Monday, Sept. 7, 2009 | It’s early morning, and the hillside above Market Street in southeastern San Diego is alive with noise: planes screaming overhead, 18-wheelers rattling below, trolley cars swishing by.
A weed whacker’s whine peels through the warm morning air, high on a ridgeline above Encanto Canyon. Jonathan Basilio and a small crew are meticulously attacking the desiccated weeds that have crept in and now blanket the landscape.
Over the cacophonous clatter comes a bird’s call: a gutteral sound, a deep, bassy rattle. It’s a coastal cactus wren, a small, brown bird with a white eyebrow that tucks its nest in thorny cholla cactus. It’s the reason the crew is here, clearing the way to plant thousands of cholla next year.
Biologists say few species in San Diego County have been as profoundly impacted by the 2003 and 2007 wildfires as the wren, a bird whose range extends only from northern Baja to southern Orange County. In San Diego, the wren is found in four population centers: Camp Pendleton, San Pasqual Valley, Lake Jennings and around the Sweetwater Reservoir. Three of those burned in the wildfires, destroying the thorny cholla and prickly pear cactus the birds call home.
Though biologists don’t have a handle on the exact population, they say the wren’s numbers have dropped since the fires. And there were only an estimated 400 birds countywide in the 1990s.
“If you burn down the habitat for even one, you’ve moved that species even closer to extinction,” says Ken Weaver, a retired environmental science teacher in Temecula who has studied the wren for decades. “If you can’t procreate, why, you’re not going to be around very long.”