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.