Friday, August 21, 2020


Birds will head to Mexico for the winter

While the civilized world seems to struggle in turmoil right now, the natural clock of ages faithfully ticks on.

As another August slips from the calendar, the beat of nature goes on, and the happy visitors to my summer garden are hearing the call to launch them on a journey south.

We can’t hear this call, but the hooded orioles do, and they are eagerly preparing to return to some preordained place in Mexico for the winter.

These beautiful birds have added color, sound and joy to Mt. Whoville, as they have for thousands of other bird lovers throughout Southern California who provide food, water and nesting sites.

A week ago, I began to notice fewer brightly colored males, and this week the males are gone. This is typical, with males leaving first, followed by females and the late-crop juveniles.

For the past few weeks the orioles have been feeding aggressively at the nectar feeders, quibbling and cackling as they always do. It was a time to fatten up for the journey ahead.

They have heard the quickening call and seem a bit frenzied as they feed with purpose.

As bird migrations go, it’s not a long trip, perhaps 1,500 miles at most. They will spend the winter in southern Baja California, or in a narrow strip along the western edge of the Mexican mainland from Los Mochis, south into the state of Oaxaca.

They will not breed there but will return here next springs to build nests, lay eggs and raise the next generation of young.

This seems like an early departure year. In some years I have recorded feeding males as late as the third week of August, but this year I have not seen a mature male since Aug. 10.

I’m sure those who study birds have more answers, but it does make one wonder what unseen force signals them that it’s time to leave?

While there are increasing reports of hooded orioles overwintering because birders are providing food, the rhythm of nature still pulls most the birds south.

Perhaps it’s the lack of natural food, or some sense of coming seasonal patterns, but at any rate, it’s a bittersweet time when these beautiful creatures no longer brighten our gardens.

The beauty and joy they bring to our hearts will be missed, and that’s the bitter part. Yes, we know they will be back, and that’s the sweet part.

We eagerly await their return each spring when the early vanguard of males arrives in the last few days of February. Soon, greater numbers of males and females will fill our gardens with color and song by mid-March.

They will busy themselves collecting fiber from palms to build pouch nests that are woven under protective fronds. These glorious orange, yellow and jet-black birds will also bring delight as we watch them bicker, hang upside down, or perch on the highest point of nearby shrubs and fill the spring air with their delightful melody of whistles, chatters and warbles.

Gangly youngsters will swell the numbers at the oriole feeders, and they will grow and mature as they prepare for their first trip south.

As I watch the remaining female orioles feeding, I ponder their coming migration and life cycle. What force has determined when and where they migrate and their lifespan?

Near the oriole feeder is a potted succulent with clusters of yellow and red blossoms. Each flower blooms for a single day, but the next morning the wilted flower is replaced by a fresh, new one.

The colorful orioles “bloom” every spring in my garden and are here until a hint of fall is in the air. The flowers exist for only hours.

Perhaps it’s better to simply enjoy the different cycles than to dwell upon the reasons.

There are other critters on Mt. Whoville who are sensing the seasonal change. It might be close to 100 degrees out there, but there is something in the air that even I can feel.

Swallowtail butterflies seem a bit more intent as they float from flower to flower on the lantana hedge. The coyote pups who share our mountaintop setting are no longer accompanied by parents. My game camera sees them alone now, playfully seeking their own food and preparing for winter.

The quail chicks that were fuzzy little walnuts with legs a few months ago still visit my ground level water dish, but now they are scrawny teenagers and no longer doted over by attentive parents. Next spring the youngsters will be bringing their chicks to drink and scrounge for seeds dropped by other birds from the hanging feeder.

These are dependable and comforting cycles and allowing yourself to embrace this rhythm brings inner peace. That’s something we can all use.

Sit and see for a while. Watch and listen to nature.

There is comfort in the ageless metronome of the seasons.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Season has brought forth a baby boom of wildlife

Ernie Cowan Outdoors
It’s been quite a spring season for free-range children.
Just the other day I was sitting in a shady patch on my driveway working on a project when two toddlers suddenly ran right up to me. I could have picked them up.
A moment later there were two more, followed, I was happy to see, by a concerned adult.
Seeing me, papa sounded an assembly call and the four little quail youngsters resembling walnuts with legs, dashed back to the protection of the adult bird.
The brief encounter brought joy to my heart and a big grin to my face. The innocence of the little chicks and their curiosity had brought them to within inches of me.
While the world has been gnashing teeth over social and health issues, nature has endured, and this spring at least, seems to be thriving.
We never get enough rain in Southern California, but this year we were blessed with abundant and well-spaced storms that produced a cycle of plant growth and wildflowers and that means more insects, birds, reptiles and mammals.
That’s been quite evident here on Mt. Whoville.
As spring now transitions into summer, the hooded orioles have completed nesting and their free-range offspring are crowding my nectar feeders. Typically, I may see two or three adult orioles at any one time, but in the past week there have been nearly a dozen at times, either sipping nectar or cackling in bushes nearby. It’s an animated mixture of juveniles and adult bird.
It’s comical to watch the immature males squabbling with their female peers over who gets access to the feeders. They spend more time posturing and debating the issue than actually drinking, often while the other bird hangs upside down under the feeder.
I’m not exactly sure why we have the bumper crop of orioles this year, but several of my birding friends have commented on the same thing.
For now, I will enjoy this addition of bright yellow and black feathers and all the oriole activity until they depart in September for their winter home in Mexico.
Early this spring there seemed to be a swarm of tiny lizards here. Sitting quietly on my patio with morning coffee, it has not been unusual to see a dozen or more tiny fence lizards or skinks scurrying about. Our local roadrunner is very happy about this.
A nearby local pond brought to life by spring rains is a virtual metropolis of critters. Not half the size of a tennis court, I would estimate there were hundreds of thousands of tadpoles earlier this spring, replaced now by thousands of little frogs that launch into the water as you approach.
Even my game camera has recorded the youngsters of spring.

Several weeks ago, an obviously pregnant female coyote was captured on camera as she passed by in the dark of night. A few weeks later I caught one distant image of the now nursing female and two fuzzy little coyote pups. I had to get better images of the pups.
For the next two weeks I moved my camera to likely spots in hopes of getting pup pics. It took me awhile, with an occasional image here and there of a single pup, but last week I managed to photograph three coyote youngsters in the same shot.
The pups appear to have been weaned, because I have not seen an adult with them. They are still kids, with huge ears and feet, but like the little quail, they have a playful nature and boundless curiosity. One shot shows them playing with a bug of some kind.
My secret to success for eventually getting their pictures was placing the camera on the pathway leading to a large garden fountain. As days get warmer, water is harder to find, so my fountain offers a dependable wildlife drinking source.
Soon, these fuzzy little coyote pups will grow into their big ears and feet, and perhaps leave the comfort of their home range and expand into their own territory.
I find it such a joy to listen to the yelps and howls of these native dogs echoing through the canyons in the dark warmth of summer nights. Sometimes it’s a kind of symphony when a poorwill also chimes in with its plaintive night call.
The crop of youngsters of all kinds this spring, including birds, reptiles, and mammals, has provided a pleasant relief during these stressful times.
And did I forget butterflies? My garden is filled with unusual numbers of large swallowtails, painted ladies and colorful monarchs. It’s a good thing.
Right now, the world needs more butterflies.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

It was a wildlife encounter I can only describe as profound.
I’ve photographed desert bighorn sheep many times over 50-plus years, but this adventure was one I will never forget.
The summer heat was withering as I stepped from my vehicle in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Not only were temperatures well into the triple digits, but it was slightly after noon so there was no mercy from the pounding midday sun.
I came with high hopes of finding bighorn sheep in one of the desert canyons that has perennial water. These isolated sources of water are a thin lifeline for the animals who live in this arid place.
The air temperature alone was bad enough, but I could feel even more heat radiating off the light-colored desert sand as I followed the dusty trail.
Movement caught my eye. A jackrabbit? They are not typically active in midday summer heat.
I stopped on the trail and suddenly a massive desert bighorn ram pushed through a thicket of indigo bush and we stood face to face not more than 20 feet apart.
Encountering an animal this large and powerful in their environment might be a little concerning, but as we looked at one another I felt no sense of threat.
I knew this was a special animal.
His horns were thick, solid and fully curled from the top of his forehead back around to his eyes. The curling horns were broomed from wear at the tips, weathered and chipped from successful battles of dominance, and his fur showed scars earned from a long life in a harsh place.
Perhaps 8 or 9 years old, an elder by bighorn sheep standards, he had no doubt seen and survived everything from the challenges of other rams, perhaps mountain lion attacks and simply navigating the rugged, vertical landscape where everything claws, sticks, pokes or scratches.
As he stood staring at me, I didn’t see fear, aggression, curiosity or even wary caution. This was his domain and he was the undisputed master. I saw mutual respect and wisdom in his large, gold eyes.
For the longest time we just stood and watched one another. This was an animal who had a story to tell. I could see wisdom in his eyes.
There is instinct and there is wisdom. Instinct is for early survival, while wisdom is earned from surviving our imperfect instincts.
There is power and strength in youth, often tested and displayed simply because the youthful can. This patriarch was obviously powerful and strong, but there was no hint he would use it unless needed. He had no need to prove anything.
So many lessons were exchanged as we watched one another. Two old warriors of life, showing our age but also our respect for what each has endured to arrive at this moment and place in time.
For a time, it was like old friends sitting silently together and reflecting on lives that have seen things, done things, won, lost, lived and survived. There was the acceptance, calm, compassion and understanding that seems to come with age. These were a few golden moments.
While this magnificent ram seemed unconcerned with the 111-degree heat, I was beginning to wilt. It was time to leave.
Several other bighorns were now milling about. Smaller rams, ewes and yearling lambs fed on the dried remains of brittlebush flowers or bunches of parched native grass.
The younger rams were testing their strength by feigning battle, pushing one another, gently bumping horns, but never challenging the big ram.
All seemed to respect the leader as he fed on the parched vegetation.
For close to an hour we shared this sweltering place. In reality he allowed me to share his home. He seemed unaffected by the oppressive heat and harsh landscape, while left alone, I would survive only a short time here.
I had no idea if this ram was aware of his mortality, but he has now lived most of his years and in a few more seasons at best will fade from his role as patriarch.
He will have accomplished his singular purpose of perpetuating the species.
He is the strongest of the strong. A champion with strong genes, good survival instincts and a lifetime of earned wisdom that has been passed on to future generations.
Should we ask for anything more?

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.