Each year, more than 70,000 people, some from as far away as England, come to one of the most remote spots in Orange County to sit very still and stare. They drive the two miles to the very back of Modjeska Canyon, near the edge of Cleveland National Forest, to a tiny pocket of wildland to watch birds.
The 12-acre Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary is a mother lode for the county bird watcher, who isn't likely to see a great horned owl in Costa Mesa. At the Tucker Sanctuary, those with patience and sharp eyes can, on a single visit, see perhaps 50 of the area's 140 species of native birds, including the great horned owl, and many of the 34 species of animals.
"People come here from all over the world," naturalist Sue Winterhoff said, "and we get a lot of English bird watchers. But we have people who come out here who say they've lived in Orange County their whole lives, and they never knew we were here. We may be the best-kept secret in Orange County."
The sanctuary originally was a weekend home in the 1920s for Ben Tucker, a Long Beach banker, and his wife, Dorothy May, who loved hummingbirds, Winterhoff said. For more than a decade, the Tuckers hung hummingbird feeders all over the property.
In 1939, they donated the property to the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, which ran it as a preserve until it was taken over in 1969 by the private California State University, Fullerton, Foundation. The foundation continues to operate the sanctuary with a staff composed mostly of student workers and volunteers.
The sanctuary is divided into two sections, one on each side of tiny Modjeska Canyon Road. On the north side is a small museum and classroom designed, Winterhoff said, mainly for the nearly 8,000 schoolchildren who visit the sanctuary each year. Inside the museum are displays of animal artifacts and examples of local vegetation, as well as live animals native to the area, such as a king snake, gopher snake, a southern alligator lizard and a tarantula.
The largest animal in the museum--and the most mobile--is a tame opossum named Pockets. Raised by the staff since birth, Pockets often placidly roams the museum's countertops for exercise.
Behind the museum is a nature trail that winds over the adjacent hillside, where staff members take visitors on 90-minute guided tours. Lower on the hill is a short, hands-on nature walk designed for blind and handicapped visitors.
On the opposite side of the road are shorter trails bounded by large stands of cacti and other thick trees and bushes, as well as a small outdoor amphitheater for lectures. The centerpiece of the area is a glass-walled bird observation porch where visitors can watch birds feeding on nearby perches without frightening them away.
"We have a worldwide reputation for hummingbirds," Winterhoff said. "It's really unlikely that you'll see all seven species at one time, but during migration, all seven of them can come through here."