The James and Rosemary Nix Nature Center opened on St. Patrick’s Day in 2007, and it remains to this day, one of the better-kept secrets of Orange County open space. Located at 18751 Laguna Canyon Road, between the 405 and 73 freeways, this unit of the Laguna Canyon Wilderness Park is well worth a visit. I have been stopping by periodically ever since it opened, often going for an hour or so before work during the week. Although its official hours are 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, I often find it open earlier than that, which is really nice! I go mainly for the birds, of course, but anyone interested in hiking or relatively easy mountain bike trails will find something to their liking here. And in wet years, the wild flowers can be spectacular too. Just a piece of advice: if you plan to visit Nix Nature Center on a weekend, get there early. To keep the place from getting loved to death, parking is deliberately limited to four small lots.
I have been working on a review of the Leica D-LUX 4 digiscoping system, and the Nix Nature Center is a great place for pictures. It was a gray overcast March morning when I stopped by. Phainopeplas were busy spreading mistletoe to every available sycamore branch. Small flocks of Zonotrichia sparrows (just Golden-crowned and White-crowned this year) were singing and feeding nervously in the open spaces around the parking lot. This sub-adult White-crowned Sparrow, teed up for me in a luxuriant laurel sumac, and I took the picture with just the camera. The sparrow is that white dot at the top of the bush. But with the Leica Apo-Televid 82 scope in line, the charms of this young bird become much more apparent. These photos were not cropped in any way, to make the magnification of the unit more apparent. Always check the sparrow flocks carefully in winter. I’ve seen Lincoln’s, Savannah, Chipping and Brewer’s Sparrows mixed in with the White-crowns, and a Black-chinned Sparrow in early spring. Often, they’re feeding right out in the open on the ground.
This California Towhee feeding at the edge of the parking lot, kicking the mulch and leaves with both feet as he rooted around. You can see the characteristic ‘pumpkin butt’ and hints of buff around the base of his heavy seed-eating bill. The canyons echo with the loud “chink” calls of this common resident. A close cousin to the California Towhee, Spotted Towhees may likewise be found in abundance here year-round, but I’m still searching for the first wintering Green-tailed.
Willing to take advantage of a nest box hanging anywhere, a small group of Western Bluebirds can usually be found feeding from low perches at the edge of the parking lots unless crowds of people have chased them into hiding. I found this female hunting from on a bare sycamore limb. She was too shy to permit close approach, but the extra “reach” of the digiscoping outfit easily brought her in close without the need to disturb her further.
The habitat around Nix Nature Center is mostly typical scrub land, with patches of oak-sycamore community in the wetter areas, but other habitats can be visited from Nix. The network of trails links up with the other 6600 acres of the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, including Dilley Preserve, Willow, Sycamore and Laurel Canyons, and farther away, Crystal Cove State Park. Walking beneath Laguna Canyon Road will take you to Barbara’s Lake, the only naturally occurring lake of any size in Orange County, and a site where Pied-billed Grebes and Least Bitterns have nested in past years. So when you get a chance, check out this wonderful little park, and see what you can find.