A CONVERSATION WITH A CLAPPER RAIL

ImperialBeach1-1973

10 July 2020

   The birdwatcher perched on what was becoming a smaller and smaller bit of high ground in what was developing into a vast sea of moving water. He wasn’t really worried yet, but he did realize that he’d had to pull his shoes up above the rising water several times already. He gave a moment’s thought to his car; had he left it far enough up the hill to stay dry? Well, there wasn’t anything to do about that now; besides, the birding had been great.

   Just then, a clapper rail came drifting up to him, perched on a piece of styrofoam being carried along on the steadily rising tide. “Holy cow!” said the birder, as he quickly took a photo with his smart phone. “What a shot that is!”

   “Glad I could oblige,” said the rail, whose perch had hung up momentarily in a raft of miscellaneous debris. “Well, this will let me catch my breath. Whoo-wee, it has been quite a ride this morning! At this rate, I might have made it all the way to the mountains – or, at least, into the streets of San Diego – before I stopped.”

    The rail ruffled its feathers, and preened a bit, while the birder snapped a couple more photos. “Aren’t you a little afraid of getting inundated?” asked the rail. “Your perch is getting pretty small.”

   “Well, I may have misjudged my spot slightly, but the tide should be turning soon, and the water level will drop pretty quickly. I’m an old hand at these ‘king tides,’ as we call them – the highest tides of the year. They’re great for birdwatching. All the marsh vegetation gets covered up for a couple hours, and all you secretive birds come out where I can watch you. Sometimes, it’s the only chance to see you rails, in particular.”

   “Point taken, but doesn’t this ‘king tide’ seem just a little kingier than what you’re used to?”

   “This mound has always seemed a little safer destination, if that’s what you mean. I suppose you’re alluding to the so-called ‘global warming’ effects?”

   “Yes, I suspect that is what I’m alluding to. Melting glaciers means higher ocean levels means higher tides, including higher ‘king tides.’”

   “But, you know, it’s made for great birding. Every time I come out here, I see something unusual – birds that are usually down in the Southern Hemisphere, coming north because the oceans are getting warmer. I’m adding to my ‘life list’ without leaving home.”

    “There is that, I suppose,” rejoined the rail. “But is it worth it, considering that large areas of Imperial Beach, Coronado, and even the lower parts of San Diego are almost uninhabitable by humans already, and the highest sea levels are probably yet to come?”

   “Well, I live up in the hills, so I’m not really affected.”

   “You mean, up in the hills, where this same global warming has greatly increased the number, size, and intensity of brush fires – where, I understand, almost as many homes are being lost to fire as are being lost to rising sea water?”

   “Remember, this is Southern California, where we expect hot and dry in summer. Brush fires are a part of life, here. Anyway, I would think that you’d like all this new water. Most of the marshes where your kind used to live have been lost to urbanization and industrialization, or reduced to little remnants like this one. Here’s your chance for lots of new habitat.”

   “Maybe, if we can hold out somewhere for a million years or so. We’re ‘water birds,’ yes, but water birds need land above the water level for food and shelter. We’re losing what little we have with every long-term inundation. If new marshes ever develop at the edges of the new shore – and there’s no guarantee of that - it will be long after you, me, and many generations of our descendants have come and gone – if humans and birds are able to survive, at all. 

   “And, in the meantime, you might consider my rather precarious situation, out here in the open, floating around on a piece of debris. There are some other critters that like to eat us clapper rails, and if we have to drift around in the open for a few hours every day, we’re rather vulnerable targets. Oh, what I’d give for a nice tidal channel lined with marsh grass or salicornia, right now.”

    Just then, a gust of wind joined with the incoming tide to release the rail’s styrofoam from its anchor. It started to drift away. “Well, that’s my cue,” called the rail, as his raft began to drift away. “Nice talking to you, and good birding to you! 

   “And, by the way, high tide isn’t for another hour.”


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© Sanford Wilbur 2020