Saturday, January 21, 2017



Shorebird breeds up north but likes to spend winters here


Our mild winter days are a wonderful time to wander the scenic coastline of San Diego, enjoying the collection of both resident birds and migratory visitors. There is always plenty to see.

Dominating the shoreline are the ungainly brown pelicans, now beginning to take on seasonal breeding colors, while the cliffs of La Jolla are teeming with activity as cormorants begin to build their informal nests of seaweed and engage in dramatic courting displays in hopes of attracting a worthy mate.

By late March the Brandt’s cormorants with their distinctive blue throats and the double-crested cormorants with their crown of white or black feathers will be tending freshly laid eggs.

Just about everywhere, there are also flocks of gulls feeding, congregating or seemingly posing for photographs on light posts or rocks.

These are all relatively large birds. They are easy to spot, and they congregate in large flocks. But take a closer look and you might find an interesting character known as a wandering tattler. Winter is a good time to spot the tattlers because their

Oft seen feeding at shoreline 

FROM E1 numbers grow with the arrival of birds migrating from less hospitable locations. 

About half the size of gulls and generally not found in flocks, the tattler is most frequently found feeding in shallow pools on rocky shorelines at low tide. The most distinctive thing about the tattler is its constant dipping and bobbing as it moves over the rocks or darts out of the way of an approaching wave. It’s almost like the bird is dancing to the upbeat tempo of music only it hears. The bird’s buffy gray color sometimes helps it blend with the natural shoreline colors, but its yellowlegs are a good identifying field mark. The tattler is considered a mediumsized shorebird with a stout, straight bill, a wingspan of about 20 inches, white under parts and a white eye stripe. 

So how did the wandering tattler get its name? Some bird names are obvious. A blue-footed boobie has blue feet, a red-tailed hawk has an obvious red tail, and a white-winged dove has distinctive white edges to its wings. 

Because of its habit of traveling great distances and its distribution over a wide area, this member of the sandpiper family was called a wanderer. It spends summers breeding in the far northern mountains of Canada and Alaska, and then migrates to the southern coastline of California and Mexico in the winter. They can generally be found along any of the rocky shorelines of San Diego from Point Loma to Oceanside. 

Once startled, the bird flies away while making a loud tattling call, perhaps as an alert to other nearby shorebirds. 

Once your sharp eyes spot the wandering tattler probing for food, keep an eye out for other shorebirds that might be feeding in the same area. Those will include the black or ruddy turnstones, other species of sandpipers, black oystercatchers, snowy egrets and surfbirds. 

San Diego’s bays and beaches are great places for winter birding, offering viewers several species that they can add to their life lists. 

January is also a good time to start planning for some of the major birding events of the year and to make sure your calendar is marked. 

February brings the annual San Diego Audubon Bird Festival, Feb. 23-26 at the Marina Village Conference Center. Visit for details. 

February is also the start of the spectacular Swainson’s Hawk migration, where thousands of the birds pass through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. A daily hawk watch takes places in Borrego Springs through mid-April. Visit for updates once the migration begins. 

And backyard birders should be preparing now to welcome the arrival of hooded orioles, who first appear in late February but begin arriving at feeders in big numbers in March. One of my favorite oriole nectar feeders is the First Nature feeder. It’s inexpensive and easy to keep clean. Hummingbirds will also use this feeder. 

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

Saturday, January 7, 2017




Whispers of hope are becoming shouts of expectation as recent rains have drenched San Diego’s deserts,
 promising a spectacular spring wildflower display.

It’s something that desert lovers look forward to every year, but the combination of rainfall, mild temperatures and the lack of high winds is something that nature only delivers about every seven to 10 years.

With nearly 2 inches of rain recorded throughout Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in December, and more on the way, the most important part of the equation is in place. A few more showers through January will support the ample growth of spring plants already underway and if temperatures remain mild to avoid searing the delicate flowers, and if high winds don’t shred the blossoms, it could be a banner color year.

There are some spring wildflowers every year, but the past five years of drought has limited plant growth. At best, spring displays have been more like small gardens scattered around the desert rather than vast fields of color.

The last good year was 2010, so hopes are high for this year.

“Although only nature knows for sure what the wildflowers in Anza-Borrego will be like this year, this season is showing all the signs of a good bloom. Maybe even a great bloom,” said Paige Rogowski, executive director of the Anza-Borrego Foundation. “We’ve had the rain, now we wait to see if we get the right mix of sunshine and warmth.”

If that does happen, look for the first color to arrive in mid- to late February and continue into April.

The lower elevations around Borrego Springs will be the first to bloom and then color will move to
 higher elevations as the season continues.A good wildflower year is important to both the state park and the community of Borrego Springs. Visitor numbers skyrocket when there are lots of flowers, and restaurants and lodging can be filled to capacity.

A vast spring wildflower bloom offers something for everyone, including those who prefer to enjoy the beauty from the comfort of their vehicle, or those who would rather explore more remote areas on foot.

Rogowski said Henderson Canyon Road and the north end of DiGiorgio Road where the pavement
 ends are often prime wildflower viewing locations. Fields of purple sand verbena dotted with yellow desert sunflowers offer a colorful contrast along Henderson Road, while dune primrose and verbena can carpet the dunes at the end of DiGiorgio Road.

The more remote areas often providing dense spring displays include Hawk Canyon, Plum Canyon, Little Blair Valley and Little Surprise Canyon. Frequently the drive into Borrego Springs along Montezuma Grade is a riot of color with red ocotillo blossoms, clusters of yellow brittle bush, magenta beavertail
 cactus or delicate white flowers of fish hook cactus greeting visitors at the peak of the bloom.

Hikers into such places as Borrego Palm Canyon can explore native palm groves and see species of wildflowers found nowhere else in the park. A bonus might also be the sighting of a herd of bighorn sheep.

An abundant bloom also produces other things of interest that show how nature reacts to lots of rain. With a carpet of spring plants, sphinx moths lay eggs that soon hatch into large, green caterpillars. While colorful and interesting, they also devour the tender growth of wildflowers.

The caterpillars also provide food for migrating Swainson’s hawks that pass through the desert from about mid-February until mid-April. A good spring bloom means more food for the hawks.

Rogowski said park visitors can keep track of the spring bloom in several ways. At the foundation website,, click on the “Explore Anza­
Borrego” tab and then “Wildflowers” for the latest information. You can also sign up for email updates on the same page.

The state park also maintains a Wildflower Hotline. Call (760) 767-4684 for the latest bloom information as the season progresses.

Visitors can also stop at the State Park Store in the mall on Palm Canyon Drive or at the park visitor center for the latest bloom information, maps or wildflower
 guidebooks. Don’t be surprised if you see your desert-loving friends doing rain dances in the next few weeks, with high hopes of creating a memorable wildflower season. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Planning Outdoor Calendar for 2017



Some people are just drawn to the outdoors.
I’m one of them.
Being outdoors— hunting, fishing, bird-watching, hiking or enjoying nature and wildlife photography— is when I am the happiest.
Some people have social calendars, or work schedules they compile at the start of each year. For me, that exercise involves creating my outdoor calendar.
Here is a list of a few of the things I try to schedule each year in the outdoors.
January is peak migration season for birds at Salton Sea. Less than 100 miles to the east is a vast inland sea that provides winter hospitality for huge flocks of visiting birds, including several varieties of ducks, geese, swans, sandhill cranes and American whit! e pelicans. How thrilling to be startled by the explosive rising of 10,000 or more geese lifting into the air, creating a sound like a jetliner taking off.
Resident species such as hawks, dove, quail and burrowing owls are also easily found around Salton Sea.
February is desert season. A great time to explore the wilderness trails of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, hike to remote waterfalls and palm groves, or encounter bighorn sheep, a curious roadrunner or study the unique geology of the curdled landscape.
Desert landscape photography is also more dramatic during the winter with crisp, clear air, and lower sun angles that dramatize the terrain shadows.
March this year could be a spectacular wildflower season in San Diego’s deserts. Ample winte! r rains can mean a carpet of color along with hidden gardens f! or hikers exploring the vast desert expanse. A good wildflower season will extend into April and then climb to mountain elevations for May and June with fields of lupines, poppies, goldfields and wild lilac carpeting hillsides and meadows of Laguna, Cuyamaca and Palomar Mountain.
March is also when migrating hooded orioles return to San Diego from their winter home in Mexico, bringing color and comedy to backyard gardens. Dust off those nectar feeders and have them hung by the end of February for the early arrivals. Hummingbirds will use the same feeders. Hunters first head to the field in March with the opening of wild turkey season, and the Eastern Sierra trout season opens in April. I never miss that.
If you are captivated by the night sky, May marks the first appearance of the summer Milky Way. Dark sky week! ends will often find sky gazers, amateur astronomers or photographers in remote places such as Mount Laguna, Palomar or the open spaces of Anza-Borrego to observe or record the celestial beauty.
Don’t forget the meteor showers that will ignite the night sky several times during the year. The bestshowers being the Quadrantids on the night of Jan. 3-4, the Perseids on Aug. 12-13, and the Geminids on Dec. 13-14.
Spring is the start of offshore sportfishing in San Diego, with peak season arriving in July-September when tuna, Dorado, yellowtail and bass are activelybiting. The summer months are vacation time when I generally try to escape for a week or two to the Eastern Sierra. My passion is fly-fishing and hi! king. I can get lost for a day wandering along a small stream, catching! and releasing one or two trout in each hole and moving on to the next spot. I think flyfishing is just a good excuse to hike. The warm days of summer mean night catfishing at several local lakes. There’s a kind of magic to relaxing in a boat or along the shore of a local lake, the soft glow of a lantern your only light, and the warmth of a summer night surrounding you as you wait for that big whiskerfish to bite.
September brings hunters back to the field with opening of dove season, followed by deer season in October and fall turkey season in November. September is also the start of tarantula breeding season when the big, hairy spiders can be found wandering in native grass at places like Daley Ranch Reserve in Escondido. Evenings are prime time to find them, and the cooler temperatures make hiking ideal late in the day. September is often thunderstorm season in San Diego when tropical monsoons boil up from Mexico bringing massive thunderheads and occasional lightning storms and flash floods. Outdoors lovers often follow the storms on weather radar and chase them. I’m guilty.
Fall usually brings another journey north to the Eastern Sierra for hiking, good trout fishing and the spectacular show of fall color as aspen groves ignite in brilliant autumn displays.
December is sunset season, when gentle clouds fill the sky, providing a canvas for the display of spectacular colors.
For the San Diego outdoors lover, there’s an endless list of things to do throughout the year.