t’s a well-kept secret: Wintertime is when Orange County reclaims its hometown attractions. Come January, we embrace our mild weather, pristine beaches, minimalist tourism and plentiful parking. For those who enjoy communing with nature, winter is also the perfect season to observe wildlife in its natural habitat. Whether exploring by foot, by boat or on horseback, grab a sweater and discover a few of Orange County’s hidden treasures.
Southern California beaches aren’t just about bikinis and bodysurfing. From the sand or on the water, Crystal Cove State Beach provides an ideal observation point for whale watchers. The period from December through March is a wonderful time to glimpse pods of enormous gray whales during their southern migration.
Michele Whiteaker, nature guide and contributor to the website Nature Play Trips, notes that winter also brings the best tides for tide pooling. King tides or minus tides—which are exceptionally high or low—are seen in December and in January. Beach communities including Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Dana Point offer docent-led educational tours, during which visitors learn about intertidal habitats, the potential for inflicting damaging impact on our beaches and reminders about how to protect coastal zones.
Winter is also an ideal time to scout out summer campsites. Several campgrounds take reservations six or seven months in advance; those in the know secure their spot as early as possible to ensure stress-free vacation planning.
Sylvia Gallagher has been studying our feathered friends—their habits, habitats and songs—since 1968, and teaching others about them since 1980. Winter migration patterns bring to town a great variety of shorebirds, grebes, ducks and raptors. These species travel north during the spring and summer, but beginning in October, they flock to Orange County. “There’s a reason seniors are called snowbirds,” says Gallagher. “Southern California winters are as tempting for birds as they are for retirees, so these months make for excellent bird watching.”
Gallagher adds that, for adults, young families and particularly seniors, there isn’t a better activity than bird watching. “It involves a good deal of walking, it requires using your brain to problem-solve and it’s a great stress reliever,” she says. “You have to concentrate on the here and now, identifying a bird by sight and sound.”
For those who choose to bird watch from the water, Sea and Sage Audubon offers pontoon boat excursions into Upper Newport Bay, which includes Back Bay, the largest remaining salt marsh estuary in Southern California and home to several endangered species. Audubon guides discuss the history of the bay, native plants, birds, animals and marine life.
Nancy Kenyon, a guide, describes these outings as quiet and peaceful. “We see flocks of Sandpipers rise in a cloud from a nearby mudflat, we watch the Snowy Egrets perched at the water’s edge and we can hear Black-bellied Plovers and the occasional Killdeer. Ospreys perch on bare branches above the pickleweed and Northern Harriers cruise over the vegetation in search of prey. The birds are not afraid, as they would be if we were walking, so we’re able to observe them for a much longer time period.”
Experienced oarsmen might prefer to sign up with the Newport Bay Conservancy, which offers two-hour guided kayak tours of the ecological reserve with a naturalist every weekend morning.
Orange County’s rustic inlands tend to be upstaged by our famous coastal attractions, but they are not to be missed, especially on horseback. Country Trails and Riding School in Irvine Park provides one of the best ways to discover our backcountry.
Melisa Jean, manager of Country Trails, points to the cooler weather and secluded trails as reasons to go for a wintertime horseback ride, noting that animals that hide in the heat come out in the cold. Coyotes and many varieties of rodents and reptiles can be seen, as well as plant species such as wild mustard seed, Cleveland sage and Patilija poppies.
“Recently, we’ve seen deer grazing under a 250-year-old oak tree, and even some bobcats,” said Jean. Irvine Park offers more than 15 trails, which are chosen for riders based on their skills, preferences and experience. The company also offers photo shoots and riding-lesson packages.
“When you head out on the trails you feel like you’re in an old Western,” Jean said, “even though you’re practically in the middle of the city.”
For Orange County locals and returning visitors, winter doesn’t spell the end of outdoor fun; it marks its under-the-radar start. In fact, the greatest gift Southern California gives its residents is temperate year-round weather and an ever-changing abundance of wildlife. By land or by sea, there is no better way to greet the “off” season.