Migrating Birds to Find Respite in UCI Marsh

Times Staff Writer

From the ground, it appears as a green oasis amid brown and black urban growth. From the air, it appears as a safe landing and feeding spot for ducks and other birds migrating south for winter.

But this fall, when waterfowl swoop down to land at the San Joaquin Freshwater Marsh Preserve in Irvine, they are finding that most of the marsh has dried up. In raucous voices, the birds call out their disappointment, circle the arid marsh and fly on.

Like tired motorists seeking a motel, the migrating birds wearily head south again, in search of the marshlands that were plentiful in Southern California 100 years ago but have now all but disappeared.


Now, the University of California, Irvine, which owns and maintains the 202-acre San Joaquin Marsh, is moving to help the birds. The university last week won permission from the California Coastal Commission to dredge out vegetation that is choking 16 acres of the preserve.

“We’re going to get in there and clear out the cattails and other things that have overgrown the marsh,” said William L. Bretz, a UCI staff member who has the title of “land steward” for the preserve.

“What we plan to do . . . is make space for eight acres of open water and eight acres of desirable vegetation for the wildlife. It would then become a stopover spot for the migrating birds. It would be a place where they could find food and rest and get energy for more travel.”

The Coastal Commission’s 11-0 approval last week followed a favorable staff recommendation. “There used to be a pond there and a series of wetlands,” said Wayne Woodroof, assistant director for the Long Beach district of the Coastal Commission. “We think it’s a good proposal.”

A creek that parallels University Drive is on the perimeter of the nature preserve. That water source provides a small-scale landing and feeding place. A few wild ducks and other birds, including a glistening white egret, swam nervously in the creek on a recent day. The stream is next to hiking and bike trails, however, and many birds quickly flew off when people approached.

Greater Sense of Safety

If water were restored inside the fenced-off nature preserve, the birds would have a greater sense of safety, environmentalists said. They also said that hundreds more ducks could find refuge in a renovated marsh because the fenced preserve is open only to faculty and students doing research there.


The marsh preserve is part of a statewide network of UC land designated to be kept in its natural state forever. The overall network is called the UC Natural Lands and Water Reserves System.

At UCI, the land is usually called “the marsh” or the “ecological preserve.” Bretz noted that the acreage has many values to the university.

“Our students and faculty use the marsh for classes,” Bretz said. He added that social ecology students find the marsh useful as a living laboratory for their studies. The land is also a welcome greenbelt for the campus, he noted, “a very restful place that’s quite a relief from the din and busy activities all around it.”

Bretz said the cost of the restoration of the wetlands is being paid by a $19,900 grant from the state Department of Fish and Game, which oversees other nearby wetlands at Upper Newport Bay and Bolsa Chica.

“That department is very interested in helping ensure that this is a secure place for ducks,” he said.

The site planned for restoration is directly opposite the intersection of California Road and University Drive. The 16 acres, ringed by a levee beloved by joggers and hikers, are a tangle of heavy cattail growth and a few scrub trees. No water is visible in any of the bowl-shaped expanse.


Bretz said the university plans to rush the excavation work so that late-migrating birds can use the restored pond. Small islands will also be built in the pond for nesting.

“This is a very important area,” Bretz said. “What we’re trying to preserve is a remnant of what once was an extensive freshwater marsh system in Orange County. It would be hard to find anyone alive now who remembers the original marsh systems that covered this land, because by 1920 almost all had been drained for agriculture.

“This is something that is not only important to the wildlife, it’s important to save this for our children.”