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San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

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San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary
Easy Access to Exceptional Birding in Orange County, California
by Catherine Waters

In July 2001, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, rare in southern California, was heard and seen during a monthly bird census at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine, California, by a monitoring group from Sea and Sage Audubon Society. The 264th species recorded so far at the sanctuary, the cuckoo thrilled local birders and raised hopes that the bird may have been the first, but only the first: potential cuckoo breeding habitat is maturing with each passing year in this jewel of an urban enclave. Amid rapid urban expansion and suburban development in Orange County, the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (SJWS) and the cuckoo exemplify what can go right. Owned and managed by the Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD), governed by the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary Board, and with information offices, avian research projects, and educational programs funded and staffed by Sea and Sage Audubon, SJWS illustrates how cooperative effort can further common goals.

Some years ago, my husband, Robert, and I puzzled over shorebirds among the weakly vegetated, restricted-access containment ponds of what we then called “the marsh.” Now, while we're still puzzled by shorebirds, the entire landscape has been opened and altered. Once named almost as a joke, “the marsh” has become one of our favorite birding locations, whether for the day or for an hour. Our weekend commute brings us within minutes of the SJWS each Friday and Sunday, and it seems a shame not to drop by “for a few minutes” (which may mean hours) to see what, if anything, is happening. The birds change with the season; there is always something of interest, something that amply rewards us for the short detour from the freeway. What has pleased us over the past years has been as odd as a nearly fearless Ruff, as unusual as a wayward pair of Orchard Orioles, as simple as a Great Blue Heron dining on a bull frog, or as beautiful as the choreography of a squadron of Black Skimmers. On a visit just before I wrote this, it was the unexpected pleasure of a small flock of White Pelicans lit by a July sunset.

The area historically known as the San Joaquin Marsh consists of two separately managed areas bisected by Campus Drive within the city limits of Irvine, approximately five miles east of the Pacific Ocean. The section to the southeast of Campus Drive is today's San Joaquin Freshwater Marsh Reserve, part of the University of California, managed by the University to enhance research and programs at their Irvine Campus. Public access to this area requires a permit obtained through the university: see the preserve's web site at http://nrs.ucop.edu/reserves/sjfm.html 
North of Campus Drive in this former freshwater marsh lies the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, an up-and-coming birding hotspot unparalleled for its central location and accessible facilities. Adjacent to a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant that serves the surrounding community, this oasis has been set aside by the Irvine Ranch Water District for indigenous, endemic, and migratory birds and other wildlife. In addition to its role as wildlife habitat, SJWS provides and maintains an emergency water supply for the city. Access to the area is open to the public daily for the quiet enjoyment of nature from dawn to dusk.

More than 300 acres in size, SJWS has more than ten miles of trails ranging from elevated, wide, packed dirt trails around ponds to lower, narrower trails as one moves north from the entrance trails. The site of two national Big Sit championships (1995 and 1996, by Trude Hurd and John Schmitt), the sanctuary is a sustainable urban landscape comprising riparian areas, freshwater holding ponds, mild slopes, and seasonal meadows/marshes on the Pacific Flyway. 

In a sense, birding at this location dates back at least to the sanctuary's humble beginnings as the 20-Ranch Club — one of the many private duck hunting clubs that dotted the marshy areas of Orange County beginning in the late 1800s. Historical descriptions of the avifauna of this area paint an enlightening portrait of what has nearly disappeared from this area since the 19th and then the 20th centuries passed. As the suburbs expanded, settlements became towns and then cities; the fresh and saltwater marshes of the area became rare, and so did the old hunting clubs. By the early 1960s, only two of these clubs remained: the 20-Ranch and the Old San Joaquin (which is now a golf course). In the mid-1980s, as the Irvine area population increased and the city began filling in, hunting ceased, and the former duck hunting clubs and water treatment settlement ponds adjacent to the banks of San Diego Creek once again became a sanctuary for migratory waterfowl.

Cooperative Vision The IRWD and the SJWS Board have made a commitment to maintain this area as a true wildlife sanctuary and haven for the enjoyment of nature within an urban area. They have enhanced an area that is five minutes from a major airport, a major university, and a major freeway. By keeping entrances to the Sanctuary trails limited to Riparian View Drive to minimize disturbance of wildlife, the IRWD and SJWS Board have ensured generations of current and future Orange County residents (mammalian as well as avian, reptilian, amphibian, and invertebrate) will have this little gem as a haven. No vehicles, pets, bicycle riding, hunting, camping, or fishing are allowed within the Sanctuary boundaries. What is allowed is unequaled opportunity to watch four season's worth of Orange County natural history quietly unfolding. With each passing season, the Sanctuary attracts not only more interest from humans, but more interest from the birds.

Within the last five years, the IRWD has completed the first phases of an ambitious project to alter the settling and holding ponds of the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary into naturalistic bodies of water surrounded by the native species (and their cultivars) of trees, shrubs, subshrubs, perennials, grasses, and annuals that one would expect to find in a similar natural environment. The other areas of the Sanctuary echo native plant materials that one might find in the dry coastal plains and low foothills of Orange County. The Sanctuary and its denizens are sheltered from traffic, local housing developments, and the surrounding business parks by berms, fencing, and landscaping designed to maintain separation while inviting the interest of a passer-by. SJWS offers birdwatching opportunities that will satisfy birders of all skill levels or degrees of physical mobility. Gulls and shorebird, passerines, waterfowl, Neo-tropical migrants, diurnal and nocturnal raptors, southern California specialties, waders, endemic and indigenous breeding species, and wintering birds have been found along the planted banks, in trees, sheltered in the thickets, flying overhead, feeding on mud flats, floating in ponds, or taking refuge on islands.
Birding SJWS

As one enters the sanctuary from Michelson Avenue onto Riparian View, San Diego Creek is to the left. Parking is normally available on the road, which is currently under construction, and in the parking lot at Tree Hill. Depending on season, the creek attracts a range of water and riparian birds, including diving and dabbling ducks, terns including Least, skulking Black-crowned Night-Herons, and feeding Great and Snowy Egrets. Across the road from the creek, and again depending on season, a row of Eucalyptus trees and power lines can host Cassin's and Western Kingbirds, Northern and Hooded Orioles, and warblers. Farther south along Riparian View is the entrance to the Audubon House/Duck Club gravel parking lot and the main access points for the sanctuary. On opposite sides of the parking lot are the entry points to begin touring the Sanctuary's extensive trail system.

Beginning with the parking lot itself, excellent birding opportunities can be had within a few steps of your car. The landscaped parking lot can feature, among other things, Anna's, Allen's, Costa's, and Black-chinned hummingbirds. Walking to the west through the parking area takes you past the shaded picnic area (with tables and benches) and between two buildings (The Duck Club and the public restroom facilities), through a small grassy meadow area (look for American Pipits), and up a gradual incline to Pond 1, where you can choose between two trails. Or you one can go up a slightly steeper slope from Audubon house to the top of the gravel driveway and begin the trail system at Pond E by walking north. Within the sanctuary, wide, elevated trails around the ponds provide excellent water views and wide vistas of the entire area. Trails march or wend through and near mature and immature willow stands, past newly planted pond banks, along sycamore and alder planted shorelines, and the cultivars and species of maturing coastal sage scrub, which provide habitat and fodder for birds. Even a short stroll can garner a birder Song and Savannah Sparrows, Marsh and House Wrens, American and Lesser Goldfinches, Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teals, Least and American Bitterns, and Western and Clark's Grebes. The farther into the sanctuary's interior one walks, the more mature the vegetation gets, increasing the odds of finding birds such as Yellow-breasted Chat, orioles, and migratory western warblers in season. For those for whom an outing is not complete without raptors, the SJWS checklist notes thirteen species seen with varying regularity and another six on the list of “less frequently seen birds.”  Peregrine Falcon have nested on an office building in the vicinity.

SJWS was planned with accessibility in mind. In the parking area, the three public buildings in the preserve — restrooms, the Duck Club, and Audubon House — are all wheelchair and handicapped-accessible, with ramps and hand rails. The trail moving south from the parking area is level, firmly packed dirt. The ascent to the levee is gradual from that point, and the wide trails forming the perimeter and divisions that overlook ponds 1-5 are packed dirt topped with gravel, passable by modern wheelchairs in all but the wettest of weather. The trail along ponds l, 3, and 4 have benches for resting and viewing, with more are being installed. There are portable restroom facilities located on the Sanctuary trail system, including one that is wheelchair-accessible. Inquire at Audubon House for the exact locations of the restrooms and benches. All but the narrowest (and lowest) of trails in the interior of the Sanctuary are easily used by a wheelchair birder, although the sanctuary is large enough so that a companion or a cell phone is recommended.

By agreement, Sea and Sage Audubon Society provides the Sanctuary with natural history information, a bookstore, equipment loans, a small museum/library, educational opportunities, and an office staff. The front desk at Audubon House is staffed every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. These people are volunteers working four-hour morning and afternoon shifts; you can help them out by timing your visit to avoid shift changes. Light snacks are available at Audubon House. There is no first aid available on site and at present no public telephone; the sanctuary office phone number is (949) 261-7963. Sea and Sage Audubo's website, www.seaandsageaudubon.org, has complete directions, maps, and information on the Sanctuary. A copy of the checklist and list of recently reported birds are posted outside the door of Audubon House. During office hours, trail maps, a copy of the Sanctuary checklist, and printed information on other birding locations in Orange County are available in the office.

The climate is Mediterranean, quite mild year round with a short rainy season dropping, on average, twelve inches of rain per year from November through March. Mornings are generally windless and overcast, with the pall burning off by 10 a.m. in spring and summer. Afternoons are generally sunny and breezy; the wind can really kick up as the day grows late. Hotels and a few campgrounds, RV parks, and budget motels are within easy driving distance. 

SJWS is located less than five minutes from the Jamboree exit of the 405 Freeway and Orange County's John Wayne International Airport. To reach the sanctuary, exit the 405 Freeway at Jamboree and turn west. At the first signal, Michelson, turn left. At the second signal, Riparian View, turn right. Follow the road one-third of a mile to the Audubon House/Duck Club complex. Three private homes that house IRWD emergency personnel and their families are also located in this complex; please respect and preserve their privacy.

This article was written for the September 2001 issue of "Winging It,"  a publication of the American Birding Association.  It is posted here on the webpage with the permission of both the author, Catherine Waters, and the editor of "Winging It,"  Matthew Pelikan.

Sea & Sage Audubon Society
PO Box 5447 • Irvine, CA 92616 • 949-261-7963