February in Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Anza Borrego wildflowersposted by Sheri McGregor

At dusk, the whirring call of a Ladderback woodpecker echoes along the desert slopes, the eerie sound reminiscent of an old outer space movie soundtrack. Night falls more slowly in wide Blair Valley and Little Blair Valley in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Camping beneath the long stretches of sky in this theater of open space, we can see the light until its last straining moment. The sun crouches beyond the western ridges of the desert horizon, and the pink glow fades. The tented sky darkens, and dots of light – – twinkling, steady, or shooting – – grow bright.

In the morning, sunlight creeps in from the east, dispelling shadows, sparking glints of pyrite in the rocks, sucking up gathered night moisture, and warming the land. Crows soar off rocky hilltops, beckoning early hikers. Official area trails include Pictograph Trail where an isolated boulder bears primitive artwork from the past. Neighboring this trail is a short, easy jaunt that leads explorers past The Morteros. The flattish boulders are pocked with evidence of the Kumeyaay Indians who once used stones to grind pinyon pine nuts gathered from higher desert elevations. The Ghost Mountain Trail offers a steep, zig-zagging hike to the pinnacle home site of Marshal South and his family who, for several years, lived a rustic, rugged life, chronicled in South’s poetic written ponderings, now collected in the book, Marshal South And The Ghost Mountain Chronicles: An Experiment In Primitive Living

cactus wren nest Anza Borrego Desert State Park, CAUnmarked trails also crisscross these valleys. Single-trek paths extend from camp clearings up and over rock ridges, around dry lake beds, alongside the dirt road, and into hidden alcoves where nature’s treasures await. A startled jackrabbit poses, its ears cocked in alert. A kangaroo rat darts and vanishes on spindly hind legs. The nest of a cactus wren on a spiny perch atop a rocky slope comes into view. A lizard scuttles off, leaving tiny tracks to mingle with those of coyotes, birds, or a visiting horse carrying its rider from a nearby stretch of the California Riding and Hiking Trail into the valley.

Back at camp, a trio of lazy, cawing crows sail on late winter breezes, the air their playground. Freed by the desert’s peace, our spirits dance along with them on the wind. The crows move on, the remaining silence interrupted only by the faint tap-tap-tapping of woodpeckers as they persistently drill the drying Agave flower stalks growing on the slopes above our campsite.

Our morning explorations have confirmed that no wildflowers are blooming near our camp site. They’re likely blooming elsewhere among Anza Borrego Desert State Park’s 600,000 acres. The colorful spring wildflower show often starts late in February and extends through March.

Anise Swallowtail butterfly in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, CAAttracted to a bright pink towel I’ve draped over a folding chair, a butterfly visits. The Anise Swallowtail flutters away and back several times then pauses, open-winged, to rest on the ground. Its black and yellow markings contrast with the pale, rocky ground. Finally, the early bloomer flutters off in search of nectar. I hope it does find some early desert wildflowers.

Within a few hours, lulled by the warmth and quiet on this Friday morning, we begin to see a few dust clouds rising as cars enter the area. We hear the faint roar of engines and the thrum of excited visitors arriving for the weekend. Like the butterflies, visitors in search of desert wildflowers in bloom make this a peak season for Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

Refreshed by the midweek desert’s peace, we pack up and flutter off toward home, Relaxed, we’re feeling as light as air.

Busy Bees: Doing What?

By Sheri McGregor

Leaf Rust (melampsora) on CottonwoodOn a recent warm fall day, bees buzzing around a native cottonwood tree captured my curiosity. Squinting up through the dwindling leaves of the ten- or twelve-foot tree, I could see that the bees didn’t look as if they were entering or exiting any hive. Quietly, I stepped closer to investigate. Small yellow-orange pockets clung to the leaves’ undersides.

The bees appeared to gather the substance. Do cottonwoods release pollen through their leaves? I wondered. I’d never heard of such a thing, but the bees’ action puzzled me. They hovered about, collecting the substance into thick saddlebag shapes on their hind legs.

Video: Bees gathering leaf rust (short)

Excited and intrigued, I later discovered through research that the substance is a fungus, melampsora, which infects cottonwoods and some other trees. As it turns out, honeybees collect the fungus, commonly called leaf rust, and take it back to their nests for ingestion same as they do pollen. Scientists have a number of theories for the behavior, ranging from wider nutritional needs to not enough flowers blooming close to the hive. Who knew bees enjoyed a varied diet?

Bees have always fascinated me. Five or six years ago, feral bees began a hive in the hollow wall at one end of my property, and I welcomed them. A friend told me that, at a time when bee populations the world over suffer from the use of pesticides and habitat infringement, their arrival at my place must be a good omen. I liked that analysis. Nature provided my own little symbol of prosperity!

The bees’ presence, though, has required some adjustment. My family has learned to work around them. We try to do any yard work near the hive in the early morning or in the last light of day to avoid their more active hours. When guests come to sit by our small pond with its natural-looking rock fountain, we warn them not to get too close. On sunny days, bees are always present at what has become their watering hole, and for the most part, we comfortably cohabitate.

When you’re hiking our natural spaces in San Diego, watch for bees. The insects form new hives in the spring. On several occasions, I’ve been fortunate enough to see this activity. Once, trekking over the rise of a hill on a clear spring day, I first heard a low roar then looked up to spot a black cloud of bees. I ducked, the swarm whizzed over my head, and I pivoted to watch them fade into the distance. At other times and other places, I’ve been fortunate to see bee masses cluster around the landed queen. I’ve never been stung by a bee while hiking . . . only in my own yard!

In the future, I hope to learn more about beekeeping and perhaps harvest honey from some cultivated hives. For now, I respect and marvel at these insects that are so vital to pollinate our food and flowers. Their industrious presence enriches my world.

* Learn about honeybees and pollinators of all kinds and get involved in their preservation: Pollinator Partnership

* Learn about leaf rust and some other diseases: Colorado State University Extension article

* Read about honeybees’ and fungi: Daniel McAlpine Memorial Lecture

Don’t Miss the Mistletoe, Kiss in the Great Outdoors

Find out more about the book: 60 Hikes Within 60 MilesThis holiday season, take a hike under the mistletoe, and kiss your lover in the great outdoors.

On the trails of San Diego County’s natural preserves and parks, look up into the trees for clumps of wild mistletoe, and pull your soul mate close for a kiss. Growing on limbs in small bouquets (dwarf variety) or in large hive-shaped clumps so shaggy they nearly take over the tree, mistletoe attaches itself to branches for its livelihood, living off the tree’s juices.

The Name’s Origin
Centuries ago, people noticed the plant grew where bird droppings landed. In Anglo Saxon, “mistletoe” means “dung on a twig.” People once believed life sprung from bird droppings. Of course, we later realized that birds eat fruits and berries, and their seed-rich droppings help propagate plants.

Why Kissing?
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe comes from several ancient myths. Viking lore tells of mistletoe’s ability to conquer death. In short, the mother of Balder, the Viking god of summer sun, reversed a curse on him by kissing everyone who walked beneath the plant.

A first century story from Britain expounds mistletoe’s miraculous fertility powers for humans- – – and it is easy to make a connection between fertility and kissing!

Los Penasquitos CanyonAncient legends aside, our modern culture recognizes the sprigs of green hanging overhead as an excuse to kiss. This holiday season, what better way to say “I love you” than to stroll hand-in-hand in San Diego’s beautiful wilderness areas? With the songs of birds and the hum of bees all around, pause beneath a patchwork-bark sycamore or other tree, look up into the branches for mistletoe, and lean close for a kiss.

See the box on the left for some of San Diego’s mistletoe-abundant trails. These areas and dozens more hikes are featured in Sheri McGregor’s new book: 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: San Diego. The latest most up to date guide since the 2003 firestorms ripped through San Diego, McGregor’s book covers North, South, and East Counties, and serves as your guide to San Diego trails and nearby activities.

Wildreness Gardens PreserveRemember that mistletoe can be toxic, so follow the no-collection rule of area open spaces, and leave the plant for others to enjoy.

This December, take your lover’s hand and take a hike!

Fall Sights On San Diego Hiking Trails

Everyone knows the trees grow colorful during autumn, but other fall sights await you on San Diego’s hiking trails. A few are fitting for Halloween…

Pretty Poison

t_1colorfulpoisonoakIn the fall months, poison Oak, which grows along many local trails in San Diego, can turn vibrant red and yellow. The big bouquets of color lure unsuspecting passersby to touch. Don’t, of course. Remember the three-leaf rule, and be on the watch for colorful foliage that stretches pretty tendrils across trail tracks, and twining up trees. The general rule is “leaves of three, let it be.” More specifically, poison oak’s three-leaf configuration grows with two leaves on either side of the stem, and one extending out like a middle finger (see close up). It’s easy to keep this in mind, and avoid this plant that gestures its irritating nature.

Witch’s Hair

Witch's HairThis is the popular nickname for the parasitic plant more officially known as California Dodder. This fleshy gold or orange colored parasite grows in hairy, wig-like clumps over shrubs, brush, and even cactus.A Parasitic Organism Other than its looks, there’s nothing really “witchy” or dangerous about California Dodder to humans. In fact, the Kumeyaay Indians native to our area used to pick and brew California Dodder as a tonic for black widow’s bite. But witch’s hair acts as a vampire to the plants it hosts upon. It latches on and sucks the life right out of them!

Spittle Bugs

Curious Spittle BugYuck! Are those wads of spit clumped on plants along the trail? No worries. An uncouth hiker didn’t leave you a disgusting surprise. Those wads of spittle are actually the protective covering of the spittle bug nymph, which surrounds itself with a mass of slimy bubbles formed from plant juices and fluids from its own body.This is just bad manners In time, the harmless spittle bug nymph grows into an adult and leaves the spittle wad to venture out into the world. The tiny adult spittle bug holds the record for the high jump, with an ability to hop to heights over two-feet. The scientific journal Nature reported on an actual spittle bug study. The lead study scientist says the bug’s jumping ability is the equivalent of a human jumping over the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. That’s 630 feet high! Worried about getting hopped on by the adult spittle bug? Don’t be. It’s elusive and harmless, hopping but not . . . mad.


Wild RattlerHibernation is tied to low temperature, not necessarily the turning of a Wild Rattlercalendar page. In San Diego’s sometimes warm fall climate, rattlesnakes can still be out and about.
Trading Broomsticks for Hiking Sticks
Once October 31st is past, turn in your broomstick for a hiking stick. Nature offers this fun activity as a relaxing retreat from holiday stress. Burning extra calories out on the trail does wonders for the figure – – just what’s needed with all the extra holiday eating ahead.

Happy Hiking!