Drop Your Books and Take a Hike! Nature Within Walking Distance
First is UC Irvine’s own Aldrich Park. Now I know what you’re thinking: “I walk through that every day on my way to class!” What you may not know is that the park supports a great amount of wildlife, including birds like bushtits, song sparrows, American robins and brilliant western bluebirds.
The sycamores in the park often attract western tiger-swallowtails, which are gorgeous, large, yellow and black-striped butterflies. Another species you can find in Aldrich if you happen to be on campus around dusk is roosting great-horned owls.
In my experience, I have found this species roosts in the mix of pine and eucalyptus trees on the side of the park closest to Humanities Hall. They tend to stay very close to the tree trunk and are often near the top of the tree, but their booming “ho-ho-hoo hoo hoo” call can be heard starting as early as October as they form breeding pairs.
Aldrich has the advantage of being by far the closest patch of green to campus, and with its grassy lawns and abundance of benches it can be a perfect retreat for the study-weary student.
If you walk toward University High School you will find Mason Park, a county park that has the more common family-oriented area, as well as a lesser known “wild side” across campus from the official park. In the main park, there are gazebos to sit in, paved paths to wander around on and even a man-made pond that attracts a plethora of ducks.
In the morning, this park is a great local spot to see warblers, small brightly colored songbirds that generally flock together up in the trees, eating mostly insects. With a pair of binoculars you can see gorgeous birds like Townsend’s warblers, yellow warblers and the adorable yarmulke-marked Wilson’s warblers.
Across from the main park is what birders often refer to as Mason’s wild side. This is a stretch of path that extends alongside University Drive as it reaches toward the 5 freeway, where it eventually turns into Jeffrey.
This area is much less manicured than the park side, but since it’s a paved path, it can be walked or biked comfortably. It is home to many native species of plants and animals; I have often encountered coyotes on my morning walks here. Orioles nest in the palms, and in the winter, cedar waxwings can be found gorging on the parasitic mistletoe berries found growing on sycamore trees.
If you want to get away from the paved trails, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary is an ideal place. A very short walk or bike ride away, the park can be entered from Campus Dr., just past where it intersects University. This place is a veritable gold mine of wildlife. The ponds are host to water species like American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants, great blue herons and a flotilla of duck species during the winter.
The riparian area hosts natives like marsh wrens and yellow-breasted chats, as well as species migrating through, depending on the season. A resident family of bobcats has delighted visitors lucky enough to catch a glimpse.
Keep in mind that bikes are not allowed on the trails, so it’s probably best to just walk over. When it’s open, the Audubon House is a great place to pop in and visit. They have a gift shop, a library of books on wildlife and are currently in the process of creating an interpretive center. The marsh closes to the public at dusk to protect the wildlife.
Upper Newport Bay is just a couple minutes down University Drive, and has a wonderful trail to walk, run, or bike along the estuary. This area is a jewel for wildlife; thousands of shorebirds migrate through in the summer and masses of ducks fly in for the winter. Inside the bay’s waters, young sharks feed and grow until they’re large enough to venture into the ocean, and light-footed clapper rails build their floating nests in the chord grass.
At dusk during the summer, various species, including Mexican free-tailed and big brown bats, can be seen leaving their roost under the Jamboree overpass to feed on mosquitoes and other insects over the water. Creepy as it may sound, these guys provide us a great service, and it’s thrilling to see them as they fly out into the night.
Hopefully as your midterms roll around, you’ll keep these great places in mind as a way to escape and relieve a little of the inevitable stress exams create.