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A Brief Guide to Orange County's Coastal Nature Reserves

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Ridgway's rail at Bolsa Chica | Photo: Tom Benson/Flickr/Creative Commons License
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This guide is part of KCET's California Coastal Trail project, which looks at the state's massive undertaking to build a trail over 1,000 miles in length along its whole coastline.

Orange County isn't all upscale shopping, gated communities, and the 405. It's also got quite a bit of wild nature still left within the county lines.

Even the coast, long feverishly desired by developers, hasn't been completely converted into profitable industries. From Huntington Beach to Anaheim Bay handful of wetlands still thrive, hinting at the biological richness that once characterized the interface of land and ocean along the Pacific coast.

There you can add rare birds to your life list, volunteer to give endangered species a little bit of privacy, and imagine a Southern California coast that once was.

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Newport Bay

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Upper Newport Bay | Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

Known to locals as the "Back Bay," Upper Newport Bay provides both wildlife and its human fans one of Southern California's largest coastal wetlands to enjoy. A freshwater wetland just west of the UC Irvine campus, Upper Newport Bay is a vital stop for migratory birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway.

A number of agencies manage different sections of land in Upper Newport Bay. California's Department of Fish and Wildlife protected 752 acres of the Back Bay's wetlands as the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve in 1975, with Orange County Parks picking up 150 acres of the bluffs west of the bay in 1985 and protecting it as the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve.

Just upstream, just across San Diego Creek from the UC Irvine Campus, the University of California has restored 202 acres of degraded wetland in the creek's flood plain. Once used as farmland and a hunting range, UC Irvine now manages the land as the San Joaquin Marsh Reserve, part of UC's statewide Natural Reserve System. Adjacent to the San Joaquin Marsh Reserve on the upstream side, there's another 300 acres of wetland rebuilt by the Irvine Ranch Water District. Now managed as the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, these wetlands help purify San Diego Creek's water while providing even more habitat for birds and other wetland wildlife.

With so many agencies operating cheek by jowl the rules for access to different sections might be a little confusing. The OC Parks' Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve and Irvine Ranch Water District's San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary are generally open for unscheduled public visits. Access to UC Irvine's San Joaquin Marsh Reserve is usually reserved for research and study purposes, though scheduled public tours are available, and you can always watch the goings-on from a public trail along San Diego Creek. Meanwhile, the Department of Fish and Wildlife may require you show a state lands pass if you plan to visit the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve.

Is all that too confusing? Check out the Newport Bay Conservancy, a non-profit group that helps interpret the Bay's ecosystems -- and its confusing web of management agencies -- for the visiting public.

Least Tern Natural Area

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Least tern chick feeling maybe a little too secure | Photo: nebirdsplus/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

You almost certainly won't get to enter one of Orange County's smallest Nature Preserves, though careful visitors are more than welcome to peer in from outside the fence. The Least Tern Natural Area, about 13 fenced-off acres provide the federally endangered little birds with a place to nest more safely.

Least terns used to range up and down the California coast, breeding in large numbers wherever there were suitable stretches of sandy beach where they could scoop out their shallow nests. After the young hatched out, they'd stay in the area while their parents fed them on small fish scooped out of the nearby ocean. Modern-day beach goers and their off-leash dogs have caused a lot of damage to least tern nesting habitat, sometimes injuring the birds and their eggs, other times causing the birds to use up energy in flight that could have been used protecting and feeding their young.

Since being fenced off, the stretch of Huntington State Beach just north of the mouth of the Santa Ana River has become one of the OC's most successful least tern breeding colonies. If you'd like to help keep it that way, the local Audubon chapter is always looking for volunteer docents to help persuade beachgoers of the importance of protecting the terns.

Bolsa Chica

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Sunset at Bolsa Chica | Photo: C. Stout/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

About seven miles up the Pacific Coast Highway from the Least Tern Natural Area, the Bolsa Chica wetlands have been a flashpoint for controversy over development. Subjected to human uses from duck hunting to oil and gas extraction, the Bolsa Chica wetlands eventually had their ecological merit recognized by the State of California.

In 1973, the California Department of Fish and Game (as it was known at the time) obtained 300 acres of Bolsa Chica adjacent to Highway 1, and declared the land the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in 1979. Another 880 acres of the 1,300-acre wetland complex were bought by Fish and Game in 1997, and then another 118 acres of contested land on surrounding uplands known as the "lower bench" were added in 2005 after a protracted series of hearings and lawsuits involving developers, environmental activists, and the California Coastal Commission.

Now, the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is one of the most popular such reserves in Southern California, with about 30,000 visitors a year. The wetlands, with a new tidal connection to the ocean water opened in 2006, includes habitat ranging from tidal basin eelgrass beds (sometimes visited by sharks) to coastal dunes and islands. Four miles of trails allow visitors to watch wildlife from a variety of vantage points. That watchable wildlife includes more than 200 documented bird species, among them the endangered Ridgway's rail.

Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge

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Belding's savannah sparrow | Photo: Tom Benson/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

This 911-acre marsh complex isn't easy to visit on the spur of the moment. Enclosed within the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge is open to the public only during monthly guided tours, generally held the last Saturday of each month. You can get more information on those tours by calling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Seal Beach NWR visitor center at (562) 598-1024.

When you do visit, you have a chance of seeing some of Southern California's most endangered coastal birds, including, if you're lucky, the shy and secretive light-footed Ridgway's rail. This endangered species generally prefers to hide in stands of saltmarsh vegetation such as cordgrass or pickleweed, though if your visit coincides with an especially high tide (a "rail tide" in birders' parlance) the high water may flush a few rails out to where you can see them.

The Refuge is also home to endangered least terns and Belding's savannah sparrows, a subspecies of the more widespread savannah sparrow that's listed as Endangered under the California Endangered Species Act.

Seal Beach NWR is also visited on occasion by Eastern Pacific green sea turtles, which cruise into the tidal channels from Anaheim Bay.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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