Must-see phenomenon

by Jenny Rigby

It’s a December phenomenon all of us should experience – watching up to 35,000 birds gather at Upper Newport Bay.

The bay is one of Southern California’s largest estuaries. In terms of biological productivity, it rivals a rainforest. The bay’s richness isn’t lost on the birds.

Traveling south from Alaska and western Canada, they rest and refuel here during long migrations. Places like Upper Newport Bay are critical habitat, like an inn along a highway.

Here, seawater mixes with fresh water, creating a dynamic estuary where tidal flow changes every six hours, either exposing or covering mudflats, fields of cordgrass and islands. Shorebirds, wading birds and waterfowl take advantage of the bay’s mudflats and salt marshes. There, they pluck, slurp or grab a meal, depending on their bill. Its shape and size determine where a bird feeds at the bay diner.

There are two easy ways to cycle from Irvine to the bay – via the Mountains to Sea Trail or San Diego Creek Trail. If you drive, you can park at the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center.

Jenny Rigby is an award-winning interpretive nature planner, teacher and writer.


Upper Newport Bay Bird Life

SHALLOW WATER - Snowy egrets, great egrets and great blue herons (shown here) are year-round residents. They typically stand motionless in shallow water, far from the shorebird crowds. They use their bills to defend their territory. They also use them to nab prey – fish and crabs in the water, and even frogs and rodents on land.
MUDFLATS - Whimbrels, marbled godwits and long-billed curlews (shown here) forage on exposed mudflats. Each species tolerates the others because they’re going after different food sources. Some feed at the surface. Others probe the mud at varying depths, searching for worms and other animals.
DEEPER WATER - The black skimmer’s long wings with stark black-and-white plumage give it unique grace as it forages in flight, feeding by flying low, using its lower bill to plow the water and catch fish.