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Estuary Birds to View by Foot or Canoe

Newport's Back Bay attracts migratory winged visitors and humans who want to observe them.

April 08, 2001|DENNIS ARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Summer is still months away, but the tourists have already arrived in a part of Newport Beach where "high season" carries a special meaning. That part is the Upper Newport Bay, seasonal home to visitors by the score--each of them arriving by air. All they seek is some good fishing, a mild winter and a nice place to nest.

That's what they find in the Back Bay, which is why thousands of migratory birds return year after year after year.

For some people, those winged visitors are the attraction in Newport. Folks canoe or kayak the main channel of the bay, as well as walk the trails that skirt it, all to get a closer look at the 165 species of birds that either live there year-round or are just passing through.

Those wanting to delve deeper into the ecological preserve and its history can also visit an interpretive center that opened in October and nestles against a cliff above the bay, reflecting a sensitivity to the natural surroundings.

The setting is less natural at the Back Bay Cafe, next to a boat ramp that attracts a steady stream of power boaters headed for offshore waters. But you can't bird-watch on an empty stomach, and the restaurant's patio is one of the best spots around to chow down on some chowder before or after an estuary foray.

Back to the Bay

Rita McCoy has been paddling the Back Bay for almost 12 years as a leader of canoe and kayak tours and as a member of the Newport Bay Naturalists & Friends. She was drawn by the chance to enjoy and help protect a natural setting so close to city life.

The birds keep her coming back.

"I've been so busy coordinating our volunteers that I haven't been out on the bay for a while," McCoy said on a recent Saturday morning as she prepared to lead a group of canoeists.

"Any time I'm away, I miss it. I'm eager to see what we'll find this morning."

It didn't take long to find some "locals" at the 740-acre Upper Newport Bay Ecological Preserve. Along a shoreline, several dozen sandpipers, stilts and rails sifted breakfast from mud speckled with their footprints.

Even as jets from nearby John Wayne Airport roared overhead and canoes drifted closer to the feeding grounds, the birds hardly slowed in their poking and scooping. McCoy focused on a few of her favorite species, including the clapper rail, identifiable by its bright orange bill and the white patch on its tail.

McCoy spotted another favorite: the American avocet, the filtered sun flashing off its black and white wings. In January, the avocet has a snowy crown, McCoy said, but by late spring, the white has turned to deep rust, adding to its appeal.

By the time the two-hour tour was over, McCoy had shown off owl pellets she found in her Dana Point yard; she'd explained how pickle weed thrives in salty conditions; and she'd pointed out two man-made islands serving as nesting sites. In short, she'd helped fledgling canoeists appreciate the importance of the largest remaining estuary in Southern California.

Canoe tours are held every Saturday and meet at Shellmaker Island, near the mouth of the bay. The cost is $13 per person. Call (714) 973-6832 for reservations. Kayak tours are held Sundays and meet at Newport Dunes. Kayak rental is $20 per adult and $15 for children younger than 12. Call (800) 585-0747 for reservations.

The Naturalists also hold walking tours, solar-powered boat tours and campfire programs. Information: (714) 973-6820. The preserve is open 7 a.m. to dusk.

Watching the Tide Roll Away

Upper Newport Bay has its share of secrets, not the least of which is the Back Bay Cafe (1131 Backbay Drive, Newport Beach, [949] 729-1144).

OK, so the restaurant isn't exactly hidden, but it is tucked away in a corner of the Newport Dunes Resort. It's open to the public year-round for breakfast and lunch, in spring and summer for dinner.

The patio affords a view of the bay's mouth. Enjoy eggs Benedict ($8.25) or corned beef hash with two eggs and potatoes ($7.95).

For lunch, try the chicken artichoke salad (grilled chicken breast, hearts of palm, bell peppers, onions, artichoke hearts, tomatoes and greens, $8.95) or the mahi-mahi in lime cilantro sauce with rice and vegetables ($9.95). But whatever the entree, be sure to try the seafood chowder, a creamy delight.

The Back Bay Cafe is open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays.

Cliffs Notes

A stop at the Upper Newport Bay Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center (2301 University Drive in Newport Beach, [714] 973-6820) is a must for anyone whose interest in the bay has been piqued by a canoe or kayak tour. Of course, first you have to find the center.

It's at the far northwest end of the bay, at the corner of Irvine Avenue and University Drive, but it isn't visible from the street. That's because it's built into the side of a cliff, something like an ancient Southwest Indian dwelling.

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