OCEANSIDE — Not much life exists in the golden hills overlooking Whelan Lake at the end of Muirfield Drive, but a local conservation group has plans to change that over the next few years.
Since 2017, those hills make up the Buena Vista Audubon Society’s Mauro Preserve, a 31.27-acre piece of land that was originally part of the Whelan Family’s dairy farm. It was the vision of Andy Mauro, who the preserve is named after, to restore that piece of property into a habitat suitable for native wildlife.
According to Executive Director Natalie Shapiro, the Audubon Society purchased the property for $1.56 million with the intention of removing the invasive plant species to replace with native plants that would help provide habitat for the California gnatcatcher and the coastal cactus wren, as well as other species.
The California gnatcatcher is listed as threatened. According to the Audubon Field Guide, this is due to removal of its habitat by the rapid growth of housing developments in the state.
Gnatcatchers live in coastal sage scrub, which consists of California sagebrush, buckwheat and various other native plants to the region. Currently, more than 90% of the Mauro Preserve is covered by invasive species like fennel, mustard and Russian thistle.
The Audubon Society has a five-year plan for restoring the preserve to its original form. The first two years consist of clearing all the weeds, according to Shapiro, and seed planting will happen after that. At the end of five years, the long-term management plan will kick in.
The Audubon Society hired Trestle Environmental Corporation out of Fallbrook to help organize restoration efforts on the preserve.
From there, Trestle Environmental contracted Habitat West Native Habitat Restoration to do the clearing and restoring work.
“We’re doing something different than mow, blow and go,” said Habitat West founder and owner Gigi Hurst.
Working with other similar companies for more specialized work, Habitat West has used everything from a handheld machete to a bulldozer to clear the preserve’s invasive weeds.
“We have to think outside the box a lot,” Hurst said.
Before mowing could begin, Shapiro explained that the group had to wait until after spring to check for the thread-leaved brodiaea, a California endangered plant species that was possibly growing in the area. The group had to wait for the plant to bloom in order to determine if it was on the preserve, and sure enough it was.
“We found a huge patch,” Shapiro said. “It was very unexpected.”
The group then marked off the brodiaea so that clearing crews wouldn’t remove them. Several other native plants that were growing amongst the weeds on the preserve were also marked so crews would avoid them as well.
The point, Shapiro explained, is to give the native plants the upper hand over invasive species. The preserve has a “seed bank” of native plants lying dormant in the ground just waiting for the opportunity to take over.
Mowing and clearing weeds has so far been a tough project due to the narrow, steep ravines in between the hills, but most of the clearing has already been completed.
To purchase the property, the Buena Vista Audubon Society had help from the state as well as from the military. The Mauro Preserve acts as a buffer zone between neighboring Camp Pendleton and a housing development on the other side of the preserve’s boundaries.
According to Shapiro, the military will also pay for the preserve’s restoration efforts and long-term management.
The preserve is also strategically located within the boundaries of the North County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, which helps to conserve habitats and focuses on creating links between protected areas. The preserve is also next to Whelan Lake, a protected bird sanctuary, and other city-protected lands.
“What we’re looking for is connectivity between protected lands, and Andy really recognized the importance of that,” Shapiro said.
It was also important for the Audubon Society to have support from the community. Shapiro said many of the preserve’s neighbors were enthusiastic when they found out that there wasn’t another housing development going up in the empty hills next to their community.
Many of the neighbors now watch after the preserve, alerting the Audubon Society of trespassers on quads, a more recent occurrence since clearing has started — and a potential fire hazard.
Community members also helped the Audubon Society to purchase lands like the Mauro Preserve through donations.
“Those $10s and $20s add up,” Shapiro said.
According to Shapiro, there are three types of habitat in particular that the preserve will have when restoration is complete. The majority will consist of coastal sage scrub habitat, while smaller amounts will be maritime succulent scrub, comprised of various species of cacti, and valley needlegrass grassland.
“A variety of habitats provide for increased diversity for various species of wildlife,” Shapiro said.
Eventually, Mauro Preserve’s hills of golden, dead weeds will be returned to the coastal habitats that once flourished there, giving threatened birds like the gnatcatcher and endangered plants like brodiaea another chance at life.
Samantha Nelson covers Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She earned her journalism degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and has previously reported for The Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, and USA Today in McLean, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @samm1son