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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

The "Marsh"

Until 1988, the San Joaquin Gun Club used this area for recreational duck hunting for more than 60 years. Eventually, urban sprawl swayed the California city of Irvine to not renew the permit.  A unique partnership with the Irvine Water District and the National Audubon Society (NAS) was established in 1992.  As a matter of fact, the old bunk house for the duck club members is now the “Audubon House,” an information and nature center.

Here the *Sea and Sage Chapter of the NAS now runs the facility helping to promote and educate the public about the flora and fauna of the region and the conservation measures underway to guarantee its future. 

Turning off the entrance road that parallels San Diego Creek takes you into the parking area; one can steer to the right and travel down to Pond E or veer left and stop at the Nature Center: posted outside the door is a list of current avian sightings.  This is a good place to start and familiarize yourself with the area. 

I generally arrive at sun-up to capture any feeding water birds wading in the pond. The car acts as a blind shortening the distance without disturbing the birds. 

American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana)

Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus)

Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri)

Also, it increases my odds of finding some nocturnal critters such as a Raccoon (Procyon lotor) or bobcat.

The level of water regulates the volume of exposed mud – this reflects the amount of waterfowl and shorebirds in the area.  Today some Long-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus scolopaceus) dropped in for a meal.

Seasonality dictates the species numbers and variety; however a surprise visit may happen any month of the year.   

The dabbling ducks include all of the teals, shoveler, pintail, gadwall, wigeon and mallard.  The common assortment of sandpipers include western, least, spotted, both yellowlegs, plus killdeer, avocet, and stilts.  There is the occasional dunlin, pectoral, solitary, and stilt sandpipers, phalarope, and ibis.

Cinnamon Teal (Spatula cyanoptera)

Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors)

Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca)

Northern Shoveler (Spatula clpteata)

Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)

Gadwall (Mareca strepera)

Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla)

Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)

American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana)

Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus)

White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi)

Dikes (… titled as ‘Trails.’) divide each pond and allow maintenance vehicles access to this, “300-acre water filter cleverly disguised as a nature preserve.”  I clamber up to the Fledgling Loop Trail that separates the next group of Ponds D and C to my right from Ponds B and A to the left.  B and A have the least activity where Night-herons hide among the reeds along the water’s edge.  At times coots (Fulica americana), mallards (Anas platyrhynchus), or an egret or two might appear. 

The berm dividing Ponds E and D is a good vantage point for flight pix with birds crossing to either pond.  Pond D has good sightings for shorebirds and ibis.

Pond C is host to all of the aforementioned ducks, plenty of stilts, avocets, and at times, sweeping flocks of shorebirds. 

Least Sandpipers

Along with diving ducks such as the ruddy (Oxyura jamaicensis), bufflehead, Horned and Eared grebes (Podiceps auritus and P. nigricollis).

This is an ideal location to capture all of these birds as they fly-in or take-off.  Many preen and parade about in an attempt to woo a mate.  During the winter season, the vegetation running down the slopes between D and C can be riddled with a diverse group of sparrows such as song, white-crown, Lincoln’s, savannah, golden-crowned, vesper and more!  Joining the co-op are pipit (Anthus pratensis) and junco along with the ever-present House finch.

I reverse to continue along the Loop trail to reach the much larger Pond 1. In its center an island has become the preferred roosting site for hundreds of cormorants and geese with assorted, gulls, terns, wintering pelicans, and summer skimmers.

Black Skimmer (Rhyncops niger)

  Year round the calls of Western and Clark’s grebes (Aechmophorus clarkii) ring out.

In spring, hidden under the cover of morning fog, the Helldiver’s [Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)] haunting calls resonate among the reeds.

Every morning, a regular procession of cormorants and Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) depart for distant feeding grounds.   

Morning air warms with the rising sun creating updrafts that the American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) exploit with their eight-foot wings. 

I generally journey back towards the backside of Pond C to reach a boardwalk cutting through the forest.  It is behind the walled enclosure housing the mechanics that runs this water recycling plant.  Midway reveals a canal where egrets and herons hunt in the shadows.  Wood ducks find solace in these waters, and at times, a pair of Hooded mergansers can be found.  Passerines gravitate to this leafy preserve.  Orange-crowned Warblers are resident as are yellowthroats bounding about in the more exposed areas.  Spring and fall warblers include Black-throated-gray and Townsend’s joined by grosbeaks, tanager, gnatcatcher, and oriole, to name a few.  Throughout the area other breeding tenants included Bewick’s wren, bushtit, Anna’s and Allen’s hummingbirds, both towhees and phoebe.

Metal posts are dispersed along the ponds, each supporting a sky-blue nest box; its occupants? Glistening blue-green tree swallows. 

Other swallows and swifts transect the blue:

Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)

Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx seripennis)

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

Violet-green Swallow (Tachycineta thalassina)

Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)

Vaux's Swift (Chaetura vauxi)

White-throated Swift (Aeronautes saxatalis)

Glittering chevrons form across the water’s surface as birds scoop up water on the wing.

Three osprey platforms tower over the landscape. 

Many kinds of raptors have been recorded.  The usual suspects include Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s (Accipiter cooperii)...

...Red-tailed (Buteo jmaicensis), this image is of an immature bird...

and Red-shouldered (Buteo lineatus) Hawks,

and the falcons include Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) and...

...the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius),

plus the open fields host White-tailed kite and harrier.

The tree-lined grounds of the Nature Center has several large sycamores, many adorned with mistletoe; its berries hosting phainopepla and Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). When the brilliant red toyon berries ripen, hundreds of waxwings gather for a feast. 

Just as birds set off for feeding grounds in the morning, they now return to roost for the night.  **Crows take front stage; there are moments it seems the horizon has opened up, releasing a continuous flow of winged silhouettes across the sky/against the setting sun.  


Location:  San Joaquin Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary – Irvine, California USA    Date:  2000 - present   


**I am still trying to get that shot; it was a memorable experience - next time I will bring my camera. Also, I have so many more images to add so there will be a continous flow of fresh encounters.

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