Silverwood: Audubon Society's Sanctuary in S.D. : 'As undisturbed a place as you can find . . . where you can get out and see the plants and wildlife.'

Ticks and rattlesnakes are among Gerry Cosgrove's closest neighbors, and he thinks that's great.

Hundreds of people walk through his front yard every month, and that's OK with him.

His telephone rings almost constantly, and that--well, that drives him nuts.

Cosgrove is the resident manager of Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary, a rugged, 550-acre tract of chaparral and oaks a few miles northeast of Lakeside. The sanctuary, owned and operated by the San Diego Chapter of the Audubon Society, is truly a unique place in the county.

Consider that at Silverwood:

- If you're a snake, you'll never have to worry about being attacked with a hoe.

- If you're a manzanita bush, you'll never be scraped out of the ground by a bulldozer to make way for a housing tract.

- If you're a fox, no one will run over you or try to pepper your hide with buckshot. In fact, someone might even throw you a bone.

"There is a fox that comes right up by the house sometimes," Cosgrove said. "If I go inside, he'll wait there, hoping I'm getting a bone for him. And if I come outside and make like I'm throwing something"--Cosgrove paused and did a good imitation of Dan Fouts throwing a long pass--"he'll sniff around like he knows something is out there."

Cosgrove, 65, took over as manager of the sanctuary in July after the previous manager died. He was selected over more than 60 others who applied for the job.

An avid white-water kayaker and a physician, Cosgrove spent the previous eight years as head of the pathology department at the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park, performing autopsies on animals and studying their diseases and parasites.

When he retired in July, he planned on "just hanging around helping out at the zoo. But when I heard about the (sanctuary manager's) job, I figured what the heck--free rent. I didn't realize how much work is involved."

Leading Tours, Cleaning

Cosgrove lives at Silverwood in a one-bedroom cabin that he shares with a few persistent mice and rats that don't seem to realize they're supposed to be living in the surrounding chaparral. He spends 50 to 60 hours a week leading tours, cleaning bathrooms, filling bird feeders and trimming brush along the sanctuary's 10 miles of trails--some of them virtual tunnels through the dense growth.

"The trails closest to the house get the most attention," he said with a laugh.

The way he sees it, the sanctuary is "not unlike a zoo. It's main value is as an undisturbed area where wild plants and animals can live. But it also has an educational value. It's a place where we try to show people how interesting and entertaining chaparral habitat can be."

Several scientific studies have been conducted at Silverwood, too. In one, graduate students at San Diego State University have investigated plant growth and mineral recycling in patches of chaparral that had recently burned.

According to Harold Wier, a botanical consultant and president of the San Diego Chapter of the Audubon Society, the sanctuary is an excellent example of the chaparral plant community that covered much of San Diego County before the conquistadores arrived. Civilization, agriculture and livestock grazing have altered much of the habitat since then, but Silverwood is "about as undisturbed a place as you can find in the county. And the evidence of that is that there are very few non-native plants growing there," Wier said.

Away From Highway Noise

"Another thing about it is that very few places with this kind of environment have trails where you can get out and see the plants and wildlife. But Silverwood has trails that put you out in the middle of all this stuff, away from the clamor of highways."

The sanctuary is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays and to groups by special appointment. Cosgrove said about 30 visitors show up on an average Sunday, but several hundred people visit the sanctuary each month, including students of all ages on field trips and members of organizations such as the Lake Hodges Native Plant Society and the Bonita Valley Garden Club.

"Only 25% of our visitors are Audubon members, and 80% have never been here before," Cosgrove said. "They come mainly to look around and learn about native plants and animals. Most of them take our nature walks--it's like going to the Wild Animal Park and seeing the animal shows."

He often personally leads visitors on tours of the chaparral, explaining such things as how the Indians used wild cucumbers to poison fish. "They ground up the roots and sprinkled them into ponds and pools, wherever they thought there were a lot of fish," he said. "It's a pretty potent poison--it would paralyze the gills of the fish and pretty soon they'd be floating belly up."

The sanctuary harbors nearly 200 varieties of native plants.

"None of them are unique to the sanctuary, but a number of them are considered rare or endangered," Wier said. One, a variety of lilac with dark blue blossoms, "is restricted to a few rock outcroppings in southern San Diego County and Baja, but there are excellent stands of them at Silverwood."

Varied Wildlife

More than 150 different kinds of birds have been seen within the sanctuary's boundaries, along with 29 mammals, including mule deer, bobcats and ring-tailed cats.

"Rattlesnakes are quite common out here, too," Cosgrove said, "but the only person who's ever been bitten was an Audubon naturalist who was handling one."

Silverwood was established as a wildlife sanctuary in 1965, when Harry Woodward deeded 85 acres to the local chapter of the Audubon Society. Woodward, who had owned the property for more than 30 years, named it Silverwood after the way sunlight glinted on the shiny leaves of the coast live oak trees that surrounded his home.

In the 21 years since, the society has expanded the sanctuary by purchasing nearly 500 adjacent acres for approximately $250,000. Some environmentalists have questioned the local Audubon Society's strategy of committing most of its funds and efforts to Silverwood, but former chapter board member Dave Binney said, "It has definitely been worth it. Silverwood is something we can be proud of. . . . Future generations will be far more aware of its value than current generations."

Cosgrove noted that the county has recently assumed ownership of 3,200 acres adjoining Silverwood that will be run as a wilderness park. And directly east of the county's property is land owned by the National Forest Service.

"These three strips of land give wildlife a corridor roughly 10 miles long and three miles wide that would otherwise go for development," he said.

Loony for Ticks

The wildlife Cosgrove is interested in the most, however, is only a quarter of an inch long, and would probably survive even if all of the county's natural areas were covered with asphalt. The former zoo pathologist collects ticks.

"Having been a parasitologist all my life, I'm just curious about what tick species we have out at Silverwood," he explained. He keeps the insects in a small vial full of alcohol in his shirt pocket, and readily accepts the donations of visitors who discover ticks on their clothes or in their hair.

For Cosgrove, having access to an almost limitless supply of ticks is just one of the benefits of living at Silverwood. Before moving to the sanctuary he lived in North Park, "and the solitude out here, the night sounds, are very different. Instead of the rumble of traffic, you hear coyotes and owls."

"What I like least about this job is answering the telephone," he added. "What I like most is the outdoor activity. I've always like to scratch around outdoors and look at bugs and birds.

"It's pretty hard to beat the peace and quiet of the place, too--after everyone's gone. It's always with relief that I see the last person off on Sunday afternoon, and shut the gate."

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