The Ridgway’s Rail

(Rallus obsoletus)

By Dessi Sieburth

ridgways rail MalibuLegacyPark 29Nov2017 by DessiSieburth webi

The Ridgway’s Rail is a large and beautiful rail that leads a secretive life hiding in marshes and swamps in California, Western Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona. This rail was once a common resident of saltwater marshes here in Los Angeles. Today, however, this rail is a rare sighting in Los Angeles County.

The Ridgway’s Rail is about 14.5 inches long, and it can be identified by its bright orange breast and cheeks, and a large orange bill. Its belly is black with vertical white striping, and the upperparts are speckled black and brown. Its call is a series of distinct clapping notes, about 5-6 notes per second. In fact, its call is one of the best ways to distinguish it from other rails, such as the King and Clapper Rail.

The Clapper, King and Ridgway’s Rail, all found in North America, are closely related. The Ridgway’s Rail is especially similar in appearance to the King Rail, as they both have a bright orange breast (Figure 1). However, the King Rail has black centers to the back feathers (Figure 2) and bolder white vertical streaks on the flanks and belly (Figure 3). The Ridgway’s Rail is distinctive from the Clapper Rail, as the Clapper Rail is much drabber, with gray cheeks and a drab buffy on the breast (Figure 1, 3). The habitat of King and Ridgway’s Rails differ, as King is found in freshwater marshes, and Ridgway’s is mostly found in saltwater marshes. Both Clapper and Ridgway’s Rails mostly live in saltwater marshes.

Figure1 comparison underparts rail4 web

Figure 1. Comparison of underparts views of King (top), Ridgway's (middle), and Clapper (bottom) Rail specimens.

Figure2 upperparts 3 rail specimens

Figure 2. Comparison of upperparts views of King (top), Ridgway's (middle), and Clapper (bottom) Rail specimens.

Figure3 comparison side views 3 rail specimens

Figure 3. Comparison of side views of King (top), Ridgway's (middle), and Clapper (bottom) Rail specimens

The Ridgway’s Rail was once considered the same species as the Clapper Rail.  In 1874, Robert Ridgway discovered a distinctive rail near San Francisco. He described this rail as a subspecies of the King Rail, because the rail he discovered looked very similar to the King Rail. However, since these California rails and Clapper Rails of the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts lived in saltwater marshes, the California Rails were described as a subspecies of the Clapper Rail. However, recent genetic analysis by James Maley from the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College in Los Angeles revealed that the western rails were genetically distinct from both the Clapper and King Rails, and in 2014, the western rails were split from the Clapper Rail and given their own species. The western birds were called Ridgway’s Rails, named after Robert Ridgway.

The Ridgway’s Rail has three subspecies. The subspecies obsoletus is found in the San Francisco Bay area. The subspecies levipes is found in coastal Southern California and northwest Baja California, and the subspecies yumanensis is found at the Salton Sea and along the lower Colorado River. The subspecies yumanensis along the Colorado River and a few levipes near the coast live in freshwater marshes.

In California, there is an isolated population of Ridgway’s Rails around the San Francisco Bay north to Sonoma County. The Ridgway’s Rail is also found in Southern Ventura County and throughout Orange and San Diego Counties. It is present in large numbers at the Salton Sea. In Los Angeles County, there have been two recent records of Ridgway’s Rails. From March 20th to September 21st, 2016, a Ridgway’s Rail was present at Ballona Freshwater Marsh in Playa del Rey. Another Ridgway’s Rail was present at Malibu Legacy Park from October 1st to October 29th, 2017. It is interesting that these rails were found at freshwater marshes, as they generally require saltmarsh habitat, which is almost non-existent in Los Angeles County today. In the past, the Ridgway’s Rail was much more common in Los Angeles County. There are several historical records, and Grinnell and Miller (1944) reported them at the Playa del Rey/Ballona Creek area, as well as at Palos Verdes and Long Beach, where saltmarsh habitat was once present. Ridgway’s Rails occur regularly both north and south of Los Angeles County. It can be found in low numbers in southern Ventura County, at locations such as Point Mugu Naval Air Station and Arnold Road. In northern Orange County, they commonly occur at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, and Upper Newport Bay.

Saltmarsh habitat has been declining throughout the Ridgway’s Rail’s range, and the species is now federally listed as endangered due to habitat loss, urbanization, and exotic predators. Between 2007 and 2008, the population of Ridgway’s Rails in the San Francisco area declined by 51 percent, and populations in other areas are estimated to have undergone similar declines. In Los Angeles County, habitat destruction through development has nearly eradicated all saltmarsh habitat from the Playa del Rey, Long Beach, and San Pedro areas. The two recent sightings in our county were in freshwater marshes. Because of loss of saltmarsh habitat, the rails may be moving into other habitats.

The Ridgway’s Rail teaches us that we need to preserve and restore habitat for our birds in Los Angeles if we want to continue to see the large diversity of birds we have in our county. Here, in Los Angeles, we have several bird species that are endangered including California Gnatcatcher, Tricolored Blackbird, and “Least” Bell’s Vireo. The most important habitats for these birds include coastal sage scrub of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, which is home to the California Gnatcatcher, the grasslands of the Antelope Valley, which is home to the Tricolored Blackbird, and the riparian areas of the Big Tujunga Wash and the Hahamongna Watershed Park, breeding areas of the endangered “Least” Bell’s Vireo. If you like to help with habitat restoration in Los Angeles, please contact Eleanor Osgood from the Los Angeles Audubon Society at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .To learn more about how to help birds visit my website: http://protectingourbirds.my-free.website/.

Special thanks to James Maley from the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College for letting me take photos of the rail specimens.

References:

Allen, L.W., K. L. Garrett, and M.C. Wimer (1994). Los Angeles County Breeding Bird Atlas. Los Angeles, California: Los Angeles Audubon Society. Print.

Dunn, J.L., and J. Alderfer (2017). Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic. Washington. D.C., USA.

Maley, J.M., and R.T. Brumfield (2013). Mitochondrial and next-generation sequence data used to infer phylogenetic relationships and species limits in the Clapper/King rail complex. The Condor 115:316-329