A tricolored heron inches toward the muddy shores that a rival snowy egret has claimed for the afternoon. I lift my lens through my car’s sunroof and take aim. The mid-afternoon sun perfectly silhouettes them in the silvery water. Suddenly, the snowy egret takes off with a flurry of motion toward the tricolored heron. The retreating bird quickly dances through the water, running from the onslaught of white feathers. I snap my first photos of a species that, up until this moment, I had no idea lived in the middle of Orange County, California.
The greater Los Angeles area, which consists of five counties, including L.A. and Orange counties, is not the first place that most people think of when they think of “nature.” In fact, it’s probably one of the last. Ask any local, and they will tell you how much they love living in L.A. because all you have to do is drive a few hours to get to something natural. Very rarely will someone tell you how beautiful the city itself is.
Everything from the San Fernando Valley to South Orange County is sadly almost completely developed. It is an urban jungle, or what I like to call it, an “urban chaparral.” It is a short and stout metropolis, mirroring the dense shrub-like forests that once dominated the area. Freeways cut through the basin-like rivers, transporting millions of people across county lines as they travel along their daily commutes.
This is where I live, along with 13 million other people who call the area home. Like many who live here, I didn’t think of Los Angeles as a natural place. So much of living in this urban sprawl can be asphyxiating, especially if you are like me and crave natural spaces. It never rains enough for my liking, and sometimes the smog makes it difficult to see the local mountain ranges despite them being so close. Nature can feel so unreachable here, or at least it did until a shift in my perspective.
Urban Wildlife Hiding In Plain Sight
The freeways of the L.A. basin are more like parking lots when rush hour gets going, and, boy, do I sit in a lot of traffic. In these moments of longing for better public transit or the ability to teleport, I began to notice just how many birds live with us along the freeways. I quickly found myself in awe of all the other species traveling along my commute with me. Red-tailed hawks hunting pigeons, giant flocks of crows numbering in the hundreds, gulls fluttering through the air like pieces of silver—these were species I grew up with that I was suddenly seeing in a completely different light.
Then I began to see species that I didn’t even know lived in Southern California. Did you know that there are kestrels in Orange County? I sure didn’t, but I have not gone a day since first seeing one without seeing them again. I was becoming a bit of a freeway birder and was starting to understand how wild the L.A. basin really is. It was liberating. I needed more. My time birdwatching on the freeways was fascinating, but I wanted to dive more into the story of urban wildlife. This was when I found my sanctuary in a place called the Upper Newport Bay.
Finding An Oasis Amid Urban Sprawl
Located in the heart of Newport Beach, California, the Upper Newport Bay Nature and Ecological Preserve is an interesting dichotomy between nature and human development. Nestled in between two populated bluffs, it is one of the largest wetlands in Southern California, spanning almost 1,000 acres. It is one of the last remaining West Coast estuaries, which originally covered over 2 million acres. These once-expansive ecosystems have been reduced by 85 percent due to human expansion and development in the state. This makes the area even more special.
Like many of the wetlands that once lined the California coast, it was slated to become a marina featuring private docks and waterfront property. Thanks to the efforts of concerned locals, these plans were beaten in court, and in 1975 the area fell under the management of the California Department of Fish and Game.
Upper Newport Bay is a haven for wildlife in Orange County. It is a major stop on the Pacific Flyway, the north-south migratory pathway for West Coast birds that extends from the Arctic tundra to Patagonia. For some species, their trip stops here, and for others, it is merely a respite from their long journey north or south. This wetland is home to four endangered bird species: the Belding’s Savannah sparrow, Ridgway’s rail, the California least tern and least Bell’s vireo. These species rely on the riparian and salt marsh habitats that have been lost from so much of the California coast. Upper Newport Bay represents one of the last places that they have to call home.
Like most undamaged spaces in an urban environment, Upper Newport Bay is not without its conservation struggles. Entirely surrounded by multi-million-dollar homes that make up Newport Beach, this wetland is a unique mosaic of human and animal life. Snowy egrets stalk the sides of roads, unflinching as bikers rush past them, and harriers speed across the road, narrowly avoiding unsuspecting runners. This delicate dance gave me the same feeling that I felt when I first saw the magic happen along my commute, and it instantly captivated me.
The rhythm and flow of life here are dictated by this intersection of human urbanization and nature, and it does not come without its challenges. Everything from noise and light pollution to trash to road trauma from cars and bikes presents serious problems for our wild residents of the bay. Invasive plants specifically are one of the biggest issues for the local ecology. Because these invasive species are well adapted to our environment but missing the natural checks and balances of their original home, they flourish here. It is a slow stranglehold on the lifeblood of the ecosystem. Many of the birds here, especially the endangered ones, are unable to adapt to the changing landscape.
But for all the wetland’s issues, the community has rallied to save it. Locals flock to weekly trash clean-ups, and habitat restoration projects are plentiful. There are multiple nonprofits that work directly on the removal of invasive species, and the local universities and colleges often send their students here for field experience. It is a beloved natural escape for the community, me included. Many people use the one-lane road that snakes along the bay to run, bike or birdwatch. Others choose to kayak or row through the calm brackish waters. I find my joy hiding in my car, using it as my own personal photo blind. It seems even in nature, I cannot escape my car.
Using Your Car As A Blind For Urban Wildlife
There is something special about shooting from a vehicle, wind blowing through the open windows, listening to the sparrows chirping through the rustling grass and being completely hidden from the birds you are watching. It is the perfect reprieve from the hustle of the city, where I can finally recharge from a week of working at my full-time job. Like any blind, a vehicle helps obscure your presence from your subject, giving you a much more intimate view of their lives while giving them the space they deserve. Even with urban birds, who can be much more comfortable with humans, they still shy away if you get too close. Having the opportunity to shoot from your own mobile blind is a real asset and is a much more ethical option than risking flushing birds.
If you do not have the opportunity to use a blind, then it is important that you give animals their space. It takes a lot of energy for a bird to take off, and altering an animal’s behavior in any way can put them in danger. Wherever you are, you should do everything you can to be an unseen observer to your subject.
Because this is a shared space, as urban areas often are, it is important to be courteous to others enjoying this natural escape. This is especially true if you are in your car while others are on foot or on bikes. I am always careful to drive slowly and make sure that bikers and runners have the space they need to feel safe. If I am traveling on foot, I make sure I am walking and standing in a safe place, particularly around blind corners.
Getting Your Timing Right
Timing the tides is key to photographing here—or in any environment that is affected by tides. The things you will see and the conditions you will have to deal with will vary dramatically.
High tide is my favorite for many reasons. The wetland fills with water, turning it into a lush and vibrant landscape. Birds flock to the few islands that rise above the water, uncovering biodiversity that you would never expect to see in the middle of a city.
It is also a good opportunity to get low. When you deal with an urban environment, you do not always have the luxury of moving closer to your subject. Many of the natural places in the greater Los Angeles area are protected, so you cannot move off the permitted path. High tide brings the waterfowl onto the same level as the road, meaning you can finally get on the bird’s eye level. This can create a much more flattering photo than if you were taking it at a higher angle. Runoffs from smaller streams or culverts can be a great place to set up, as waterfowl often flock to these areas to eat the incoming nutrients entering the main body of water.
Low tide offers more challenges than high tide but can result in some really special moments, especially if you are trying to capture behavior. At Upper Newport Bay, low tide means a lot of mud. The vast arterial system that feeds this estuary emerges, revealing steep banks cut through the muddy floor. The light dances off the uneven terrain, casting dark shadows with golden hour-like highlights, even when the sun is hours from setting. If a bird decides to sit in just the right place, it is magic. All of this mud also means many of the shorebirds are active and feeding, scouring the wetland floor for small bugs, fish and crustaceans. This is when you really get to see the different species’ personalities come through. Cranes and egrets jump after each other fighting over territory, and huge flocks of willets and curlews take off without a moment’s notice in a flurry of action.
Knowing your subject’s schedule is one of the most important things you can do as a photographer, no matter how wild or urban your subject. In the heat of the afternoon, hawks, harriers and turkey vultures take to the skies, searching for an afternoon meal. I can almost always find them in the same places as I drive along. In the late afternoon, white-tailed kites take to the skies, searching through the grasses that fill the wetland’s higher topography. I know exactly which branches they will rest on as they travel through the bay. And right as the sun sets behind the bluffs, great blue herons take off and fly to some unknown place to roost.
A New Appreciation For Nature’s Persistence
Upper Newport Bay is a special place and the perfect example of urban nature. All you have to do is look up the bluffs to remember you are in a big city.
My journey to urban wildlife photography began on a freeway. It has since moved me through the city on a quest to document the lives of the animals that occupy and thrive in this space with us. Discovering the wild side of Los Angeles has redefined my relationship with the urban sprawl in which I live. For the first time in my life, I actually feel like I can call this place home.
Sure, sometimes the smog is literally suffocating, and the lack of dramatic weather can feel monotonous, but now when I look out over the city as I drive along the freeway, I see so much more.
There is so much beauty hiding right under our noses. Just count the songbirds flying through the trees. Watch the raptors soar through the air while you sit stuck in traffic. If you also live in a metro area, find the nature living in the urban jungle you inhabit and realize how lucky you are that you share the city with such amazing creatures. We all have wild neighbors.
See more of Sara Stein’s work at sarasteinphoto.com.