Apartment Garden Blues (Blog): Volunteering to Restore Local Habitats

Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve

At the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve (often just called "the Back Bay") in Newport Beach, Calif., visitors enjoy riding horses and bikes, hiking, kayaing and birdwatching, as well as getting beautiful views of the bay and Saddleback Mountain (pictured in the photo above), the tallest point in Orange County. The bay is a coastal wetland that is a habitat for many native plants, fish and birds, including the endangered light-footed clapper rail and California least tern. Up to 30,000 birds call the preserve their home on any given day.

At some local Orange County parks, the county asks for volunteers to come once a month to pick up trash, clear trails or help restore the natural habitat. I attended a habitat restoration event the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve in January of this year.


Habitat Restoration Volunteer

More than 100 one-time and long-term volunteers woke up early on a Saturday to dig holes and plant native plants around the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve. Typically these three-hour events (from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.) take place every second Saturday of the month, and tasks vary depending on the season. During the rainy season, the focus is on restoring the habitat with new plants. The plants feed small animals, which in turn feed larger predators, like haws, bobcats and coyotes. During the dry season, volunteers maintain the Boand Butterfly Garden and remove non-native plants and garbage from different areas of the park. The volunteer events are led by helpful and enthusiastic OC Park rangers and experienced volunteers, who can answer questions and give tips about how to dig up the hard ground without getting too tired. Luckily for those who do get tired, there are snacks and water available.


OC Park Habitat Restoration

The plant communities in the uplands, where we were working, are mainly grassland and coastal sage scrub, including California sage brush, buckwheat and black sage (shown above). You can imagine just how much of the uplands were restored because each of the 100 or so volunteers were able to plant about five young plants.

Once the sun was almost at high noon, all of the water buckets, empty plant pots and shovels were collected, and the volunteers could either go home or hang around the bay. Birdwatching here is top-notch and very exciting, so I stayed and saw many different species, which included a Northern Harrier, Golden-Crowned Sparrow, Hooded Merganser, Northern Rough-Winged Swallow, Short-Billed Dowitchers (pictured below), Allen's Hummingbird, Blue-Winged Teals and Green-Winged Teals.


Short-Billed Dowitchers

The Peter & Mary Muth Interpretive Center, a 10,000 square foot educational facility, is also a must-see for visitors. Opened in October 2000, the Interpretive Center teaches visitors about the bay and its inhabitants through exhibits and interactive displays, as well as live fish, reptile and amphibian displays. There is also a theater, a play area for children and a gift shop.

Even if you don't live in Orange County, where there are many wilderness parks and opportunities for volunteering, there is likely a way for you to volunteer locally. It could be at a local community garden, park or botanical garden, where you can get your hands dirty and work with plants. Even though our balcony container gardens are small, there's a whole world of opportunities out there for us to get involved for the good of our communities -- all while having a ton of fun and good exercise!

If you do live in Orange County, visit OCParks.com for information about volunteering at an OC Park near you.



Alexandra is a professional writer from Southern California who grows vegetables, herbs, lots of aloe vera and one giant Boston fern in her balcony garden. She also grows dracaena, pothos and English ivy indoors. She loves traveling and birdwatching in addition to gardening.

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