Species Spotlight: Ridgway’s Rail

Ridgeway's Rail photo
Ridgway’s Rail. Photo by Judy Irving, Pelican Media

Plants and animals often act as indicator species, telling us through their presence or absence what the condition of their ecosystem is. In this sense, the story of the endangered Ridgway’s Rail is the story of the San Francisco Bay tidal marshlands – formerly abundant, now greatly reduced. The continued survival of this shorebird species is one of the reasons we must protect and restore Bay marshlands and plan for sea level rise adaptation.

Meet the Ridgway’s Rail: A Secretive Wetland Species

Ridgway’s Rail (until recently considered a subspecies of Clapper Rail) is a chicken-sized bird that likes to hide in marshland vegetation such as pickleweed or cordgrass. Ridgway’s Rails use their long, thin beaks to forage for tiny crabs, worms and other invertebrates in the mudflats that line the shores of sloughs and islands on the edge of the Bay. These birds have been listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service since the 1970’s. Although Ridgway’s Rails are subject to predation from raptors and mammals, the greatest threat to their survival is loss of the marsh habitat upon which they depend.

Historically, San Francisco Bay was lined with salt water marshes and tidal mudflats. Over time, 90% of these wetlands were lost, primarily either through being filled in for development or diked off for salt production. This massive destruction of wetland habitat had a devastating effect on many marsh species, including Ridgway’s Rail. In recent years, awareness of the importance of tidal wetlands has resulted in many of the diked-off salt ponds being restored by breaching the levees. However, thousands of acres of wetlands are still needed for the health of the Bay.

In addition, sea level rise poses a threat to tidal marshland as well as to nearby communities. As tides inundate marshes more and more frequently, the marshland vegetation cannot survive. Without upland transition zones for marshes to migrate into, we will once again lose these wetlands that serve a critical need as filters for pollution, buffers against storm surges, carbon sequestration sinks, and habitat for species such as Ridgway’s Rail.

Ensuring the Ridgway’s Rail’s Survival: Protecting All Restorable Wetlands and Future Transition

Green Foothills advocates for the protection and restoration of Bay wetlands and tidal marsh. Our mantra is: we can’t afford to lose a single acre of restorable wetlands. For this reason, we oppose any development proposal in a salt pond or other restorable wetland, from the massive 1400-acre Cargill site in Redwood City, to the 20-acre Ferrari Pond site just across the street. We are also monitoring the Redwood City ferry project, because wakes from ferries traveling at high speeds can inundate Ridgway’s Rail nests on nearby Greco Island.

But it’s not enough to restore former salt ponds to tidal marsh – we also need to plan for sea level rise and allow existing marshland to migrate to upland areas. For that, we need horizontal levees, which protect against sea level rise while also allowing marshes to transition inland as needed.

Green Foothills will continue to advocate for policies and actions that protect our tidal wetlands and provide for restoration and future transition of those wetlands, so that the Ridgway’s Rail and all the other species that depend on this ecosystem can continue to survive in our region.

Thank You to Those Who Make Our Work Possible
Green Foothills appreciates every individual, agency, and foundation who makes our work possible and we are proud to recognize every contributor in Our Donor Community. Thanks to their generous support, we are able to champion land use decisions that affirm and support open space, biodiversity, climate resilience, and natural resources in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. To ensure local nature always has an advocate, please become a Sustaining Contributor today.

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