles (60 kilometers) south of the Wild Animal Park, where they are “prepared” for transition to the wild. Individual birds from Chula Vista as well as cohorts from SeaWorld San Diego are then designated, and the release trip is planned.
I was offered the opportunity to ride along and participate in the release, and more than willingly accepted! I, along with the lead bird keeper from the BBC, our photographer, and the Park’s public relations representative made the almost two-hour trip north to Seal Beach. Once at the release sight, we were joined by liaisons from Team Clapper Rail, consisting of individuals from SeaWorld San Diego, Chula Vista Nature Center, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, independent wildlife biologists, and the Navy (as the release sight was located within Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach).
Before the actual release, each bird was given a State Service leg band, as well as an anodized metal leg band for future identification purposes. Then, many photos later, it was time to let the birds go free. Feelings of joy and pride began to swell inside me as I thought of the work that had brought us to this moment. Each of the seven carriers containing the birds were taken several feet away, lined up, and slowly tilted to allow the birds an unobstructed view of their new home. Then, on the count of three, the carriers were opened, and with an impressive flurry of feathers, the light-footed clapper rails tasted their first bites of freedom, flying low and far into the surrounding marsh.
Janessa Kite is a senior bird keeper at the Wild Animal Park.