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San Joaquin Marsh: A Wetland Paradise in Our Backyard is Irvine’s Treasure


Double Crested Cormorant

From my stone bench on the pond-encircling sandy path, I can hear the guttural grunts of the cormorants. I strain my eyes toward the scrub-covered island in the pond’s center. White bundles waddle this way and that and occasionally slide into the still waters. These are the pelicans nesting on the island.

Occasionally, the long brown neck of a friendly cormorant stretches above the masses of snowy pelican plumage. I can make out the pelicans’ lazy preening motions. They use their long, voluminous yellow beaks to spread body oils over the feathers of their wings. Are they preparing to lift their 15-pound bodies into the sky? Or are they planning to sail in formation, hunting for fish?

A flock of tall slim black and white stilts land in the water near the cormorants and pelicans. The three species peacefully and tolerantly share the tiny island. For now, they are enjoying the sunny morning on the island as I watch from my bench.

Black Necked Stilt

The San Joaquin Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary consists of seven ponds, wide sand covered paths around the ponds and the banks of the San Diego Creek Channel between Michelson Drive and Campus Road in Irvine.

The San Diego Creek is 16 miles long. It drains rain water from the streets of Laguna Woods, Lake Forest, Irvine, Tustin and Costa Mesa. The creek passes next to the San Joaquin Marsh ponds and empties into Upper Newport Bay. Before spilling the street drainage into the bay and the ocean, the creek water is pumped through five of the San Joaquin Marsh ponds, one after the other.

These ponds contain cleansing bacteria that extract nitrates that otherwise would cause dangerous algae blooms in the bay and ocean. The resulting crystal clean water is channeled back into the creek and then into Newport Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

The Irvine Ranch Water District owns and operates the marsh. Aside from cleansing the Orange County urban street drainage so that it is fit for Newport Bay, the marsh provides sanctuary for avian wildlife. More than 320 species of birds spend part of their lives in the San Joaquin marsh.

Watch some summer birds here and some autumn birds here. The winter and spring will have different performers. The quacking ducks, honking geese, squealing egrets, whooping and cooing grebes create a serenade for all within earshot.

White Pelicans

The marsh is a rest, recreational and educational resource for Orange County residents. Over 10 miles of level, sandy paths encircle the ponds in an area that is about two-thirds that of New York’s Central Park. You can walk and jog on the paths. Bring your binoculars and telephoto lenses. Sit on the comfortable park benches that overlook the ponds.

Entrance to the marsh is free. Parking is free and very available.

The Sea and Sage Audubon Society runs an active volunteer program to assist in ornithology research and to educate Orange County residents about the birds, their life cycles and habits. Their Marsh Education Project Director, Ms. Trude Hurd, directs a nature learning program for Orange County school children. Trude has recruited dozens of bird-loving volunteers for educational and research events.

Irvine’s San Joaquin Marsh

I find it disheartening that human visitors to the marsh are few. The parking lots never fill to capacity, even on Sundays and holidays. On most weekdays, there are only 10-20 cars in all four of the lots and the miles of sandy trails and paths that surround and connect the ponds are deserted except for the security and maintenance staff.

In my opinion, the beauty, educational value, and diversity of species (320 species) in the marsh exceeds that of the Irvine Park Zoo (270 species). Thousands pay to visit the zoo every month; only a few hundred pay a free visit to the marsh.

To learn more about the San Joaquin Marsh, click here.

Directions for getting to the San Joaquin Marsh: Enter Riparian View either off Michelson Dr, between Harvard Ave and Carlson Ave, close to Harvard Ave; or off Campus Drive right after it crosses over the San Diego Creek coming from University Drive.

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