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OCH BLOG

Importance of Bird's Beak in the Salt Marsh

Native to local California salt marshes is the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak (Chloropyron maritimum ssp. maritimum) a small leafy plant that has purple stems, produces white flowers with yellow tips and blooms from May to October. This beautiful looking plant can grow up to 15 inches tall and has stems often resembling velvet as they are covered in small hairlike structures. Because Salt Marsh Bird's Beak grows in areas of the coastal salt marshes that are subject to only higher tidal influxes, it secretes salt and often gives the foliage of the plant a grainy look to it. The Salt Marsh Bird's Beak grows in patchy distributions among the coastal wetlands from Central California to Baja, California. As of today, Salt Marsh Bird's Beak can be found in seven salt marshes on the west coast: San Diego County at the Tijuana Estuary, the Naval Radar Receiving Facility, the Sweetwater Marsh Unit of San Diego Bay, Huntington Beach Wetlands and Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve in Orange County, the Naval Base Ventura in Ventura County, the Carpinteria Salt Marsh in Santa Barbara County and Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County.

Bird's beak in a salt marsh habitat within Newport Back Bay in Orange County, California.

Most plants are able to support their nutrient needs fully through independent production. However, Salt Marsh Bird's Beak is a hemi-parasitic halophyte, which means that it implements a parasitic strategy to gain nutrients while also producing its own while tolerating and thriving in alkaline soils. The roots of the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak plant will latch onto a host plant, and that is where the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak derives a majority of its water and nutrients. This in tangent with the creation of its own food and the excretion of salt, allows the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak plant to thrive during hot and dry seasons after most other annual plants have died. (Endangered Species Recovery Act). A few plants that Salt Marsh Bird's Beak has shown to use as a host are the local Saltgrasses (Distichlis spicata), Beard Grass (Polypogon monspeliensis), Pickleweed (Salicornia virginica), Fleshy Jaumea (Jaumea carnosa), and Sunflower (Helianthus annus). Because a large part of the Salt Marsh Bird's Beaks' survival depends on other plants' resources, its distribution is limited to where those other plants grow. This also becomes a large part of why this plant is endangered.

Bird's beak in a salt marsh habitat within Newport Back Bay in Orange County, CA.

In September of 1978, Salt Marsh Bird's Beak was listed as endangered on the Endangered Species List and has since been protected under Federal law. The most prevalent threats to Salt Marsh Bird's Beak are habitat loss, hydrological changes, recreational activities, and non-native plants. Habitat loss has had a significant impact on the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak plant because it can only grow under specific conditions and has adapted to the salt marsh. Unfortunately, over the years, salt marshes in California have decreased due to residential and commercial development in the area. The entities that are developing this land are supposed to pay for mitigation projects to preserve the area's biodiversity; however, with land availability becoming scarce, the number of California salt marshes will continue to dwindle, and with that, their native species.


Other threats to Salt Marsh Bird's Beak are hydrological changes and water pollution because this plant uses the influx of water to spread seeds in order to keep the species alive. In Ventura County, they reported that a difference in water influxes caused a decline in the species and listed it as a threat to the native populations. In certain salt marsh areas, water influxes are being controlled in order to save the nesting sites of endangered birds, such as the Ridgway's Rail (Rallus obsoletus) because if the water level rises too high, the nesting areas could be destroyed, threatening the bird. Unfortunately, when controlled too much, it has shown to endanger the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak plant's seed dispersion, which has affected the number of Salt Marsh Bird's Beak plants seen the following year.

Water pollution due to erosion from storm drain runoff has also been a massive problem for the native Salt Marsh Bird's Beak population in Upper Newport Bay. Over the years, it has shown that runoff from the nearby neighborhoods has had a significant impact on the coastal salt marsh by altering the environmental conditions that the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak Needs to thrive. Ecologists have predicted that precipitation increases will ultimately lead to more runoff into the environment, and local organizations have been tasked with developing conservation projects to help protect the ecosystem (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Non-native invasive Algerian sea lavender (left) and native California sea lavender (right).

Another considerable threat to the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak plant is invasive species to the California salt marshes. A primary invasive species found in these areas is Algerian Sea Lavender, Limonium ramosissimum. This invasive species of Sea Lavender puts other native plants such as Pickleweed and California Sea Lavender at risk because it is out-competing the native plants in the area. This becomes a problem for the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak because it relies on native plants such as Pickleweed, for survival because it is a hemiparasitic plant.


Additionally, as these non-native plants are pushing out the native species, annual grasses native to the salt marsh have begun to grow at a more aggressive rate. This is an issue for the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak plant because when it uses these grasses as a host, the grasses tend to die before the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak plant is fully able to produce its seeds. This means that once its host dies, the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak plant goes into a nutrient deficient and cannot continue seed production because a large part of the nutrients used by the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak plant for seed creation comes from its host. So, the indirect impact of non-native plants invading the California salt marsh ecosystems has become an issue for the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak species.


The protection of the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak species is crucial because it is native to the California coast. This means that once it is no longer found in the west coast salt marshes, it could be considered extinct. By protecting the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak plant, we are preserving California salt marshes' natural biodiversity.

To protect this plant on the State level, it has been placed on the California Endangered Species Act and the Native Plant Protection Act. Furthermore, on the Federal level, the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak plant has been listed as Endangered on the Endangered Species Act as well as the National Environmental Policy Act. Each of these pieces of legislation imposes strict ordinances that will keep the public from further harming this species' habitat. The Critical habitats that are specifically protected include the Carpinteria Marsh, the Santa Clara River Mouth, Ormond Beach, Point Mugu, Upper Newport Bay, San Diego Bay, Tijuana Estuary, and San Quintin Marsh. Additional efforts have been made to protect this endangered plant by limiting the amount of public foot traffic allowed on the protected lands to minimize potential habitat damage.

OC Habitat's restoration team removing the invasive Algerian sea lavender from a salt marsh site in Upper Newport Bay.

Other ways recovery activities that have been given to local environmental protection organizations include habitat monitoring and seeding efforts to ensure new generations of the Salt Marsh Bird's Beak plant. Some of these organizations local to Orange County are the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy, OC Habitats, and the California Native Plant Society.


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 OC Habitats does not and shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status, in any of its activities or operations.  OC Habitats has no religious or political affiliations.  All photos provided with permission of photographers: ©RossGriswold.2020, ©S. Chartier-Grable.2020, @BillHalladay.2018, and @DannyRivas.2018. All Rights Reserved.