Parking lot becomes salt marsh in Del Mar wetland restoration

A wetland restoration project near the Del Mar Fairgrounds has turned a former parking lot into a salt marsh, populated by shorebirds, fish and fiddler crabs.

The $2.25 million project, next to the fairgrounds south of Jimmy Durante Boulevard, created 9.51 acres of coastal salt marsh and 1.67 acres of upland habitat, the transitional zone along the banks of the water. Officials marked the completion with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday.

Local wildlife didn’t wait for an invitation — they’ve already started taking advantage of the new wetland. On Wednesday morning an egret perched at the water’s edge, darting into the shallows to hunt small fish flitting among the eelgrass. Crabs scuttled on shore by the hundreds.

Animals drawn to the site makes up a birder’s wish list. A 2016 bird count tallied multiple species of herons, cormorants, pelicans, hawks, plover, gnatcatchers, quail, and terns, among others. Along the edge, elevated platforms host osprey nests, where the fish-eating raptors perch.

On the south side of the site is a strip of creamy white sand that’s identified as nesting habitat for least terns, an endangered, ground-nesting bird. There are no breeding pairs there now, but officials hope the improved habitat will prompt them to move in, said Dustin Fuller, supervising environmental planner for the fairgrounds.

“It’s a challenge because creating habitat where it hasn’t been is always difficult,” he said.

The wetland project also completes a key segment of the “Coast to Crest” trail, which starts at Volcan Mountain near Julian, and will end at the beach at Del Mar.

The 71-mile trail will accommodate hikers, horses and bicycles and traverse wetlands, chaparral, open meadows and dense forest. In Del Mar, it winds around the north side of the new wetlands, and will eventually cross to the shoreline, Fuller said.

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