Monday, November 5, 2018

Outdoors: Ernie Cowan
Illuminating desert’s night creatures

The heat of the late summer evening was still simmering as I gazed into the sky to find Antares, the bright red heart of the constellation Scorpio.
Hanging above me at the western edge of the Milky Way, this mythical figure stood out brightly in the inky desert darkness.
While I had found the scorpion constellation, I was actually here to find the earthly version as they emerge at night to wander the desert sands in search of food.
To help me with my search, I was equipped with an ultraviolet, or blacklight, flashlight that makes these nocturnal creatures stand out distinctly.
Did you know that scorpions glow a bright, fluorescent blue-green when illuminated by ultraviolet light?
That was something I discovered decades ago when I borrowed a heavy, cumbersome blacklight from my science teacher and took it with me on a camping trip. My goal was to search for gems like calcite, fluorite, agate or any of the many “ites” that glow under ultraviolet light.
Like most kids, I was energetic and spent an evening wandering about the desert, nose to the ground, looking for the magic rock glowing in the dark.
I got more than I bargained for.
The first thing to glow in the dark was not a rock at all. I was somewhat startled when I came face to face with a brightly glowing scorpion.
I began to research these reclusive creatures and discovered they are night feeders, especially on warmer summer nights.
So now, a bit older, but just as curious as decades before, I picked a dark summer night to begin my renewed exploration. This time I was equipped with an inexpensive, lightweight blacklight ordered from an online retailer.
It didn’t take long to find my prize. In fact, I found several large scorpions during my wandering. Enough, in fact to remind me never to be out and about at night in bare feet.
The three most common scorpion species found in San Diego County include the giant hairy scorpion, the Arizona bark scorpion and the stripe-tailed scorpion. The scorpions I found on my evening walk were large enough that I suspect they were the giant hairy scorpion species.
The fluorescent glow of these spider-related creatures is startling. The blacklight is not bright, in fact, casting a soft, violet-blue glow on the ground. When a scorpion falls into the beam, however, it glows intensely.
Why, exactly, do scorpions glow in ultraviolet light?
The exoskeleton, or outer covering of this creature contains a substance that fluoresces under ultraviolet and moonlight. The unknown substance is contained in a very thin but tough coating called the cuticle.
What isn’t known is why this happens.
Some of the theories include that it helps them find each other, confuse prey, or protect them from sunlight.
Another theory suggests they may use this characteristic to determine when it is safe to come out of their underground lairs. Their decision to emerge could be based on how much ultraviolet shines upon them.
This concept comes from the fact that scorpions are less active on moonlit nights, and generally avoid harsh ultraviolet daylight.
My desert exploration proved to be fascinating. Scorpions seemed unaffected by my blacklight, but the illumination attracted small moths. The scorpions would use their lobster-like pincers to reach out and capture a moth and quickly eat it.
A very obvious feature of my nighttime companions was a formidable stinger at the end of their tails.
Fortunately, none of the scorpions found in San Diego County are deadly or even require medical treatment.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Outdoors: Ernie Cowan
Bats steal show during photo hunt
You could almost see the last fumes of daylight evaporating from the hot desert sands as the sun dipped behind the San Ysidro Mountains.
In the wash of deepening gray, black-tailed jackrabbits were becoming more active, and the black-throated sparrows were no longer coming to the small pond for water.
Another summer day was changing from light to dark, and a different world was about to awaken.
Against a sky that was now the last shade of dark blue, a bat flashed by. Our mission was about to begin.
With friends Russ Hunsaker and bat expert Dick Wilkins, we had set up sophisticated photo equipment that would soon allow us to capture these fascinating creatures as they swooped out of the night to drink or capture insects on the surface of the desert pond.
I was hoping to get a few good images of these interesting creatures that are rarely seen by most people.
The idea of photographing bats struck me while preparing to photograph the Perseid meteor shower a few months ago. As we were setting up tripods and cameras at the edge of a mountain pond, I noticed bats swooping toward the water in the final wisps of dusk.
But how do you go about capturing a tiny mammal in total darkness moving erratically at high speeds?
That’s where Wilkins came in. He’s traveled to remote corners of the world to photograph bats, using infrared sensors that trigger camera and flash when bats pass by.
We met about two hours before dark, and it takes more than an hour to set up and align the sensors, multiple flash units and cameras. As dark approached, we were ready to go.
Shortly after dark the flash units went off. We had our first shot. Over the next few hours I captured more than three dozen images of these rarely seen animals.
Bats have a bad reputation. They are often characterized as disease carriers that will swoop out of the night to bite humans.
In reality, these flying mammals are very clean, grooming constantly, like cats. San Diego bats primarily feed on insects. They are an important contributor to the control of insects, with some species consuming as many as 1,000 mosquitoes an hour. Bats are also important pollinators for many agricultural crops such as dates, figs, peaches, almonds and cashews.
For those reasons, they are also beneficial around your garden.
Most bats live in caves, rock crevices, abandoned buildings, or tree cavities, often in large colonies.
When they emerge at night, their first task is getting a drink of water, which they do on the fly, opening their mouths and dipping into the water.
To attract bats, many people put out bat houses to provide daytime roosting spots. There are online plans available for bat house construction as well as commercially available boxes for sale.
Despite being highly beneficial, bats do not make good pets.
Wilkins, who rehabilitates injured bats, pointed out they don’t interact with people and are in no way warm and cuddly. They should be respected simply as beneficial wildlife and left alone.
Bats can carry rabies like any other mammal. If you do encounter a bat that is dead or appears sick or injured, you should avoid handling it.
During our photography session, we primarily captured images of two species, the Townsend’s big-eared bat and our smallest species known as the canyon bat. There are 22 species in the county and more than 1,200 worldwide.
Wilkins, however, was excited by something else.
“I think I captured two more species. One I can’t ID, but the second is the California leaf-nosed bat. I’ve never seen this bat in the wild or in my hand, so I was pretty excited to see it turn up in my photos,” Wilkins said.
Outdoors: Ernie Cowan
Stop and smell the coyote melons

There was an autumn softness in the air as I day hiked with a friend along a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail near Warner Springs.
“What’s that smell?” he asked as we scuffed along the well-worn path.
When I realized he wasn’t talking about me, I became aware of a pungent odor as we passed a low-growing patch of bright green vegetation that stood out from the surrounding dry grass.
With large green leaves, huge yellow trumpet flowers and melons that looked like softball-sized watermelon, this was a plant that was hard to miss. And don’t forget the smell.
This native plant is known by various names, including desert pumpkin, finger-leafed gourd and coyote melon, a name apparently given by Native Americans because it “was only good enough for coyotes to eat.”
Even though these native plants look like small, round watermelons, this gourd is closely related to pumpkins. The fruit is the largest produced by any California native desert plant. A quick glance around the grasslands, and I quickly realized there was quite a crop.
We had become aware of the plant because it was still blooming and the 4-inch, bright yellow flowers are hard to miss, both visually and with your nose.
The “fragrance” of the flower is more aptly described by some as a powerful stench. You didn’t need to put your nose to the blossom to realize it was very unpleasant.
No doubt this is nature’s way of attracting insects to help with pollination. We did notice large numbers of flies buzzing about the flowers.
Despite the abundance of these melons, they were never considered as a primary food source by Native Americans, explorers or pioneer travelers.
The large fruit melons are shiny green and striped like watermelons when they first develop. They then turn yellow when ripe and eventually a pale brown as they dry out.
The fruit could be eaten if there were no other available food sources, but the seeds are very bitter and foul tasting. However, as is often the case, even though not used for food, the seeds of the gourd were ground into powder and mixed with small bits of the plant’s root to be used as a hand soap.
Another story associated with the name of this plant is from Native Americans in Arizona, who suggested that Indians would never plant such distasteful crops, so they must have been the result of seeds deposited in the scat of coyotes.
Even though humans don’t find much to like about this plant, it is an important food source for local wildlife. Smaller animals will feed on the roots and vines
Local hikes
The San Diego Natural History Museum has launched its season of Canyoneer hikes, offering more than 75 free weekend treks from the coast to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and from the Tijuana Estuary to Palomar Mountain. The series will be offered through June.
Hikes are led by trained citizen scientists and volunteers known as Canyoneers.
Canyoneers are San Diego Natural History Museum volunteers trained to teach appreciation of plants and animals in Southern California. Walks are open to the public; no reservations are required.
Hikes range from easy walks through native chaparral forests or along local rivers, to more challenging trips of 9 miles along a wildlife corridor from Anza-Borrego Desert to Cuyamaca Rancho state parks.
The hike schedule and interactive map are available online at, and printed brochures are available at local outdoor retailers such as REI and Adventure 16 as well as at local Subaru dealerships.
To prepare for the hikes or to discover other hiking opportunities locally, hikers can get a copy of “Coast to Cactus: The Canyoneer Trail Guide to San Diego Outdoors” at the museum store.
You won’t be taking home a pumpkin from this patch

October is a traditional time to go on the Great Pumpkin search, but if you find this hidden pumpkin patch it’s not likely you will take one home.
First, it would be highly illegal and more importantly, the “pumpkin” would weigh a ton or more.
This unique pumpkin patch is actually a collection of geological oddities in the barren desert sands of Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area located along the eastern fringe of San Diego County.
As cooler temperatures return to our county desert areas, it’s now a good time to discover some of these fascinating features.
The pumpkins in the Pumpkin Patch are not growing plants at all. They are actually sandstone formations known as concretions.
Geologists say these stone objects are the product of wind and water over millions of years eroding softer soil to reveal these globular sandstone formations.
There are different theories on how concretions were formed, but it’s generally thought that a natural cementing of sand particles to a small object such as a grain of sand, piece of shell or even a dead insect created these objects, much in the same way that pearls are created.
The concretions remained hidden underground until eons of weathering exposed them. This is a process that continues today as new patches of concretions slowly expose along the barren desert ridges.
While the Pumpkin Patch is the most elegant example of these formations, concretions can be found in many areas of Ocotillo Wells and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Unlike the formation at the Pumpkin Patch, these concretions come in various sizes and shapes. In some places there are wide fields of softball-sized concretions littering the ground, and in others, the formations are in random and often whimsical shapes.
These are not only protected by State Park rules, but people should remember that these are unique formations that took millions of years to create and expose. Photograph them and enjoy them but leave them in place for others to enjoy.
Getting to the great Pumpkin Patch is the biggest challenge. The area is about dead center in the 85,000-acre Ocotillo Wells off-road vehicle park. There are no paved roads leading there, so access is by off-road vehicle or on foot.
Trails with names like Lost Lizard, Textbook Trail and Tule Wash will all get you there, and for the more rugged, an overland hike to the patch would be a moderate trek over some fascinating terrain.
More detailed information about the location and access can be obtained at the Ocotillo Wells Discovery Center on Ranger Station Road, just north of state Route 78 in Ocotillo Wells.
A visit to the Pumpkin Patch can be a great day trip if you have an off-road vehicle. Pack a lunch, get an early start and explore some of the beauties of the surrounding area.
Leaving the area to the north can take you to another interesting location known as 17-palms oasis, but we will save that for another story.
Park app
To help park lovers discover more about California State Parks, a new mobile application has been launched as a pilot program for several parks in the state.
The program includes maps of campgrounds, entrances, trailheads, visitor centers in both map and satellite views.
Called Outer Spatial, the app is available at online app stores.
History program
The rich history of early immigration and travel to California will be brought to life through a special Anza-Borrego: In Focus program on the Southern Emigrant trail during a two-day seminar beginning Nov. 23.
Hosted by the Anza-Borrego Foundation, the program will include lectures and field trips to explore the history of the route that was used my Native Americans, Mexican soldiers, California Gold Rush travelers, The Mormon Battalion, and the Butterfield Overland Stage.
Author and historian Phil Brigandi will bring history to life through his lectures and field trips to historic locations.
The program begins at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 23 at the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center. Events on Nov. 24 will include a car tour and short hikes to key locations.
Cost of the program is $50 for ABF members and $60 for nonmembers. Visit for additional information or to register.

Outdoors: Ernie Cowan
Mystic power of the Grand Canyon

Memories of a mystic encounter more than 20 years ago swept over me last week as I stood at the wild edge of the Grand Canyon waiting for the moon to rise.
My hands were jammed into the pockets of a down jacket as a gentle breeze made the 34-degree temperature seem colder than it was. It was a replay of similar events from years ago, but so far without the nocturnal encounter.
Like my previous visit, I had come to photograph the beauty of the Grand Canyon by moonlight. On that trip years ago, I had driven several miles away from Grand Canyon Village to avoid lights of passing cars or other tourists.
I parked at a wide spot and hiked off through the juniper forest until I came to the edge of the yawning canyon. It was early March and there was snow on the ground and a bite to the chilly air.
The sky was clear, and a heaven filled with stars hung over my head.
The full moon began to creep above the eastern horizon.
Anyone who has been out in the wild during a full moon knows how bright it can be, but with snow on the ground, the lunar glow seemed magnified.
My tripod was set and camera mounted. I began taking long-exposure photographs and in the chilly darkness just gazed out over a breathtaking landscape. I understood why the Grand Canyon is one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Before me was the history of Earth’s creation, cut away by millions of years of wind and water. How humbling to be there as a speck of humanity in a vast universe displayed all around me.
As I gazed off into creation, I sensed a presence.
Without a sound, a young man had approached and was standing right next to me. For some reason I was not startled or felt a sense of alarm. He, too, seemed focused on this moment of grand cosmic design.
He was a 21-year-old Navajo who worked at the famous El Tovar Hotel in Grand Canyon Village. He had spent his day off hiking to the Colorado River, 4,000 feet below.
I asked him what trail he had taken.
“It’s a pathway of the ancients and not on any map,” he told me.
I also commented that he didn’t seem to be carrying much for a full day of hiking. “I get everything I need from the land,” he said.
For a while we stood silently gazing out over the canyon. It’s hard to describe how beautiful it was on this crisp, clear winter night by the whispering light of the full moon.
There certainly was a shared reverence for this place and as he spoke of his connection to the land, I was touched by the deep spirit of the Navajo.
A few minutes of silence passed, and he softly said, “I see that you love this place as much as I do.”
I assured him that I did. A moment later I turned, and he was gone.
What are the odds that two people from completely different backgrounds would meet in a snow-covered wilderness at the rim of the Grand Canyon?
That encounter from two decades ago is etched in my mind and while I knew it would never happen again, the memory still played clearly as I returned to the canyon rim with hopes of capturing a moonlight photograph.
The image was not to be this time. Cloud cover and canyon fog killed any chance for moonlight photos. Standing again at the canyon rim hopefully waiting for skies to clear, there was not another encounter with a visitor in the night.
I did return for one last canyon look early the next morning.
As I turned to go, I heard the caw, caw of a passing raven.
Looking up, I saw him flying ahead of me.
In Native American culture the raven is a messenger from the cosmos.
Perhaps I was again visited by the spirit of the Navajo.

The icy fingers of winter are pulling away from the towering range known as the White Mountains that form the eastern rim of the Owens Valley.
Summer visitors to the Eastern High Sierra may notice this remote mountain range, but only a handful of visitors go there compared to the hordes that fish, hike, or simply relax in the more verdant Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west.
This is a remote corner of California, but the White Mountains offer visitors a look as some of the most unique features found on Earth.
In addition to the highest elevation road in California, the Whites are home to the oldest living things on the planet, a rare and unique species of trout, as well as wild mustangs that connect back to pioneer ranching more than a century ago.
The biggest draw to the lofty elevations of the White Mountains are the ancient Bristlecone Pines. These twisted, gnarled and weathered pines have been dated at nearly 5,000 years old.
As summer warms the mountain range and allows access, the Schulman Grove Visitor Center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The center is scheduled to open June 26 for the season.
But it was not the Bristlecone Pines that drew me to the mountains this trip.
I was hoping that I might be able to see some of the wild horses that call this vast and open place home.
Access to the White Mountain Wilderness begins where Highway 168 turns east from U.S. 395 at the north end of Big Pine. The road climbs steeply to the east from the floor of Owens Valley, following an old wagon route to Cedar Flats where White Mountain Road turn off to the left. It’s 23 miles from Big Pine to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center at an elevation of 10,000 feet.
There is a campground on the road to the visitor center, but there are no services after you leave Big Pine. There is no water, but bottled water can be purchased at the visitor center.
Most visitors only go this far, but the road turns to dirt and continues to climb into the White Mountains. You can drive to a locked gate at an elevation of 12,000 feet, and beyond that is the White Mountain Research area where high elevation studies are done.
White Mountain Peak is the high point of the range, topping out at 14,246 feet, just a few hundred feet lower than Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States at 14,505. A weather station at the peak records some of the most brutal weather in the nation, with winds often over 100 mph and winter temperatures far below zero.
Along the road you will pass other groves of Bristlecone Pines, and with an off-road vehicle you can find small creeks where the rare and protected Paiute trout survive in this harsh environment.
On this trip the thunder clouds of summer were starting to blossom, and the distant booms of rolling thunder could be heard as we bumped slowly along looking for wild horses.
To protect these relics of history, more than 200,000 acres have been set aside as the White Mountain Wild Horse Territory, administered by the U.S. Forest Service.
Here the mustangs are free to run in a wilderness that has not changed since their ancestors arrived. Within this protected area, the herd of wild horses is managed for a population of 75, most being bays and chestnuts.
When and where these horses originated is unknown, but they are thought to date back to ranching in nearby Fish Lake Valley in Nevada in the 1870s.
I’ve made many trips to the White Mountains to photograph the Bristlecone Pines and their tortured forms created by harsh weather and challenging growing conditions. On each of these trips I look for horses but had only spotted two on an earlier visit.
This time luck was with me.
As lightning began to dance on a nearby peak, I spotted something dark in the distance. With binoculars I could see it was a horse and just a short distance away was another.
At over 11,000 feet, I wasn’t moving very fast, but that was probably good. With camera and telephoto, I approached slowly. It’s barren here, with no cover that would allow me to approach without being seen.
It probably didn’t matter. This beautiful animal with the white blaze on its forehead knew I was there.
I felt a connection with this wild creature. I recorded a few images with a spectacular backdrop of thunder clouds and the jagged Sierra Nevada range in the distance. Then I just sat down to contemplate this moment.
The other horse had wandered away, but this stallion continued to feed and respected my distance.
Big rain drops started to fall. It was time to leave, but I was filled with wonder at what I had been lucky enough to witness.
History lives in this remote place and it was very special to share a few moments with the ancestors of the old west.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

ERNIE COWAN Union Tribune Outdoors
Between the raindrops there were hints of spring this week.
I so enjoyed the one mild day with a T-shirt instead of a hoodie. The hillsides have sprung to life with spring green grass, dotted with the bright yellow blossoms of common yellow woodsorrel, also known as lemon clover or by any outdoor kid as sour grass.
Then the rain returned, but I wasn’t done. I needed more outdoor time. Why not enjoy one of my sitand- see adventures right here at home? As light rain pattered on my patio roof, I sat down with a hot cup of coffee and my camera to see what show nature might provide in an hour or so of quiet observation.
We live on a narrow ridge we call Mt. Whoville. It’s one mile long and about 200 feet wide before sloping off into an elfin forest of chaparral. Native plants and animals are our closest neighbors.
The rainfall was slowing, and patches of sunshine and blue sky were struggling to break through.
Soon the dominant activity was a small cloud of hummingbirds swarming to my feeder. There are noticeably more than last year, most likely because there has been less rain and fewer native plants are in bloom. By this time last year there were dense clusters of bright red monkey flowers coloring the drab thickets of chaparral, and dozens of other wildflower species providing natural food for the hummers.
My feeder was at capacity, with every feeding spot occupied by either Anna’s, Allen’s, or Costa’s hummingbirds, while another wave hovered, waiting their chance to enjoy the nectar. The next to arrive was a brightly colored hooded oriole. You know spring is close when they return from their winter home in Mexico. I spotted the first one of the season last week, and they are also feeding aggressively to put on weight after their long journey north.
Soon the orioles will begin building their pouch nests constructed of fiber strands from palms. Theseintricately woven nests will be tied under protective palm fronds with the same fiber strands used to build the nest.
By summer, we will see even more orioles at the feeders as both parents and fledglings feed to prepare for their September return to Mexico. I try to sit very quietly during my sit-and-see adventures. Orioles, in particular, are extremely nervous, and will vanish at the slightest movement.
Sitting quietly, however, does give me a chance to see other critters.During a brief period
of sunlight, a granite spiny lizard, with its iridescent blue throat and belly, climbed out of the shadows to warm itself.
Our resident roadrunner came by and crouched beneath the hummingbird feeder for a bit, hoping to snatch a quick meal. Several years ago I learned they do eat hummers, so I elevated the nectar feeders. When the roadrunner realized he was not likely to catch a meal, he lost interest and began looking for snails and lizards in the patch of blooming snapdragons.
You may have already guessed, but birds like it here on Mt. Whoville. We offer seed feeders that provide what songbirds like, but also quail food, nyjer for the tiny goldfinch, sunflowers for the scrub jays and mealworms for woodpeckers. Fresh water is always available at small fountains in front and backyards. I have recorded 52 species of birds here, so I was not surprised when most of today’s sit and see involved birds.
The big show was soon to begin. Spring is courting season for the red-tailed hawks. About a half-mile north there is a very tall pine tree and for at least the past five years they have nested there.
As I enjoyed a final sip of coffee, I caught movement below me. A beautiful red-tail was gliding by and close behind was a smaller male. They climbed in amorous formation, dropped their talons to slow down and nearly touched, then spread apart moving away from each other in wide arcs, before coming together again.
It was a magnificent dance of spring. An eternal ritual of courtship that will continue with nest building, mating, brooding, and hatching. We know when the youngsters have arrived and get hungry, because even a half-mile away you can hear them demanding to be fed.
Soon, as spring moves toward summer, the adult red-tails will begin to train the fledglings. Mt. Whoville provides us a ringside seat and some old, dead avocado trees that we did not cut down offer resting spots as parents teach the youngsters how to hunt.
A soft rain returned, my coffee was gone, and it was time to move back inside. Even a little time spent quietly observing in your own yard can be fascinating.