Column: Nature brings reassuring message after a long year

A vermilion flycatcher was a welcoming surprise at Lake Hodges.
(Ernie Cowan)

Ernie Cowan’s Outdoors column


Holiday spirit arrived for me this year on the wings of a tiny red bird.

Let’s face it, for lots of reasons 2020 has been a challenging year.

Sure, the tree was decorated, and my wife even convinced me to hang some lights outside, but I just wasn’t feeling the spirit of the season.

Many of the holiday events we typically enjoy didn’t happen and it left a hole and at best a smoldering sense of seasonal joy.

That changed with a joyful encounter.

Nature has always been my sanctuary and a place of inspiration. Spending even a little time with the native plants and animals is a mood shifter that certainly changes the heart, not to mention my outlook.

For me, nature is a place with clear rules, and dependable rhythm that has been a dependable touchstone throughout my life.

Perhaps it was that need that pulled me to break away from the hustle and bustle of the season and just lose myself for a time in a place where I am most comfortable.

It wasn’t the best of days. It was chilly and overcast when I headed out to wander the trails that meander along water’s edge at Lake Hodges.

This is a favorite area for me because it’s close to home and the extensive trail system provides many opportunities from just a short stroll to a more challenging and lengthier hike. There is ample wildlife to see here and an extensive list of resident and migratory birds to visit with.

It was the birds that initially pulled me toward the water. As I followed the narrow trail through thickets of brush, I could hear grebes squawking in the distance. They are always fascinating to watch, especially if the elaborate courtship ritual of “rushing” has begun.

Readers know one of my most enjoyable nature activities is to sit and see. And this seemed like a good day to do just that. There was a flurry of early morning activity by the bird population and moving about simply resulted in them fluttering away.

Settling down quietly in a comfortable spot, I blended into the landscape and the industry of nature soon resumed.

The grebes returned in pairs; a great blue heron pranced by, high stepping through shallow water and probing at likely sources of food. A gorgeous snowy egret with the iconic yellow feet gracefully flew in and landed not more than 20 feet away.

Black phoebes landed on nearby branches and then erupted in flight, snatching insects from the air and returning to their perch. Drifting among the reeds, a variety of wild ducks paddled about and dabbled in the shallow water.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught movement and as I turned, I came eye-to-eye with a curious coyote watching me and no doubt wondering what I was doing. Quickly he slipped off into the thickets, likely in search of a morning meal.

The symbol that kindled my holiday spirit arrived a few moments later.

I was watching a colorful common yellowthroat foraging at water’s edge when something red flashed by.

Was I mistaken?

About the only bird with red around here is the acorn woodpecker, but that’s just a small cap on top of their heads. This was something larger with much more red.

I scanned the reeds, water’s edge and nearby thickets but nothing red was to be seen.

Just then, like the placement of an ornament on the tip of a holiday tree branch, a bright-red male vermilion flycatcher fluttered down and landed not more than 10 feet in front of me.

I have chased and photographed these gorgeous birds in Arizona, but they are not common around here. This was special, and my heart soared.

With the arrival this week of the Christmas Star, the Winter Solstice and now this beautiful, feathered ornament, it was a reminder that nature, as it often does, was offering a message.

In stressful and challenging times, we sometimes forget that nature endures. The cycles of the ages repeat.

There is comfort in knowing that the beauty and dependable phases of the natural world will continue. When times are so uncertain, this is reassuring.

Today it was the beauty of this tiny red bird in a natural place, but it could equally have been a delicate butterfly dancing in your backyard garden, a mourning dove cooing at a small garden fountain, or the distant hooting of a courting owl.

Sit and see. Listen and learn the lessons we easily forget in a hurried, challenging world.

My brief encounter with this tiny red bird ignited my holiday spirit. I wish the same for each of you.

Happy New Year.

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