Secret oasis in Santee brims with wildlife

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In Santee, there is a nature sanctuary of ponds, birds, bullfrogs and rabbits, a spot of beauty in the most unlikely of places. This little oasis is light years away from the busy traffic off Town Parkway Center Drive. 

In Santee, there is a nature sanctuary of ponds, birds, bullfrogs and rabbits, a spot of beauty in the most unlikely of places. This little oasis is light years away from the busy traffic off Town Parkway Center Drive. 

A barely noticeable trailhead, off to the side of the Walmart building, marks a section of the San Diego River watershed area. The footpath leads through thick marshy growth and sycamore trees. Bullfrogs sing from both ponds on either side of the wooden bridge. People who live in the residential communities on the other side of the watershed area do take this path often to make a stop at Walmart. They may be surprised to learn of the abundance of birds and wildlife thriving in this enclosed ecosystem.

The hour before sunset is a perfect time to visit this place. A pie-billed grebe seems to float above the pond colored a brilliant orange from the setting sun. Dragonflies buzz over the water and through the marshes. Large flocks of swallows swoop across the sky and tall, graceful egrets are mirrored in the water.   

 Last spring of this year, two families of fuzzy mallard ducklings followed their parents around in the water and on the ground. A week ago, the now-juvenile ducks were engaged in full sibling rivalry, quacking at each other claiming their bite of fish, roots and insects. Two of them got so involved in their fighting that they flew off, still jabbering at each other. Just five minutes later, they returned in peace, gliding in on the water. 

Families of coots, also known as mud hens paddle through the ponds. A type of rail known as a Sora furtively sneaks among the reeds for insects and snails. Close by, a quiet little gallinule hides in the reeds.   

After rains, the trail becomes muddied, making it more difficult for people to pass through. But waiting a couple of days yield a newly burgeoning oasis with more birds, frogs, dragonflies and mammals such as the cotton-tailed rabbit. 

The ponds make up part of the 320 acres of Santee’s River Park along the San Diego River, which begins its journey from Santa Ysabel and Eagle Preserve down through Cedar Creek Falls, and El Monte County Park. The river flows through Lakeside and Santee to points in Mission Trails Regional Park and Mission Valley until it winds down to its final destination of the ocean. The river is a resource of botany, geology and wildlife, and Santee’s little nature oasis is no less wonderful than all of the other secret pockets of the river’s trail.

The San Diego River has been vital to our region for thousands of years, starting with the Kumeyaay. In 1769, when San Diego became the first European settlement on the west coast, it was one of the most important rivers in the United States. For this reason, the San Diego River is often referred to as “California’s First River.”

Many challenges of residential and commercial development surrounding the corridor have made the river’s preservation even more important, a major role of the San Diego River Park Foundation. One of the simplest and kindest ways to regard the river is to pay it a visit and marvel in the abundance of wildlife and quiet, a protected sanctuary in the middle of a rapidly growing city.

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