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.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

ERNIE COWAN  Union Tribune Outdoors
Taking a hike on New Year’s Day has become an annual tradition for me.
This year, after an evening of fun with friends to usher in the New Year, my hike would be in the peaceful quiet of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. While only 65 miles from my home in Escondido, this arid oasis is in another universe when it comes to peace and quiet, unusual scenery and the chance to connect with the natural world.
I’m not sure anyone would ever need anxiety medication if they made frequent visits to this crown jewel of California’s state parks.
As you fall into the valley coming down the spectacular Montezuma Grade on Highway S-22, you can just feel the tension release, cares vanish and the mind slipping into neutral. It didn’t hurt that daytime temperatureswere inthe mid-70s, with a gentle breeze and fresh air untainted by the additions of urban crowding.
This was not a dawn hike, but it was early. There was no spectacular destination in mind, just a stroll along the open desert at the base of the San Ysidro Mountains where they slip into the sands of the gently sloping desert.
As I began my hike, I spotted a roadrunner perched on a rock watching me. In his typical fashion, he didn’t fly off as I approached, but instead scampered away as he darted between cacti and shrubs. This one lacked the bright blue and red markings on its face, suggesting this was a youngster.
On the boulders above me, a raven was letting his peers know of my presence. It was not one of his harsh alarm calls, but first the low, gurgling croak, followed by a shriller territorial call to alert for trespassers, namely, me.
Despite the fact that not a drop of rainwater has fallen in the desert yet this winter, there were actually a few blooming plants, including a brittlebush, tipped with happy yellow flowers, and a few delicate red blossoms on chuparosa bushes.
It’s a testimony to the resilience of nature that even in such a harsh environment, these hardy plants find away to continue their cycle of reproduction while also offering beauty to the human observer.
The bouncing of a rock wren on the boulders above me caught my eye, and I paused to watch this busy little bird flit about the rocks, feeding as it went.
Another movement drew my attention to the sand on the trail ahead of me. It was a desert iguana, one of the most common lizards of the Colorado and Mojave deserts.
This stylish resident of Anza-Borrego was moving from plant to plant and crawling up to eat the delicate ends of new growth.
Desert travelers will often see the iguana dashing over the desert, lifting its body off the sand and tail curled up over its back as it scampers along.
They are medium-sized lizards, measuring from 10 to 16 inches in length, including it long tail that is nearly one-and-a-half times longer that its body.
The whitish to creamcolored body and distinctive dark bands and stripes on the back and tail make this guy easy to identify.
What makes the desert iguana so interesting is its ability to survive in this harsh, arid environment.
These lizards rarely drink, obtaining the moisture they need from their diet of flowers, buds and leaves of the desert plants. They are especially fond of creosote.
If you sit and watch one of these guys for awhile, you might get see him climb several feet up a bush to forage on the tender, new growth.
While my lizard companion was enjoying his fresh winter grass and the mild weather, as summer temperatures heat up, they will seek protection from the hot sun in burrows, frequently dug in the sand that banks up around the bases or creosote bushes. Females will also nest in these burrows.
I love sharing the lore of the desert with first-time visitors, and sometimes that may include a slightly exaggerated tale.
When friends see their first desert iguana, I often tell them that it’s a “stick lizard.”
I explain how in the hot summer months it runs with a stick in its front paws. When it stops, it plunges the stick into the dirt and climbs up to avoid burning its feet on the hot sand.
That reminds me of the elusive hoop snake, but that’s a story for another New Year’s hike.
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Sunday, December 24, 2017

ERNIE COWAN  Union-Tribune Outdoors
It all began with a snake in the grass and ended with a bird in hand.
I had not planned on spending any time observing nature. In fact, I was returning from a trip to the desert when I spotted a relatively rare Lewis’s woodpecker dancing between trees near Lake Henshaw.
I couldn’t pass up this opportunity, so I grabbed my camera and slipped under the barbed wire fence. I didn’t want to walk the quarter mile to the gate and back, fearing Mr. Woodpecker would be gone.
I was well aware that the tall, spring grass is a rattlesnake haven. Conditions were perfect. Grass to my knees, temperatures in the high 70s and soft afternoon light. My mind was convinced that somewhere in this field of grass there was a buzztail lurking and just waiting to terrorize me.
I left footprints in the grass as I moved closer to the cluster of oak and sycamore trees with high hopes of getting a good photo of the woodpecker. Of course, he was nowhere in sight when I reached the trees.
That’s when my dream of getting a quick bird photo turned into another one of my “sit and see” adventures where I spend at least an hour quietly observing the natural world around me.
I knew the woodpecker was moving from tree to tree, so I picked a likely spot to sit and wait for him to show up.
There was a small downed tree limb that would have made a good seat, but it was crawling with ants, so I decided a nearby rock would be better. No ants, but it was covered with an artist’s palette of lichen and moss, crafted in shades of yellow, brown, gray and green. Have you ever paid much attention to this colorful mosaic that seems to randomly cover the rocks?
I hadn’t, but with a little study I discovered that lichens are an extremely complex life form that exists because of a partnership between a fungus and an algae. I was sharing space with another complex life form.
I’m sure my ample behind was far less comfortable on this bumpy, hard granite throne than my lichen companion, however.
As I waited for the Lewis’s woodpecker to return, my senses kicked in and I settled into my sit-and-see mode.
Smiling up at me and almost unnoticed in the tall, green grass were tiny little lavender gilia-type flowers. Identifying this delicate beauty seemed far less important than simply enjoying it.
There’s a smell to wild spring grass that’s hard to describe. It’s fresh,relaxing and therapeutic. I might pay the price later with stuffy sinuses,
but for now, it was an invigorating elixir, akin to drinking from a magical fountain of youth.
Combined with the fresh mountain air, deep blue sky filled with puffy white clouds, a nearly imperceptible breeze, the chirping of bouncing chickadees and the solitude, the moment was pure magic. But running in the back of my mind like a processing hard drive was my concern for rattlesnakes. Anticipation is never good, especially when it comes to worrying about things that can ruin your day. Anticipation can also magnify your perception.
How do you describe that moment when nervous anticipation collides, head-on, with slithering reality?
I suppose we all react differently, butat the first sight of a rather larger snake slithering through the grass next to my right foot I was paralyzed. My heart seemed to drop into my stomach. My mind was yelling, “you are going to die.”
The first reaction is to run, but the grass is thick and might there be more danger? Closing my eyes didn’t help. I already knew death was at my right toe.
I looked again, and my anticipated death-by-deadly injection reptile turned out to be a large, but harmless gopher snake. Until you see the head or tail, they have markings that are amazingly similar to those of a rattlesnake.
I started breathing again, and waited for my heart rate to return to a more normal, running-a-marathon level.
My attention returned to the pointing limb of the large sycamore tree as the Lewis’s woodpecker landed at the tip. He quickly vanished on the backside, but I had my camera up and ready when he hopped onto a smaller branch and paused long enough for me to get several good shots.
I had my bird in hand ... well in camera, so it was time to make the short hike through the tall grass back to my truck. I was glad to slip under the fence and leave the rattlesnakes behind.
I know they’re out there.

Lewis's woodpecker. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

ERNIE COWAN Union Tribune Outdoors
“All that glitters is not
gold.” That famous quote kept going through my mind as I walked into the autumn meadow that was painted in the golden hues of late afternoon sunshine.
The tips of the flaxen grass were glittering like an overflowing treasure trove of pure gold. The greens of spring and early summer had long since faded, replaced by beauty goldcannot
buy. I was hiking on Palomar Mountain when I pushed through pines and oaks into this lovely meadow. Gathering clouds were bringing a chill, but the setting sun was holding out as long as it could.
I was near the end of my hike, but could not resist the urge to just pull up a rock and sit for a while. Beauty like this should be mentally stolen and kept as long as possible.
What better place than this to enjoy one of my sit and see adventures, where I spend at least one stationary hour simply watching and learning about the natural world around me.
I was married in this beautiful meadow. Ona cloudless spring day, my lovely Kati was carried in a white, horse-drawn carriage as I waited under a magnificent old black oak tree. Lupine and golden poppies dotted the meadow and at one point our guests had to dodge a rattlesnake who decided to join the festivities.
Those memories filled my head as I quietly sat to drink in this scene. I could even hear the delicate, crystal notes of the tiny bells that we had tied to satin ribbons and hung from the branches of the oak tree.
Suddenly those memory sounds were replaced by the whoosh of wings as a flock of wild ducks landed in the nearby pond. It’s quite amazing the amount of noise they make when apparently they are reverse thrusting while landing in unison. This is wild turkey country, and it wasn’t long before a flock came walking through the meadow. Several paused to wallow in a dusty area, apparently taking some kind of dust bath. Soon, they had caught up with the others and the group was no doubt moving to the safety of their nightly roost tree.
I gobbled, and they gobbled back.
Silence returned to the meadow and for a time all was still and quiet.
As the sun began to play hide-and-seek with incoming
clouds, I caught a movement to my right. Crouched in the grass not more than 50 feet away was a bobcat watching me. He obviously knew of my presence long before I spotted him, but he didn’t seem alarmed. In fact, he sat there long enough for me to get out my cellphone and take a video of him. Apparently sensing this was not a meal opportunity, he slipped off into the tall grass. I’m sure he was on the trail of a fresh turkey dinner.
As afternoon shadows grew long, ground squirrels were busy doing what they do. Much of the time, they seem to enjoy just occupying the top of boulders and gazing out over the meadow. Maybe they were also mesmerized by the beauty, but more likely, they were watching for danger.
Danger arrived and it was spectacular.There is a large pile of boulders on the fringe of the meadow and I almost let out an audible gasp when a bald eagle swept in and landed on the tallest rock. Such a proud and incredible animal. Despite his beauty, the squirrel lookouts sounded a chattering alarm and they all dashed into underground burrows.
What an incredible sight, but it only lasted moments, as this huge bird spread its wings and simply glided from his perch and sailed off, perhaps to seek an evening fish dinner at nearby Lake Henshaw.
My sit and see hour was over. Actually it lasted nearly two hours.

I shouldered my day pack and turned toward my truck. In the distance a herd of a half dozen or so mule deer had come from the cover of a pine grove to graze in the meadow. They paused only briefly to watch me as I continued on. As I left the meadow, I realized indeed, all that glitters is not gold. This golden vision was far more valuable.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

At first there was only sound. Through the chilly morning darkness came the yelping of a distant coyote.
Imperceptibly, the darkness began to transform into a flat gray, allowing me to see the natural world around me. In this soft light, however, vision was more imagination than reality.
The first movement was a gliding hawk, silhouetted against a brightening morning sky with spring clouds ignited by the rising red sun.
I was on one of my sit and see adventures, where I pick an interesting place to simply sit for at least an hour and observe the natural world around me. This morning, I had chosen a little canyon with a small stream running through it in the foothills east of Lake Henshaw. This is grassland, dotted with stately live oaks and filled with deer, bobcats, coyotes, hawks, and even mountain lions.
I learned about the mountain lion when I left the warmth of my truck to hike to my destination. In the darkness, my headlamp illuminated two “ reflectors” about 30 yards in front of me. What could be reflecting out here in the middle of nowhere?
Suddenly, the reflectors blinked. A Coyote? Not likely. Coyotes tend to be skittish and would have dashed off. About that time the reflectors moved and I dimly saw the full body and long tail of the mountain lion as it turned to slink off into the brush.
Maybe I should go back and sit in the truck until daylight, but I really didn’t want to miss sunrise.
I began to whistle as I decided to continue along the trail, hoping my lack of aptitude as a musician would discourage my feline friend from coming any closer. This was certainly a puckering moment, but I now know what it means to be whistling in the dark. I’ll admit, that I kept a large tree at my back until there was plenty of sunshine. Soon the flat gray of predawn gave way to shadows as the rising sun began tooutline the shapes of hills, rocks, and trees. The world was waking up.
I watched a shadow creeping across a grassy meadow as the sun climbed higher. Hard as I tried, I could not see the shadow moving, but it was, and daylight was slowlyreplacing darkness. Behind me I heard the soft, but high-pitchednotes of a flock of bushtits as they approached the tree where I was sitting. For the next few minutes I was entertained by the antics of these tiny, gregarious little birds as they hung upside down,
bounced from branch to branch and chattered in high frequency tones while looking for tiny insects. With the first rays of sunshine came the early birds, like scrub jays, towhees and a flicker, all beginning their day by communicating with their own kind while looking for food. In the distance, I watched a falcon drifting low over the grassland, without a wingbeat, in search of prey.
It was still too cold for reptiles, but as fingers of sunlight began poking through the trees, a jackrabbit approached and then moved along on whatever mission rabbits pursue at first light.
This is wild turkey country, and despite the many tell-tale tracks in the dirt, none appeared during this visit.
As the brightening sunlight allowed me to see more, I noticed plenty of deer tracks and about then I spotted the big ears of a mule deer doe on a little rise above the creek.
As deer often do, she stood motionless, scanning for danger before slowly approaching the creek for a drink. I waited for more to show up, because deer usually travel ingroups, but not today. Things were settling down. The morning flurry of activity had passed, and hot coffee and breakfast sounded good.
I was about to leave when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I slowly turned to see a gray fox approaching the creek.
This beautiful little animal was obviously a veteran, with notches in its ears from past battles, but otherwise still sporting a healthy winter coat. He didn’t drink, but slowly moved off into the brush.
Another great encounter with nature and wildlife by simply sitting quietly fora time and enjoying the world around me.
I also learned I could whistle pretty well.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Summer ushers in the beginning of meteor-watching season
There is something quite peaceful and humbling about a star-filled sky on a clear, moonless night. Adding the flash of a streaking meteor is like the final note of a captivating symphony.
There are big and little meteor showers throughout the year, but I consider summer the beginning of meteor season because the evenings are warm and pleasant, the brilliant Milky Way hangs in the night sky and it’s just more pleasant to be outside.
Unlike many activities, there is nothing more than a folding chair or blanket required to become a full participant, so pack a picnic dinner, head out to a dark sky location and enjoy the view.
One of the brighter annual meteor showers is the Perseids arriving next month. Tiny bits of debris from the Swift-Tuttle Comet will enter our atmosphere, producing up to 100 meteors per hour for several nights, peaking on the night of Aug. 12-13. This year a bright moon will unfortunately make viewing a bit more difficult than it would be on a moonless night.
Because of the quality and number of meteors, even casual observers put the Perseid shower on their annual calendar. The 2018 display should be spectacular because there will be nomoon. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is one of the best night sky viewing locations, but temperatures in August can be punishing even at night, so you might consider other locations such as Palomar Mountain or the higher elevations of Cuyamaca of Mount Laguna.
The next major shower will be the Orionids that extend from Aug. 25 through Nov. 19, peaking on the night Oct. 22. There are fewer meteors produced by the debris of Halley’s Comet, but viewers this year should have a great show because there will be no conflict with the moon.
A month later, the Leonids peak on the night of Nov. 17-18, producing up to 15 meteors per hour. Mountain temperatures will be a bit cooler, so this will be a good time to head to the dark sky of Anza-Borrego where the New Moon will not interfere with viewing.
December will bring this year’s most spectacular show when the Geminids brightly flash through the dark sky, peaking on Dec. 13-14 at the rate of up to 120 meteors per hour.
The Geminids are considered one of the most reliable displays, radiating from a location high in the night sky by 9 p.m.
Meteor showers have odd sounding names because they are identified by where they seem to originate. The Perseids seem to radiate from the constellation Perseus, the Orionids from Orion, the Leonids from Leo the Lion, and the Geminids from the constellation Gemini.
There are dozens of smartphone and tablet apps available
to help viewers locate constellation and other celestial objects in the night sky.
Other above average meteor showers will continue with the New Year, including the Quadrantids in January, Lyrids in April, and Eta Aquarids in May.
What, exactly are meteors?
Because of the sometimes- bright fireballs created as this cosmic dust burns up in our atmosphere, many think meteors are larger objects. In actuality, most are nothing more than grains of sand that ignite when slamming into Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 40 miles per second. The extremely bright meteors may be caused by something as large as a pea.
On any given night you are likely to see random flashes of light as meteors burn up entering our atmosphere, and there are minor showers nearly every month.
But you don’t need a meteor shower for an excuse to enjoy the spectacular night sky. If you are really into discovering the outdoor world, there is much to explore once the sun goes down.
There are satellites moving through the heavens, and a whole different world of animals that you may encounter.
I once had a curious kit fox quietly approach me as I sat on the Borrego Sand Dunes watching the night sky. Nighthawks, owls, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, geckos, tarantulas and other creatures are more active at night.
There is more to the great outdoors than a mountain hike, great fishing trip, birding or exploring the desertwilderness. The night sky is another opportunity to sit and see.
A few quiet hours sitting under a sparkling night sky will allow you to discover more than you ever imagined.

The summer Milky Way and the streak of a passing iridium communications satellite.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

County’s second most common bird moves fast and avoids the limelight

BY ERNIE COWAN Union Tribune 
The characteristic “witchetywitchety” song confirmed what I was looking for, but I just couldn’t spot it. The colorful little common yellowthroat is another one of those birds that you are initially more likely to hear than see.
Despite its bright yellow and olive colors, and the male’s bold, black facemask, the yellowthroat typically hangs out in dense thickets of brush or rushes at the edge of marshes or ponds. They tend to bounce around quickly, not spending much time in one place. Sometimes you just need to be patient to get that flash of color and a good look.
Despite my efforts to locate this singing bird, I wasn’t having any luck, but he continued to sing and I continued to scan the tangled thickets for a glimpse of Mr. Yellowthroat.
A movement made me glance up, and there he was, uncharacteristically out in the open, pouring his heart out with a spring melody. I have captured several photos of these colorful birds, but most were less than ideal because of the poor light, or my inability to get close enough as they moved so quickly.
This yellowthroat was on full display, and he didn’t seem at all concerned that I was close by and enjoying his avian serenade. This colorful male even posed for pictures.
While elusive because of where they tend to hang out, the common yellowthroat is actually the second most common bird in San Diego County behind the song sparrow. They love the dense growth of riparian woodlands, marshy ponds or even overgrown weed fields.
The yellowthroat is considered a New World warbler with a range extending from southern Canada to central Mexico.
This is a common bird year-round, but numbers do increase when winter migrants arrive, and they also move seasonally into gardens where their insect food is in greater supply. But, finding the yellowthroat this time of year is most productive at places like Doane Pond at Palomar Mountain State Park, Cuyamaca Lake, the San Luis Rey River mouth in Oceanside, the lake and riparian habitat at Guajome Lake Regional Park, the creek bed of Peñasquitos Canyon, and even the marshy areas of Sentenac Marsh in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Other likely locations include Lindo Lake in Lakeside, Lake Hodges, Escondido’s Kit Carson Park, lagoons along the coast, Lake Henshaw and the Tijuana River Valley. You will be looking for a small bird, less than 5 inches long, with a wingspan of 6 to 7 inches. Often, the song will be the first clue they are around, but the bright colors of the male help it stand out in the thickets where it is most often found.
Like many bird species, the males are the most colorful. Females lack
the bright yellow color, with a more drab olive brown, a little yellow at the throat and under the tail, and no black mask.
The yellowthroat is an insect eater, often hunting near the ground for spiders, ants, beetles, bees, moths and similar sources of protein.
Yellowthroats breed in San Diego and build wellhidden cup nests close to or even on the ground. Sometimes the nest will have a roof. The female will lay up to six eggs, and during incubation, the male bird will bring food to the female. Once the chicks hatch, both parents will participate in feeding.
This is a great time to head out looking for the common yellowthroat. It’s a colorful and interesting bird to add to your life list.
Cowan is a freelance writer based in Escondido. Email him at or follow him at