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New Habitat Preserve In North San Diego County Helps California Gnatcatcher

The LeoMar preserve has been saved thanks to funding from the state and federal government, pictured here on  Jun. 18, 2021
Erik Anderson
The LeoMar preserve has been saved thanks to funding from the state and federal government, pictured here on Jun. 18, 2021

A little slice of classic Southern California habitat is getting long-term protection in San Diego’s North County.

The Escondido Creek Conservancy has wrangled more than $2 million to buy 79 acres of hilly land covered in coastal sage scrub habitat.

New Habitat Preserve In North San Diego County Helps California Gnatcatcher
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson

People walking in this hilly undeveloped pocket of land might catch a whiff of sage and mint. Short stubby flowers reach skyward from the rock-hard earth dried out by the sun.

This pocket habitat sits pretty close to home sites taking advantage of the lofty views.

“As everyone knows,” said Leonard Wittwer, board president of the Escondido Creek Conservancy. “There’s lots of development. Lots of human activity in Southern California. But there are patches of what California was. And this is one of them And we’re trying to preserve those for the wildlife but also for the human residents.”

New Habitat Preserve In North San Diego County Helps California Gnatcatcher

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This patch of “what was” is idyllic habitat for the endangered California gnatcatcher. The tiny bird forages for insects in the low-lying shrubs.

Gnatcatchers raise their young in nests just a few inches off the ground, but those nests are tucked inside dense shrubbery.

It is the bird’s presence that helps make this preserve possible.

“The money that purchased this property came from the largely from the state of California, the wildlife conservation board,” Wittwer said. “And the federal government through the endangered species act. So as a society, we’ve decided to set money aside to conserve land like this.”

Overall the Escondido Creek Conservancy has helped buy and protect roughly 7,000 acres of wild habitat in the creek’s watershed.

This newly protected plot of land is a great slice of coastal sage scrub habitat, but it is also much more.

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“It’s a 79-acre preserve so it’s not enormous, but it functions as a puzzle piece linking larger preserved pieces of land,” said Hannah Walchak, the conservancy’s conservation director.

The new preserve fits an important puzzle piece into the interwoven lattice of homes and habitat helps create bridges for larger species.

“It is a piece that will facilitate a connection between thousands of acres of open space in the city of Carlsbad and thousands of acres of open space along Escondido creek in the county of San Diego,” Wittwer said.

Mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes all require room to roam, hunt and breed and habitat like this broadens the potential range.

The land also builds a connection with the people who live near the preserve.

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The Conservancy’s Ann Van Leer says this plot of land captures a slice of the region as it used to be.

“All of California, Southern California used to look like this,” said Ann Van Leer, of the Escondido Creek Conservancy. “At least this part of coastal California and this will give them a picture of the past. And also a picture of the future.”

Coastal sage scrub habitat is being squeezed out of the region by housing developments. And that pressure is not diminishing.

“It just inspires me to continue on,” Van Leer said. “I’m a native Californian and this is one of the times I can feel like I’m giving back to California. Ah, sorry. I didn’t know that would make me so emotional. This is a place that’s very…, Southern California is very special to me.”

Coastal sage scrub habitat is found in dry coastal zones and inland valleys that are close enough to the ocean to be exposed to the marine layer.

Here, there is a utility service road that has brought invasive weeds and grasses to part of the preserve, but restoration efforts are already being planned.

”We will be doing the very fundamentals,” Van Leer said. “We will be weeding. Removing what doesn’t belong here and letting the natural native habitat replace itself.”

Cleaning up this preserve is an immediate priority for the conservancy.

The long-term priority is to preserve more habitat and teach people why preserving the habitat is important.

The Coronado Unified School District Board fired the high school’s basketball coach on Tuesday night following a racist incident that occurred after a CIF final. Last Saturday, some Coronado high school basketball players threw tortillas at Orange Glen high school players. Orange Glen is an Escondido school that is largely Latino; Coronado is mostly white. Plus: A little slice of classic Southern California habitat is getting long-term protection in San Diego’s North County, COVID-19 vaccines at McDonald’s and more of the local news you need. San Diego News Now is KPBS’ daily news podcast. Show your support by becoming a member today. www.kpbs.org/donate