Wild Secrets – Winter Wetlands

By Richard Zembal, natural resources director for the Orange County Water District

The word “wilderness,” such as in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, conjures thoughts of untamed, vast open spaces, mountain peaks and meadows, flowing streams and wild, lurking creatures.

Our nearby coastal hill and local mountain adventures pale in comparison and they are bounded and interlaced with houses and people. Yet, there are still some notable “wild” Prado Wetlands that the Orange County Water District oversees in Riverside County, and which are open to the public at certain times of the year by appointment. Let me paint you a picture of the season’s wetlands panorama.

It is winter now, less daylight, much colder days and biological systems are approaching idle particularly in the mountains under snow and ice at the higher elevations. Many of the smaller but more mobile of the mountain animals, and some of the large, are headed downslope to warmer climes where winter shelter and sustenance are more readily available.

Some species can make it through the winter in the mountains. Mule deer may migrate downslope but can subsist on tender shoots, twigs and leaves that are still abundant in winter, even tree bark if need be. Others, like black bears, sleep the harshest of times away in a den, avoiding the cold and food scarcity. Certain creatures, like pikas, small chunky rabbits, rely on an insulating blanket of snow over a rock-covered slope that holds their network of crevices, tunnels and haystacks gathered in summer.

Many of the mountain transients move down the tributaries into the Prado Basin in Riverside County. There are dozens of species of migratory birds that nest in the mountains in summer during times of plenty there, then travel down to places where winter’s bite is moderated by the coastal influence. The Prado Wetlands and forest support thousands of birds year-round but their composition is quite different between seasons. The trees of the forest go dormant in winter, the annual plants pass through to spring as seeds, but the Prado Wetlands are still green, actively producing food albeit at a slower pace.

The trickle of shorebirds and waterfowl into the wetlands foreshadows the season’s change as does the song of the white-crowned sparrow throughout the basin. The ducks and other waterbirds, however, are not just venturing from the local heights, some have come from as far north as the artic circle where they nest annually in the seasonally available wet tundra.

As winter progresses, the mass of big birds grows into the thousands, among them the American white pelican is one of our largest at 17 pounds with a wingspan of 9 feet. Wintering ducks number about 23 species, the most common of which varies annually but includes the ruddy duck, mallard, northern shoveler, and teals; among the rarities are goldeneye and mergansers.

Shorebird species number about 25 and regularly include western and least sandpipers, long-billed dowitchers, killdeer, stilts, and avocets while the most common waterbird of all is the American coot, a resident member of the rail family. I scanned a shorebird flock in the western ponds earlier this winter and was surprised with a sighting of a ruff, a Eurasian shorebird seen rarely on the coast of North America.

Prado Basin and environs total some 12,000 acres, teaming with wildlife, and rarely touched by human print deep in its core. The only trails into deep Prado are those we bushwhack to monitor endangered birds and they overgrow quickly. There are stinging nettles, poison oak, spiderwebs, rattlesnakes, ground-nesting bees and wasps to avoid while exploring.

The only common predators we see regularly on trail camera photos are bobcats, coyotes and raccoons. This past year, for whatever reason, has been the year of the deer in the basin with abundant sightings compared to the usual. Plentiful deer eventually are found and visited by our native deer predator, the cougar, which is known to also enjoy a morsel of wild pig from bands that are heard crashing away in commotion at a human’s approach.

Yet, for the most part, the winter wetlands are quiet. Just like in our own homes, there’s a hunkering down, visits from temporary visitors and unique spectacles of the season.

Here’s wishing you and yours a wonder-filled winter.