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.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

ERNIE COWAN  Union Tribune Outdoors


A love of nature is a relatively common thing, but for those who spend more time in the wild, or live in rural areas, you begin to develop personal relationships with the creatures around you.

I don’t live in the wilderness, but my home is on top of a little mountain that is 1-mile long and 200-feet wide. Mt. Whoville, as we call it, is only a few minutes from town, but far enough out to be exempt from the impacts of urban life.

I am surrounded by native chaparral, cottonwoods, boulders and oak trees, and blessed with a wide variety of winged, crawling, creeping, slithering and hopping visitors. Some we have named because of distinctive marks that allows us to recognize them.

One of our most recent friends is “Blaze,” who arrived about a month ago as a tiny ball of fluff. The softball- sized cottontail rabbit was one of several early spring arrivals, but easily
 identified by a white mark on his forehead.

Blaze is now almost fully grown, most likely because of the fine lawn we have provided for him to enjoy. He also feeds on some of the birdseed that drops to the ground from our garden feeder, and he mingles nicely with the covey of fat California quail also devouring the seed.

I’m anxiously awaiting the tiny fuzzball quail chicks that will hopefully soon be accompanying their parents at my feeder.

“Stubby” is one of our resident lizards, so named because he apparently had a close encounter with a larger predator, perhaps our resident roadrunner. As a survival mechanism, lizard tails detach when grabbed by a hungry predator. The good news, for Stubby, a spiny fence lizard, is the tail will grow back. Until it does, I can recognize him as a resident of the rock pile under our lantana hedge.

Spring is almost here,
 and there is much activity in the natural world. A house wren has returned in search of a mate and provides a daily dawn alarm as he sings his beautiful love song from a perch near the nest box that has been used every year since we hung it.

The singing will go on for several weeks until he attracts
 his mate. Then they will busily go about building a new nest in the little birdhouse and soon both will be tending to the chicks with offerings of insects and grubs.

In the recent drought years, the wrens have only produced a single brood, but our abundant spring
 could mean two or more broods this year.

Any day now, one of our most colorful visitors will arrive on their migratory path from Mexico. The brightly colored hooded orioles will soon be drinking from our nectar feeders and brightening our garden with constant chatter, bickering and comical antics.

These birds of summer will delight us until fall when they return south for the winter.

We have a resident king snake, a rather large one that lives in the void places of our rock wall. We haven’t seen him all winter, but soon he should appear. Like our roadrunner, the king snake preys upon rattlesnakes, but also keeps our rabbit population in check. I hope Blaze keeps a wary eye out for Mr. King.

Perhaps our most spectacular wild friends are our resident red-tailed hawks. For several seasons now, a nesting pair have raised their young in a tall pine tree
 at the north end of Mt. Whoville.

We first know of the chicks’ arrival when we can hear them squawking for food, and see the parent birds riding the air currents along our ridge in search of a snake, lizard, gopher, squirrel or rabbit.

Once the chicks leave the nest there is a glorious sky show as mom and dad accompany the fledglings, teaching them to hunt on their own. A dead avocado tree on our slope provides a great resting place for the young birds as the parents ignore their demands for food and prod them on to hunt.

Spring is a wonderful time for nature lovers, and the simple addition of bird feeders, a small fountain, and a wildlife-friendly garden will provide nesting places and food that will bring wildlife to your home.