Walks on the Wild Side at El Dorado Nature Center

Somewhat eccentric, as befits a wildlife refuge smack in the middle of "Iowa by the Sea," the El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach is an oasis surrounded by suburbia, freeways and the San Gabriel River.

Its almost 85 acres contain two lakes, a stream, three miles of trails, an eclectic mix of plants from around the world, plenty of birds and animals and a small museum.

What you see after passing through the refuge gates makes you feel a long way from city center although, unfortunately, you never quite get away from the sound of traffic. Yet, out by the reedy South Lake frequented by coots, ducks and herons, you can almost forget that the San Gabriel River Freeway is just out of sight.

Today and Sunday, the Nature Center will host a snake, turtle and amphibian show from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and next month the refuge will celebrate its 20th birthday.

"One of the things we're trying to do in the birthday celebration is to pull together the history of the place," Mary Blackburn, Nature Center program director, said.

'Municipal Weed Patch'

In the mid-1960s, before its development, the Nature Center site was known as "the Municipal Weed Patch." The land had been part of the San Gabriel River's flood plain, then was farmed as bean fields after the river was channelized. The Nature Center is part of El Dorado Park, one of the country's largest city parks with more than 700 acres.

The wildlife refuge's hills were built with dirt displaced by the San Gabriel River Freeway. The center headquarters, which contains the museum, sits on an island reached by bridges. Walk the refuge trails today and you go from Northern Wisconsin to Australia and Africa because of the strange mix of plants, Blackburn said.

More than 1 million people have visited the Nature Center, Blackburn said. On the average weekend, about 500 drop by to hike and relax. About 1,000 people, including 75 to 100 who'll be briefly acknowledged for their help over the years, are expected at the birthday celebration.

Blackburn runs the Nature Center's many programs, which include elementary school tours, church and Scout meetings and classes for young children, families and adults. Concerts and poetry readings are also scheduled for the summer.

When children first visit the Nature Center, Blackburn said, "we find a lot of times that this is (their) first experience with something other than concrete. What we want to do is spark their awareness that there are critters out there--the interdependence of all living things."

Through the Nature Center's example, Blackburn says, she wants to teach children that "they can create wildlife habitat where there wasn't wildlife habitat before. And that's real important as we eat up the land."

The birthday celebration, scheduled May 13 from noon to 4 p.m., will include tours, live-animal exhibits, natural-history and memorabilia displays, the National Forest Service's "Woodsy the Owl" character, a brief ceremony, harp music and a cake cutting. Also on May 13, a bird walk will be led by Audubon Society members at 8 a.m. Admission is free, but parking costs $3. (On weekdays, parking is $2.)

Blackburn is encouraging people to hunt up old photos and write down their memories of the Nature Center. The results will be bound into a "People's History Book" by Pia Pizzo, a Long Beach artist who specializes in tactile books. Children have made drawings for the book, while many adults have recorded favorite memories of watching foxes run and waterfowl at play. One longtime visitor wrote of finding "peace, tranquillity and time to read John Muir" on early 1970s visits to the refuge.

Nature Center designer Philip E. Peterson, a naturalist who will be honored at the birthday celebration, "looked for shrubs and trees that would produce berries and fruits for animals," Blackburn said. "They were looking for habitat more than for a plant community. There are very few cohesive plant communities" in the refuge.

The animals don't complain, though. The Nature Center (where no hunting or fishing is allowed) is home to red foxes, gray foxes, long-tailed weasels, pocket gophers, field mice, opossums, skunks, wild house cats, raccoons and snakes (but "no rattlers," Blackburn said). Numerous water turtles--red-eared sliders, snapping and soft-shelled--inhabit the lakes, along with bass, bluegill and mosquito fish. Many of the animals were imported to the Nature Center; others came on their own.

Facility and resource manager M. W. (Bill) O'Connell, the park naturalist, estimates that more than 120 species of birds pass through the Nature Center each year, some of them "rarities and odds and ends."

"We had people coming from as far as Northern California to see this one (blue-winged) warbler that was here last fall," Blackburn said. A local chapter of the Audubon Society meets regularly at the Nature Center.

The museum contains a small, permanent natural-history display put together with the help of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Also in the museum is a small gallery that features changing exhibits of art and photography. From May 9 to July 8, the gallery will exhibit the museum's memorabilia.

The center's trails are open every day except Monday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the museum opens at 10 a.m. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the center is open Mondays as well. The center is at 7550 E. Spring St., Long Beach.

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