Change in season, brings change in wildlife

For those who tune in and take time to notice, there is change in air of San Diego’s natural environment.

As fall approaches, things are happening that add excitement, variety and opportunities for discovery in the great outdoors. Birds will be coming and going with the change of seasons, and outdoor visitors may also have more frequent encounters with one of our less popular residents, unless you like large spiders.

As August winds down, backyard birders who have provided hooded orioles with nectar all summer might have noticed bird numbers are dwindling, with few if any males now coming to drink.

Male hooded orioles have already begun their fall migration to winter homes in Mexico, and by mid-September, the females and this year’s crop of fledglings will be gone.


As an avid birder, I find this a sad time. The bright colors, constant chattering and comical antics of these summer visitors will be gone from my garden, leaving a hole in my heart until their return in the spring.

Soon it will be time to take the oriole feeders down, clean them well and store them away until late February.

In the meantime, there are other cycles of nature happening to keep up your interest in the outdoors.

You may have noticed that pictures of tarantulas have been showing up more frequently on social media. Outdoor friends are more frequently encountering these large, hairy spiders. There’s a good reason for that.


Fall is mating season for tarantulas, and outdoor visitors may frequently encounter the larger males near sunset as they emerge in search of a female.

Hikers in open areas like the Ramona Grasslands, Santa Ysabel Preserve or coastal canyons and foothills might encounter large numbers of the harmless spiders through late October.

I’m not fond of spiders, and while I won’t handle tarantulas like some people, I am still fascinated by them.

Living near the 3,000-acre Daley Ranch Preserve in Escondido, I have found this a good place for evening tarantula encounters. In past tarantula mating seasons, I have seen dozens of black dots as the long shadows of evening sweep over the dry grass on the Boulder Loop at Daley Ranch.


These are males looking for a willing mate. Often the encounter is fatal. The females lurk in their underground tunnels and even when they do accept a male for mating, the session frequently ends with the female killing the male.

I have not seen a current count, but another beautiful event of fall in San Diego County is the arrival of migrating monarch butterflies.

Historically these colorful red and black creatures have congregated over the winter in several dozen locations from Sonoma to northern Baja California. In San Diego there have been winter populations in Hosp Grove of eucalyptus trees in Carlsbad, Presidio Park in San Diego and in the groves on the UCSD campus. Populations vary each year.

Pismo Beach in Santa Barbara County is one of the larger winter sites for monarch, hosting as many as 200,000 butterflies, but overall population number have dropped from a high of over 1 million in 1997 to about 300,000 in 2015. Local sites here have far fewer, or almost none in some years. It can still be a big family adventure to look for butterflies with eager children.


Fall also brings great opportunities for outdoor discovery in the desert.

Cooler temperatures will soon return to the wonderland of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park where desert visitors have one of the best chances to see desert bighorn sheep.

Water sources in the desert are slim after the hot summer, and early fall still finds sheep concentrated around the few available natural waterholes. Breeding season has ended, and the sheep seem less wary of intruders.

Hiking in places like Borrego Palm Canyon where there is perennial water will increase your chances of a sheep encounter.


Days can still be hot until mid-October, so get an early start to reach the shade of the palm groves before the hottest part of the day. Bring a lunch and just sit back and wait for the sheep arrive.

You can also check at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center for the latest reports on sheep sightings. You might even encounter herds while making the 1.5-mile hike to the palms.

I’ve seen sheep hundreds of times, but never fail to be impressed by their majestic beauty.

As seasons transition from the heat of summer to the mild days of autumn, nature lovers can enjoy some of the most interesting times in the San Diego County backcountry.


Ernie Cowan is a freelance writer. Contact Ernie at or follow

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