A morning’s hike to set up a Wildlife Camera on Cienaga Creek
Hank Harlow, Pima County Master Naturalist student, Cohort 3
An element of the Pima County Master Naturalist program is to participate in an activity with one of the chapter’s partners in order to obtain experience as a volunteer. I was fortunate to have the opportunity of spending a morning in the field with Deb Petrich, Axhel Munoz and Michelle Kostuk on the Pima County Natural Resources, Park and Recreation camera monitoring project. Axhel is a Pima County Natural Resources Environmental Education Coordinator, Deb, the Pima County Master Naturalist Coordinator for this project and Team Leader for multiple cameras, and Michelle, a Cohort 1 Master Naturalist and Sky Island Alliance trained tracker.
When I arrived at the Gabe Zimmerman Davidson Canyon Trailhead on a cool, breezy morning in March, the number of mountain bikers getting on their riding gear as well as day walkers and backpackers took me by surprise. I started wondering if I misunderstood our meeting point and was relieved when Deb called out my name and waved me over to meet Axhel and Michael. We shouldered our daypacks and were on our way down the trail.
Amazingly, as we cut off the main wash and proceeded up Cienaga Creek, within half a mile all the people were gone and we started looking for a proper location to establish a new camera-monitoring site. One of the criteria for the site was to be far enough up the drainage to be away from casual hikers, so we bushwhacked our way through a very healthy and beautiful riparian habitat for an additional two miles.
I was in my element being with three seasoned naturalists who loved to stop every 50 or 60 steps when something would catch their eyes and interest. We sited 11 species of birds during our morning as well as three species of butterflies and two species of fish. Down on our hands and knees, we felt and identified scat from coyotes, skunk, fox and perhaps ring tailed cat, as well as tracks from javelina, deer and cattle which are supposed to be restricted from the area.
Our most exciting find was a mummified carcass of a mammal about a foot and a half long but all contorted with its head bent back and legs tucked into a hard leathery package with tuffs of brownish fur and some black hair imbedded in the hard dry hide. We removed the head and, after taking out my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, placed it in the plastic bag for later identification.
At home that night, I placed the skull in an aqueous solution of Biz and left it for two days. The enzymes softened the hard leathery tissue to be picked away and the bleach whitened the skull into a beautiful sculpture. Using ‘A Key-Guide to Mammal Skulls and Lower Jaws’ by Aryan Roest, I noted that the skull had a hard palate that extended about 4mm beyond its 4 cheek teeth, which keyed it out as a Hog Nosed Skunk. The claws were impressively long and the black fur under the leathery mummified exterior was characteristically skunk-like, so the lighter fur we observed must have been bleached by long-time exposure to sun and water.
Onwards – our group wasn’t just out on a nature hike; we had work to do. Deb and Axhel discussed the criteria for identifying a proper camera site to include: a bend in the river bottom, a diversion, a branch drainage, some type of constriction such as cliff or bounders, but most importantly, a pool which is not ephemeral but a long-term source of water which will attract wildlife.
Axhel has historic knowledge of Cienaga Creek and remembers when the three-mile stretch of surface water we are walking through used to extend 12 miles into Tanque Verde Wash and was home to Desert Pupfish and Yellow Billed Cuckoos. Decreased water flow may be a result of drought, increased agriculture and real estate development. Another threat to this area is the pending expansions of the Rosemont copper mine, which will have a devastating effect on water availability and quality, not to mention the impact on the terrestrial habitat through road development and noise. This pending perturbation makes camera monitoring the area of special importance.
While camera traps are not a tool to determine population density of a particular species, they are very effective in establishing presence-absence of species and relative abundance of individuals. The purpose of this camera monitoring study is to increase our understanding of the animal biodiversity that reside in this drainage using it as a corridor and depending upon its resources for survival. In addition, this study may also be an important way to document the impact of future mining practices by the Rosemont copper mine by conducting a “before-and-after” comparison over years to come.
After walking through shallow water and jumping over deeper pools for a couple miles, we finally found a deep pond at a bend in the creek bed with steep rocks and trees on one side and a sandy bank with shrubby on the opposite side. Deb and Axhel selected one of the trees to place our camera. These are Black IR or infrared sensitive cameras, which are triggered by body heat and give off a low intensive flash that does not disturb the animal if caught at night. We placed the setting at “Power Saving” which limits its distance to about 20 meters but conserves battery life. This should work out great because our positioned angle and height of the camera secured to the tree trunk provides a full picture of the pond and surrounding bank. While we thought this is a secure area with only occasional hikers, we padlocked the camera to the tree. We then took a GPS waypoint and named the site CC01 DRW to be revisited in the future to down load pictures and replace batteries every few months over the next several years.
Our job was completed for the morning, we felt good about our selected location for the camera trap and we started our walk out once again being naturalists; talking, telling stories but observing what was at our feet and in the air.
Cienaga Creek Wildlife Camera Species list-9 March 2019
White breasted nuthatch
Ruby crowned kinglet
Yellow-rumped warbler (Audubon’s)
Bullocks oriole (?)
Great Blue Hairstreak
Pipe Vine butterfly
Ring-tailed cat (?)
Canid (Fox (?)
Mummified carcass: Hog-nosed skunk