A lilting bird song breaks the morning silence at Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Modjeska Canyon. Twenty third-graders grab the binoculars draped around their necks and scan the area, but the song sparrow remains hidden.
Not so the Anna's hummingbirds, bright red-throated males buzzing one another at jet speeds in territorial debates; or the European starlings, tourists in the local bird world, clinging to the phone lines.
A red-tail hawk soars overhead, a baby turtle basks in the sun on the banks of a pond. There's a nice set of raccoon prints in the mud.
All are visible in the clear morning air, delighting the students as they walk through the preserve, their feet beating a path trodden by thousands of others who have made the same day trip with their classes for more than 20 years.
The third-graders, a slightly muddy group in the aftermath of one of this winter's frequent rains, are in field trip heaven. The wildlife sanctuary, 12 acres of raw nature at the end of Modjeska Canyon Road, is one of the most popular school outing destinations in the county.
The average adult may not have heard of the sanctuary, but nearly every third-grader in Anaheim has been through it, said sanctuary manager Ray Munson. Third-grade teachers in the district routinely book the tours as do Cub Scout troops and public and private schools from other parts of the county. About 7,000 schoolchildren a year make the visit along with 40,000 members of the general public. Many teachers book their trips about nine months in advance, he said.
The guided hike takes visitors on a quarter-mile-long walk through chaparral, riparian and oak woodland habitats, past patches of poison oak, under coast live oak, and across now-roaring Santiago Creek to the porch of what was once the mountain retreat of a Long Beach banker. It's now a glassed-in bird watching area outfitted with benches.
On the way, students get to pet reptiles at a museum stop and learn the answers to such questions as what prevents snakes from falling out of trees? Why do wood rats gather shiny things? How can you tell a female tortoise from a male? Or even this puzzler: Why is the Coulter pine, also called the widow maker, a poor tree to picnic under?
(Answers: Their scales; to meet girls; females have flat under-shells; its 8- to 10-pound pine cones hurt when they fall on your head.)
The students also get some folklore: the story of Juan Flores, a bad guy being pursued in 1857 by a mob. He was cornered at the top of the 200-foot peak that now bears his name. To escape, he blindfolded his horse and went for the jump. He made it; the horse didn't.
The wildlife sanctuary, once the summer home of Dorothy May and Ben Tucker, is owned by the Cal State Fullerton Foundation. Graduate students, mostly biologists like Kelli Flaagan, staff the center.
Flaagan, who guided around the students from Fairmont Private School in Anaheim Hills recently, deftly handles snakes, runs the cash register in the museum gift shop and dazzles her charges with fun facts.
She shared these gems with the Fairmont students:
* A hummingbird's wings beat 60 times a second.
* Snakes use their tongues to smell and their ribs to hear.
* Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backward--they do so because they burrow so deeply into flowers that backing up is the only way they can get out.
* Your hair and fingernails have something in common with a tortoise's shell: both are made of keratin.
After touching "Julius Squeezer," a 5- and 12-foot gopher snake (a constrictor) and other reptiles, students get a brief tour of the museum. Thanks to the art of taxidermy, they can view a full-size grizzly and the mounted heads of more exotic animals like the cape buffalo. Additional live snakes, an iguana and African clawed frogs live in glass cases. The area has long attracted bird lovers. The Tuckers, who built their home in 1908, devised early hummingbird feeders made out of shot glasses topped by wooden lids with holes drilled in them, said Munson, who found one while digging around the house.
When Dorothy May died in 1939, the land went to the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, which turned it over to the Cal State Fullerton Foundation in 1969. School tours have been conducted ever since.
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Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary is at the end of Modjeska Canyon Road. Here are details for class or family field trips.
Address: 29322 Modjeska Canyon Road.
Phone: (714) 649-2760.
Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily except Christmas.
Cost: $5 a person for guided tour groups, $1.50 donation requested for general admission.
How to get there: From north and central Orange County, take Santiago Canyon Road (Route 18) south to Modjeska Canyon Road and turn left. Follow the road to the sanctuary.
From south and coastal Orange County, take Interstate 5 to El Toro Road (also Route 18) and head north. El Toro Road becomes Santiago Canyon Road. Continue north to Modjeska Canyon Road and turn right.