The Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary is a hidden jewel dedicated to the preservation of birds, animals and native plants. I came upon it by accident one day.
I had made a wrong turn off Santiago Canyon Road and decided to stop for awhile. I ended up stretched out on a log near the center's bird observation deck, watching red-tailed hawks circle hypnotically overhead. The warm sun and the sound of nearby Santiago Creek nearly lulled me to sleep.
Although bird watching doesn't usually excite me, I wandered over to the center's glassed-in observation deck and spent about an hour watching hummingbirds flit about the colorful feeders. These were Anna's hummingbirds, a species common year-round. In April, the black-chinned species, along with Rufous, Calliope, Costa's and Allen's hummingbirds will return from wintering in Mexico and South America.
I got so caught up in the spectacle, I bought four of the center's hummingbird feeders ($3) to hang outside my kitchen window. Among the other birds that frequent the sanctuary are woodpeckers, ravens, robins, owls, vultures, falcons and the endangered gnatcatcher.
The sanctuary is the former home of Ben and Dorothy Tucker, a Long Beach couple who built a country home there in 1908. The 12-acre property near Silverado was donated to the Audubon Society in 1939 and is now owned by Cal State Fullerton. About 12,000 Orange County youngsters visit the sanctuary each year on field trips, according to the director, Barry Thomas, who has overseen the sanctuary since 1972.
The center (29322 Modjeska Canyon Road,  649-2760) is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily (closed Dec. 25). A $1.50 donation is requested for general admission; $5 per person for guided tours. Parking is free.
Hit the Trail
Depending on your interests, you can spend an hour at the sanctuary or an entire day by exploring the surrounding network of trails.
The first leg of the Chaparral Nature Trail is steep, but the rest is enjoyable. The route will take you past plants common to the region's disappearing chaparral community: lemonade berry, sage, monkey flower, yucca, arroyo willow, toyon, California live oak and sycamore. Watch out for poison oak. If you don't know what it looks like, ask someone in the center office to point it out to you.
The Chaparral Nature Trail loop can be completed in as little as 15 minutes, but you can extend your stay by taking the Harding Truck Trail to the Modjeska Dam. Water, sun block and a hat are absolute essentials.
All this hiking may make you hungry and there is no food available at the sanctuary. If you want to dine under the trees, bring a picnic lunch or pick up a sandwich and a cold drink at the Modjeska Country Store (17391 Modjeska Canyon Road, (714) 649-2193. Across the street at Modjeska Community Park (Modjeska Canyon Road and Olive Hill Road), there's a shady picnic area and a children's playground.
If you've worked up a really big appetite or are in need of a beer and a juke box, stop at Cook's Corner (19122 Live Oak Canyon Road,  858-0266). This landmark bar and eatery was established in 1926 by Earl (Jack) Jackson Cook and his wife, Irene.
The original structure was a converted beekeeper's cabin across the stream from where the parking lot is now. The current building is an old Army mess hall from the Santa Ana Army Air Base relocated to the site in 1947. For decades, the place has been frequented by motorcyclists cruising Orange County's back roads. But lately there have been more mountain bikes and BMWs among the Harley-Davidsons parked out front. The legendary hangout even has its own Web site: http://www .cookscorner.net. For starters, order up some giant onion rings ($2.75), chili-cheese fries ($2.75), or buffalo chicken wings ($5.25). You can follow with a roast beef and cheddar sandwich ($4.75) from the lunch menu or the rancher-style rib eye steak with mushrooms and peppers from the dinner menu ($7.95).
If you stay late enough, you can top your journey off with karaoke on Tuesday night and live rock 'n' roll on Wednesday and Sunday night. Friday and Saturday nights are devoted to live country-western entertainment.
IF YOU GO
* GETTING 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 where it dead-ends at the sanctuary.
From south and coastal Orange County: Take Interstate 5 to El Toro Road and head inland. Turn left on to Santiago Canyon Road at Cook's Corner and turn right on Modjeska Canyon Road.
* ASIDE: Adjacent to the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary is the former home of Helena Modjeska, an acclaimed Shakespearean actress who came to this country in 1876 from Poland. She and her husband, Count Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, purchased the property in 1888 and hired renowned architect Stanford White to transform it from a simple cabin into a grand country manor. The home and surrounding gardens now belong to the county and can be toured by appointment. Arden Modjeska Home and Gardens: 29042 Modjeska Canyon Road (949) 855-2028. Admission: $5 per person. Tours: At 10 a.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays and the first and third Tuesdays of the month. Reservations required and parking is limited.
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1. Cook's Corner, 19122 Live Oak Canyon Road, (949) 858-0266
2. Modjeska Community Park, Modjeska Canyon and Olive Hill roads
3. Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, 29322 Modjeska Canyon Road, (714) 649-2670