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A great blue heron ambles on stilt-legs across the reed-fringed shallows, stabbing occasionally at subsurface morsels of food. Nearby, a willowy egret glides in for a perfect landing, scattering concentric ripples across the surface of the lagoon. Both birds seem oblivious to binocular-toting humans, who spy on them from a hillside a comfortable distance away.

A scene like this is repeated almost daily at San Elijo Lagoon, one of North County's most attractive coastal estuaries. Bisected by Interstate 5 and rimmed by expanding suburban development, the area has become the focus of considerable conservation efforts. Local citizens' groups, the San Diego County parks department, and California's Department of Fish and Game teamed up to restore this long-neglected and formerly unappreciated resource.

West of I-5, high tides wash over mud flats and mats of salt-tolerant vegetation. Here, a dozen kinds of shorebirds can be seen on a typical day. A short trail near the site of a future nature center off Manchester Avenue a half mile west of I-5 gives direct access to the water.

From Old Highway 101, or from the north terminus of Rios Avenue in Solana Beach, you can gain access to other trails along the lagoon's beautiful south shore. These paths meander through coastal sage-scrub vegetation and copses of eucalyptus and other nonnative trees. Eroded sandstone bluffs half-hidden behind a screen of vegetation provide an impressive backdrop for the placid lagoon.

On the east side of I-5, runoff from Escondido Creek and La Orilla Creek supports a freshwater marsh -- the East Basin. A quick access to that is by way of a flood-control dike just east of I-5. Park on the north side of Manchester Avenue, 0.3 mile east of I-5; cross Manchester (watch for fast traffic around the curves); and squeeze past a gate that keeps vehicles out. Walk past a second gate at the south end of the dike, and take the trail going left (east) toward El Camino Real. Before long the roar of traffic on the freeway fades, meadowlark songs fill the air, and your cares may disappear.

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