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.