ERNIE COWAN Outdoors
WITH FLOWERS COME HUNGRY CATERPILLARS
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.
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.
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.