A family of light-footed clapper rails and their three chicks wander around the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. It is the first documented sighted of light-footed clapper rail chicks in Bolsa Chica in decades. (Steve Smith, HB Independent / May 12, 2014)

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Local bird photographer Steve Smith walked around the southern entrance of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, hoping to get another glimpse of the elusive light-footed clapper rail.

With a super telephoto lens attached to his camera, Smith wasn't just looking for the endangered bird. He was trying to find its chicks.

Birders and local ecologists are relishing recent news of the first recorded sighting of light-footed clapper rail chicks in the Bolsa Chica wetlands in decades, according to officials.

"We've been hoping for many years that clapper rails would breed here," said Kelly O'Reilly, reserve manager for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife at Bolsa Chica. "I'm glad that they are nesting over there, and it's neat that they're close to where photographers can have an opportunity to take pictures of them."

Smith, 67, of Sunset Beach, saw a pair of clapper rails mating in the area in late March and snapped the first pictures of the three chicks on May 2.

Avid birder Vic Leipzig, a former Huntington Beach mayor, was with Smith when he saw the clapper rails mating.

"It's a big day in history," Smith said. "It's an endangered species. You want to see them reproduce and survive."

Richard Zembal, a former biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who specialized in light-footed clapper rails, said he was excited to hear about the birds breeding in Bolsa Chica. He spent 20 years with the federal agency helping the endangered species recover.

Though he now works at the Orange County Water District as its director of natural resources, Zembal has continued to help conduct statewide surveys to monitor the population.

Light-footed clapper rails are about 14 inches long and have brown feathers, long legs and an orange beak. On the other hand, the chicks have fuzzy, black plumage.

Being no bigger than a hen makes the clapper rails extremely difficult to spot.

"They're a secretive denizen of the lower marsh shadows," Zembal said.

He explained that the birds venture outside of the pickleweed and cordgrass nest occasionally, but tend to stay undercover because of the numerous predators — hawks, ravens, raccoons and possums — looking to feed on them.

In 2013, 525 pairs of light-footed clapper rails were recorded in the state, of which 191 pairs were in the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve, Zembal said. However, only one pair of clapper rails and a male seeking a mate were identified in Bolsa Chica that year.

Because light-footed clapper rails do not tend to fly very far, Zembal believes the birds found at Bolsa Chica came from the Seal Beach National Wildlife Reserve.

Though a family of light-footed clapper rails is starting a new life at Bolsa Chica, restoration of the wetlands is far from complete. Zembal said it takes years for the ecosystem to develop.

"Salt marsh vegetation just takes a long time to come online and mature and get to the point where it will support that species of clapper rail," he said. "But this is a great sign. It's more of a sign of a couple of clever pairs of clapper rails who were cautious about [Pacific Coast Highway], and, knock on wood, I hope they teach their kids that."