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

Sunday, June 4, 2017

ERNIE COWAN Union-Tribune Outdoors 

Looking south over San Diego County from the summit of Toro Peak 


I climbed a mountain last week, not simply for the spectacular view, but to survey the landscape I’ve wandered for most of my life.

The highest mountain in San Diego is a little over 6,000 feet, but just a few miles north into Riverside there is a mountain nearly 9,000 feet tall that offers a commanding view of San Diego County.

Toro Peak is part of the Santa Rosa Plateau and stands guard over Borrego Springs to the south and Palm Springs to the north. Ona clear day you can stand at the summit and see from the Salton Sea, south into Mexico and west to the Pacific Ocean.

Mountains that I have climbed, like Cuyamaca Peak, Stonewall, Hot Springs, Sunset, Black, Sombrero, Whale and Angel, were easy to pick out on
 this clear day. Gazing out over the vast, curdled landscape, I was not seeing nameless mountains and canyons, but rather the geological pages of a human scrapbook. There, to my right, the San Ysidro Mountains, where I hiked 26 miles through spring rain and then desert heat while carrying a fragile, Native American clay pot that I found while hiking with the supervisor of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

San Diego County’s highest point, Hot Springs Mountain, was farther to the west and offered memories of a trip to the summit to interview one of the few female fire lookouts, long before watchful human eyes had been replaced by unblinking instruments. Today there are only ruins of the once important outpost.

I could see High Point on Palomar Mountain where lightning struck a huge pine tree next to me while I was fighting a small fire started during a summer thunderstorm as a young Forest Service seasonal worker.
Just beyond the broad plain of the Warner Valley and Lake Henshaw I could locate the meadow where I proposed and was later married to my beautiful wife, Kati. When I closed my eyes, I could see even more clearly the white, horsedrawn carriage bringing her to the shade of the stately oak tree where we exchanged vows. Friends still talk about our spring nuptials, referring to it as “a three rattlesnake wedding,” because of the uninvited guests that showed up.

A few miles away my mind’s eye could see the mountain-to-desert panorama where my mother’s
 ashes are scattered under a towering incense cedar tree.

In the growing shadows of late afternoon, the deep cleft of the canyon cut by the west fork of the San Luis Rey River brought back fond memories of a long day’s hike.

With our dogs, a hiking buddy and I had planned a short, 4-mile jaunt from Barker Valley to Lake Henshaw. Thirteen hours later, we reached our destination, but not before an exhausting day of climbing over and slipping off huge boulders into waist-deep water. We may have lost a few hours while catching some small native trout in this isolated
 mountain stream, but my soaked springer spaniel could not have been happier.

Look closely to the south, there is a little bump in the In-Ko-Pah Mountains called Sombrero Peak, obviously named because of its distinctive shape. Ona blustery spring day, a group of us hiked to the top of the mountain, but to survive had to cling to one another to avoid being blown off the summit in winds that I’m sure approached 100 miles an hour.

To the east I see the checkerboard agricultural fields of the Imperial Valley where I have enjoyed many
 opening day dove hunts with my sons and good friends. Those same fields have provided enjoyable birding trips in the winter months as we went armed with telephoto lenses in search of migrating sandhill cranes and resident burrowing owls.

The glory of a spring wildflower bloom may have passed, but thumbing through this scrapbook view before me I can see vast fields of purple sand verbena, dotted with the large, white blossoms of scattered dune primrose, or I imagine the yellow fields of desert sunflowers, or the reddish hue of the ocotillo forest as the tips of these buggy whips are ablaze with their waxy crimson flowers.

It’s time to leave my perch. I pause for one last look.

Before me is a scene that has not changed since the earliest visitors left the first human footprints centuries ago. The only difference is that each carried their own mental scrapbook.

As I left the mountaintop, I closed my scrapbook until I can return again with new memories and adventures
 to add. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

ERNIE COWAN  Union-Tribune Outdoors


As spring teeters on the fulcrum of summer, it’s the smells of nature that ignite the most vivid memories.

A recent drive through the Cuyamaca Mountains was filled with the fragrances that brought back memories of my summer of emancipation. Pine trees, damp summer meadows, the delicate scent of wildflowers, campfires and even fresh air were the accelerants that ignited the fires of
 vivid memories. My 16th summer was spent working as a senior Boy Scout at Camp Hual-Cu-Cuish near Julian. Tucked into the oaks and pines at the edge of a broad meadow, it was home for several glorious weeks.

I was there as free labor to greet arriving young Scouts, watch over them in the swimming pool, lead hikes, or supervise games of Capture the Flag in the golden meadow below the camp. This was my first time away from home for an extended period and my last summer before becoming fully emancipated by getting my driver’s license.

Our small group of senior Scouts became a close gang of good guys that helped set life’s foundation. Such things as being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly and other points of the Scout Law became important life touchstones.

It was a summer of growth when we were expected to be responsible and set good examples for our charges.

Each camp session began on Sunday around noon and ended a week later on Saturday after breakfast. Camp closed for that one day and normally everyone left and returned home. One weekend a few of us decided to stay around and live off the land.

After saying goodbye to
 the departing Scouts, we began our adventure. Julian was our destination, about 10 miles to the north. There was a riding stable near the highway to Julian so we headed there in hopes of catching a ride into town.

There were young cowgirls at the stable and the inevitable flirting began. We tried to impress with our stories of wilderness knowledge and leadership, and they stayed on their horses to demonstrate their command of animals.

There may also have been an element of escape included in their plan.

We lingered longer than necessary, but eventually caught a ride into Julian. Like any young men in port for liberty, Julian was our Tenderloin for a glorious afternoon, including apple pie and ice cream. There may have been some canned tuna for dinner, as well.

We spent the night
 camped on the ground someplace in the surrounding forest and made our way back to Hual-Cu-Cuish the next day in time for the arrival of the new wave of campers.

A few days later, while teaching younger Scouts how to lash poles together, riders appeared in the distant meadow. My heart skipped a beat when I realized that two cowgirls were approaching on horseback.

I dashed into the meadow to greet them. After all, these were old mountain friends, at least in my mind.

Comments were made about how cute I looked in my uniform and at some point there was an innocent teenage kiss as one of the girls leaned down from her horse. Then there was talk of another, more clandestine meeting.

One of the riders suggested a rendezvous that night on the fire road above
 the Boy Scout Camp. My heart soared. This was the greatest summer ever.

There was a problem,
 however. Wednesday night was mandatory hike night. The senior Scouts were all required to take the younger visitors on a hike after dinner. How would I get out this? I picked at my dinner and made a few comments about not feeling well. To my surprise, an adult leader said I didn’t look very good and suggested I go see the camp nurse.

Continuing my act, I visited the nurse. She took my temperature and announced that I had a low fever. I was ecstatic when she suggested I should probably not go on the mandatory hike.

With theatrical aplomb I sadly waved goodbye to the departing hikers, then raced to my ramada to prepare for
 my midnight rendezvous, scheduled for 9 p.m.

I donned by cleanest Scout uniform, full merit badge sash, knee socks and tassels at the calf. The cowgirl was impressed by a man in uniform, and I didn’t want to disappoint.

As the Scouts hiked the rocky trail to Stonewall Peak, I was preparing for an adventure of the heart, whatever that might be.

At the appointed hour I slipped into the woods and made my way to the fire road above camp.

In the softness of a dark summer night I waited. The smells of the forest etched into my mind.

Alas, my Valkyrie never
 materialized from the shadows and like the mythical female Norse spirits who choose who live or die in battle, I was about to become a fallen soldier in the conflict of love. Now I really was feeling

 At 16, affairs of the heart are like lip balm. It’s soothing and sweet for a moment, but soon gone and forgotten.

But each spring as I drive through the mountains and meadows of my youth, the fragrances of nature allow me to drift back to my summer of emancipation.

Saturday, April 15, 2017




Getting kids interested in birdwatching might be as simple as adding a little excitement. And what could be more exciting than the Great Nuthatch Hunt of 2017?

Spring is the perfect time to grab those binoculars, put on comfortable hiking shoes and head east to our oak woodlands and pinewoods in search of nuthatches. There is even a bonus bird for the overachiever.

There are three nuthatch species found in San Diego County, and they range from relatively common and easy to find to somewhat rare and more challenging.

The beginning nuthatch hunter should easily locate the white-breasted nuthatch. This is the largest of the three species, but it’s hardly large, measuring slightly less than 6 inches in length. As the name implies, it has a distinctive white breast that extends up and around the eyes, and a black cap that extends to gray-blue feathers on the back.

This year-round native is the most widely distributed of the three nuthatch species but is most frequently found in the oak woodlands and mixed conifer environments of the county, ranging from the inland valleys to the eastern mountains.

Some of the best areas to spot this nuthatch are in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, Laguna Mountains, Julian, Palomar Mountain State Park, Lake Wohlford, Lake Hodges, Stelzer County Park, El Monte County Park, Mission Trails Regional Park and Potrero County Park. 

Birders are most likely to find this little bird darting about on the bark of oak trees in search of insects and seeds. One of its most delightful habits is moving head-down along the trunk of large trees, or hanging upside down under branches while feeding. They are the most vocal of the three local nuthatch species, with a call often described as an insistent nasal yammering. 

Their love of large seeds and their habit of wedging seeds into tree bark and then striking with their pointed bill to “hatch” the seed is the root of this bird’s name. 

The second nuthatch to spot in the Great Nuthatch Hunt is the red-breasted nuthatch. This nuthatch is slightly smaller than the white-breasted but easily identified with a black line that runs through the eye and rich reddish-cinnamon color on the chest and belly. 

Like all nuthatches, it has no neck and has a long, pointed bill. It produces a tiny call, sounding like small tin horns. 

The red-breasted nuthatch prefers to nest on the highest peaks in San Diego County but will be found as an irregular visitor from the coast to the mountains outside of its summer breeding season. 

This nuthatch is less gregarious than others, sometimes even solitary or found only in pairs. During breeding season, it will be a rare resident of our highest peaks on Palomar, Hot Springs Mountain, Volcan, Laguna and Cuyamaca. In the winter, birders can find them in the trees at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, in coastal residential areas with trees, and throughout county mountain areas. 

The smallest of the three nuthatch species is the pygmy nuthatch, measuring just over 4 inches in length. Their song is a repeated, high-pitched piping sound that often goes on for several minutes. This tiny bundle of energy is confined to the coniferous forests of our county and most often in the pine stands of the Laguna Mountains and less commonly on Hot Springs Mountain, Palomar Mountain, Julian and Cuyamaca. They rarely stray beyond their normal habitat. 

This small and noisy bird is generally found in larger groups, often hanging out with other birds such as mountain chickadees and warblers. If your Great Nuthatch Hunt is successful, you may also encounter the bonus bird known as the brown creeper. While not actually a nuthatch, this little bird has a similar shape and size but is distinguished by a slightly downward- curved bill and streaked brownish color. They are found mostly at higher elevations in similar locations as the nuthatches but sometimes stray into inland valleys and coastal areas. 

Just for the record, you don’t have to have excited kids to enjoy the Great Nuthatch Hunt. Such an adventure is a great excuse to get back into the woods and enjoy the spring wildflowers and various migrating bird visitors and to hike some beautiful trails as you try to add these four birds to your life list. 

Cowan is a freelance writer based in Escondido. Email him at  or follow him at

Thursday, April 13, 2017



It may not be marching bands and floats, but nature’s annual spring parade is about to begin as longer days and warmer weather awaken San Diego’s backcountry from its winter chill.

A drive into the oak woodlands or pine-covered mountains will give you a hint of things to come. Fields are painted in brilliant green; blankets of tiny yellow goldfields are starting to carpet grassy meadows like paint slowly spreading from a spilled bucket, and daffodils are lining the highways to Julian like a cheerful welcoming committee.

Migrating orioles have returned to local backyard feeders, and just about every critter from spiders to coyotes is pairing up. Doves are gathering nesting material and fuzzy grebe chicks are already riding on the backs of parent birds at Lake Hodges.

Shiny black cormorants are already raising their featherless, black chicks, and soon gulls will be tending
 eggs then fuzzy, spotted hatchlings on the cliffs at La Jolla.

One of the greatest sky shows to be seen is put on by nesting peregrine falcons on the cliff at Torrey Pines. Once the fledglings learn to fly in late May, parent birds will be soaring over awestruck observers on the
 beach as they teach the youngsters to hunt.
This is a spring of abundance. Record rainfall has produced more vegetation and that means more insects, more food for plant eaters and thus more food for the predators that feed on the plant eaters.

Whatever message nature sends has notified the wild kingdom that there is abundance that will benefit all.

For the nature lover, this is a glorious time. Wildflowers not seen in years will soon be blooming from Santa Ysabel to Palomar Mountain, Point Loma to Mount Laguna.

The mild days of spring will beckon hikers to the
 scenic trails of Palomar Mountain, Torrey Pines or Cuyamaca Rancho state parks where birds will be nesting, baby deer still covered in spots might be feeding with their mothers and wildflowers will fill the air with a gentle scent.

One of the most enjoyable products of spring is the arrival of youngsters. I’ve already seen tiny lizards,
 less than 2 inches in length, darting about my garden.

Local lagoons will be a nursery for baby ducks, swallows, and other bird species that find abundant food and shelter here. Baby seals and sea lions are still nursing as mother and baby bask on the warm sands around La Jolla Cove.

Anyone living near local
 canyon open spaces has probably already seen the arrival of the spring crop of cottontail rabbits. Your grass and the tender shoots of garden plants provide a spring-mix salad for these furry visitors.

The night air may be filled with the hoots or screeches of nesting owls, and if you are lucky, red-tailed hawks may have already nested and will soon be tending to their hatchlings that you will hear squawking for food long before you see them in the air. But there will be an air show.

Once the hawk chicks are ready to leave the nest, both parent birds will patiently teach them to hunt while the youngsters continue to whine and demand to be fed.

In the oak woodlands, the acorn woodpeckers are busily preparing nests in natural holes or ones they have created. Soon these social birds will be working together to feed their youngsters and if you have spotted a nesting hole, look for the
 chicks to occasionally poke their heads out to marvel at the outside world.

Osprey and egrets will be nesting around local lakes and lagoons, and it can be breathtaking to watch the huge osprey swoop down, grasp a fish in its talons and then soar upward as it returns to feed its young.

If you are not sure where to go to discover the many trails in San Diego, consider getting a copy of “Coast to Cactus: The Canyoneer Trail Guide to San Diego Outdoors.”

Organized hikes are also available at such places as Mission Trails Regional Park ( and San Dieguito River Park (

Mild weather, green fields, wildflowers, baby animals and the excitement of spring in the great outdoors makes this a great time to join nature’s parade in San Diego.

Sunday, April 2, 2017


San Diego’s spring desert wildflower show may have been out of this world, but an even more unworldly show is soon to arrive in the dark night sky of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

March means that the spectacular display of star clouds known as the Milky Way arrives just before dawn in the dark desert sky. As spring turns to summer, the Milky Way rises a bit later each night, traveling across the heavens in one of America’s greatest dark sky locations.

By July the shifting heavens will begin the nightly show around 9 p.m. and by late August the Milky Way will be almost directly overhead at the same hour. By fall, the Milky Way will be setting shortly after sunset.

Summer crowds will be nothing like the hordes that swarmed spring wildflower fields, but you will be surprised at the number of people in the desert on the dark sky weekends when the moon is not affecting stargazing.

If you are prepared for summer heat and have an off-road vehicle, you can escape to wilderness badlands and instead of the crowds of stargazers, you are more likely to be all alone under a twinkling blanket of starlight, accented with the occasional flash of a meteor. For urban dwellers, it’s a show they may have never seen and are likely to never forget.

What makes stargazing so special in the summer desert?

The first and most obvious answer is you can see stars there. Even late at night, urban dwellers must contend with light pollution that masks all but the brightest stars. Sadly, there is a generation of youngsters who have never discovered the beauty of a spectacular night sky in its full glory.
Secondly, the more densely compact field of stars of the Milky Way is only visible in the summer. The winter sky may actually offer better “seeing,” but in the winter, stargazers are looking through a thinner portion of the galaxy instead of the thicker core that rotates into view in the summer sky. What you are seeing when you gaze into the clouds of the Milky Way is a galaxy of 100 billion stars stretching over a span of 100,000 light years. A light year is the distance light travels in one year at a speed of 186,000 miles per second, or 5.9 trillion miles. It’s hard to comprehend.

The heart of the Milky Way is in the constellation Sagittarius. In this brightest area the various dust lanes, stars and other celestial objects are the most concentrated.

Viewing the Milky Way requires nothing more than a dark sky and a comfortable chair or blanket. Many summer desert visitors do just that. They pack a picnic, pick a night when moonlight will not interfere and head out to enjoy the quiet and beauty. Like ancient viewers, you need nothing but
 your eyes to discover the many constellations.

Photographers also flock to the desert on dark sky nights, using wideangle and fast lenses to capture the beauty of the stars. Amateur astronomers will have telescopes set up to get up close and personal with such spectacular objects as the Andromeda Galaxy, the Dumbbell Nebula, the Hercules Star Cluster or the double star called Albireo in Cygnus the Swan Constellation.

The summer sands of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are perfect for doing all of this. Located within a two-hour drive of most metropolitan areas of Southern California, the park is only one of two places in California designated as dark sky locations
 by the International Dark Sky Association.

The park is also located behind a range of mountains that blocks the glow of urban areas to the west, and it provides a viewing window to the southeast that is most conducive to seeing the star show.

Many sky gazers look for nights close to the new moon to head to the desert, however, good viewing can be found during a window of several
 days before and after the dark moon. Dark moon nights begin in April on the 26th, followed by no moon on May 25, June 23, July 23, Aug. 21 and Sept. 19. 

I am offering a night sky photography workshop through George's Camera on June 24. Visit for details. Click on Classes and events. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

It would be hard to over estimate the beauty of this year's wildflower bloom in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Sunday, March 19, 2017



There’s a second show of spectacular spring color in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and it’s not from wildflowers.

This bit of bright color is an important piece in Nature’s grand puzzle.

Abundant rainfall that produces lots of vegetation also means the arrival of the showy caterpillar of the sphinx moth.

Local gardeners may cringe at the thought of this large, green, black and yellow caterpillar, also known to some as tomato hornworms, but in the wilds, they provide an important food source for migrating hawks. The caterpillars also morph into moths that help pollinate native plants.

With the arrival of a good crop of spring growth in the desert, the 3-to-4inch caterpillar soon follows. The good news is they are colorful and interesting to see and provide a good source of protein for migrating Swainson’s hawks. The bad news is they can devour a field of wildflowers in just a few days.

When conditions are right, tiny moth eggs hatch and the brightly hued, and hungry, caterpillars emerge. They feed and grow before burying into the earth and enter a pupa stage as cocoons until emerging next
 winter as large moths. The sphinx moth is often called a hummingbird moth because of its size, rapid wing beat and ability to hover and fly forward and backward.

They have a unique proboscis that rolls up like a New Year’s noisemaker and it can be extended to allow the moth to sip nectar while hovering in flight.

For now, the colorful caterpillars are the main characters in this life cycle. They are emerging in great numbers and will soon be devouring the tender shoots and petals of primrose, sunflowers and other delicate spring wildflowers now attracting thousands
 to California’s largest state park.

Last week, it was mentioned in this column that the migration of the Swainson’s hawk is now happening in Borrego Springs.

The hawk migration is one of the longest of any animal; some traveling as much as 14,000 miles from the southern regions of South America to the arctic slops of North America, and Borrego Valley is a popular waypoint for the traveling birds.

It’s an arduous journey requiring strength and stamina and good sources of food.

Borrego Hawkwatch organizer Hal Cohen said migration has been steady this year, but numbers are still low for this time of the season, which generally
 extends from Feb. 15 to mid-April.
“We do have caterpillars and some feeding behavior,” Cohen said.

Last year at this time during the migration, Cohen reported “hundreds of thousands of caterpillars and hawks all over the valley eating them.”

Last year was also a good flower season, although no match for this
 banner year. As caterpillar numbers increase, expect migrating hawk numbers to also increase as they drop in to sample nature’s hospitality.

For those who have yet to visit the desert for this year’s banner bloom, there is still time. Higher temperatures this week may sear the more delicate blossoms, but the hardier ocotillo,
 brittlebush and various cactus species are reaching full bloom and should continue for a few more weeks.

Lake Cuyamaca

Recent rainfall has expanded Lake Cuyamaca to several thousand acres with overflow water pouring into what is known as the Upper Bain. Lake Manager Butch Paddock said 1,200 pounds of Jess Ranch rainbow trout have been stocked in the Upper Basin, and when the California Department of Fish and Wildlife trout plant arrives, it will also be put into the Upper Basin.

The normal lake covers 110 acres, but the overflow lake created in the Upper Basin is traditionally a more natural environment for trout, and anglers can expect some exciting fishing.

Paddock said the Upper Basin should remain well in May. Anglers can use float tubes in the Upper Basin.

Gun safety

A three-hour firearm familiarization and safety class is being offered for anyone anticipating the purchase of, or who already owns, a handgun.

The class is offered from 2 to 5 p.m. April 9 at the Escondido Fish and Game Association shooting range east of Lake Wohlford.

Participants will learn the basics of handguns, home firearm safety and the responsibilities of firearm ownership. Handguns and ammunition are provided for the class, but participants are encouraged to bring their own handgun if they already own one. Cost of the class is $60.

The Escondido Fish and Game Association range is at 16525 Guejito Road and Lake Wohlford Road.

To register for the class, contact Jack Bryson at (760) 746-2868.