On Saturday 11/14/2020 my trail partner, and fellow Master Naturalist, Deb Huie (C1) and I pulled our UofA/USGS trail cameras from the Huachuca Mountains. We’d been monitoring these sites for spotted cat activity (Jaguar and ocelot) since late 2016. Deb called it a “bittersweet day” because although it is a very tough 4 wheel drive approach and even harder hike we had grown to love this beautiful, remote area under all sorts of weather and conditions. But we also knew it was time for a new adventure. We’ll continue our Citizen Science work in the Whetstones.
While the Huachuca’s are excellent habitat for both cats we hadn’t had a detection on either of our sites since March 2017. The attached photos are of that individual male and, unfortunately, that of his eventual poaching when he returned to Northern Mexico. The rosettes on a jaguar’s coat are like fingerprints so individuals can even be recognized with a good photograph. This loss was heart breaking for us but also made us all the more determined to do everything we can to expand and protect their habitat in the U.S.
The Project (Directed by Dr. Melanie Culver) has cameras in all the major mountain ranges along La Frontera (The Borderlands) from the Baboquivaris to the Peloncillos. Many of the sites are remote but there are also some closer to Jeep roads and the Arizona Trail. We are always looking for dedicated volunteers. Film (SD cards) needs to be retrieved and batteries replaced (3-4) times a year.
Garden Canyon on Fort Huachuca is where we accessed our sites. One site was actually within Fort boundaries and the other was out a wilderness gate into the Coronado National Forest. The site on the Fort was complicated because…. well its the U.S. Army. Garden Canyon is a little known, but beautiful, recreation area that has tremendous hiking, birding and even pictographs. The area is open to the public on the weekends and during the week if there is no “live fire” on the Fort’s shooting ranges. Unless you have military privileges you’ll have to obtain a day pass at the Fort Huachuca Main Gate. But it’s easy to do! There are also some great museums on the Fort including one dedicated to the Buffalo Soldiers. Unfortunately no camping unless you hike past the Fort’s wilderness boundaries.
With one of our old sites above 8600 feet, we sometimes had to contend with some challenging conditions. Here’s Deb in February 2020 post-holing her way up Scott Peak.
This past Saturday was gorgeous although we probably missed ideal Fall foliage by about two weeks. Here are some of Deb’s pictures over the last couple of years.
Finally here are some examples of the abundance of wildlife on this incredible Sky Island.
“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot” Aldo Leopold
If you are interested in participating in the project contact me personally or through the email of the President of the Pima County Chapter, Arizona Master Naturalists.
Capstone Project created by PCMN Jan Schwartz, 8/13/20
That would be the gray fox! Who knew? This fox has very strong hook-like claws and flexible wrists, which allow it to climb trees. It uses the tree as a place to sleep, to escape predators, and also to find food. They’ve also been known to take their prey up into the trees to eat in peace.
The gray fox dens in the ground (in a stolen den from another animal), in the hollow of a tree lower to the ground, and if they find the right tree with the right branches they will also den up high. The gray fox raises its young in the den until they are about 4 months old. Once the pup reaches that age, its teeth are mature and it can start to forage for itself.
A solitary hunter, the gray fox plays an important part in keeping small rodents in check. They eat rabbits, insects, and lots of fruit when it’s available. And also, of course, small rodents.
The fox protects itself by climbing trees and by clawing at predators with those strong, sharp claws; they communicate by barking, growling and sometimes squealing; they are primarily nocturnal; and they are relatively small animals weighing in between 8 and 15 pounds and standing 12 to 15 inches tall.
Now, I wonder when I’ve hiked in the evening if those eyes I saw in the trees belonged to an owl or a gray fox!
By Michelle Kostuk
The water flooded my hiking boots and soaked my socks. I continued to trudge through the stream, enjoying the coolness. My three colleagues decided to rough it through the dense foliage on the banks of the Cienega Creek in Arizona. This was one of our monthly wildlife camera checks we conducted as citizen scientists for Arizona’s Pima County’s wildlife corridor monitoring project. Since we had been monitoring this site regularly starting in March 2019, we’d not only noticed trends in the animal populations using this stretch of land, but also noticed the spring’s water body depletion.
There were thick patches of bright-green algae suspended in the water. I took a deep breath and the scent, reminiscent of seaweed, filled my lungs. Tiny minnows darted underfoot and took cover in the thick algal masses. I sidestepped into clear water, where I could see the pebbles underneath.
The stream curved and opened into a larger perennial pool, which persists through the hot Arizona summers. I darted around the shallow edges of the spring and went up the bank to the tree where we had stationed our wildlife camera. The camera was encased in a camouflage-covered metal cage secured by a lock and a metal chain. I unlocked the apparatus and lifted the front of the metal cage off the camera and quickly scanned for spider webs. Handing the camera to my fellow volunteer, she put the SIM card into her computer. I pulled out some jerky and water from my day pack and then sat behind the computer with everyone. The screen flickered on as a minnow breached the surface of the pool located beyond the screen, cascading ripples to the edges of the bank.
A shock of green in the desert, Cienega Creek is one of Arizona’s most important water habitats, yet its permanence is increasingly threatened by climate change. As temperatures rise, the area is becoming more arid, diminishing the connectivity between the pools and streams, such as those I frequented in 2019 as part of the citizen scientist project for Arizona Pima County’s wildlife camera corridor project. This is not the only issue facing Arizona streams, water, and land. Forests are growing thick because of management choices and now burn hot when there is a fire. The rain and snowmelt runoff after a devastating fire, which has altered the landscape, is choked with debris. This debris-laden water is the source of recharge for the Colorado River Basin, the source of water for many southwestern states.
The Gila Topminnow (Poeciliopsis occidentalis) and Gila Chub (Gila intermedia) are two of the federally endangered species that are at risk as Arizona’s intermittent streams start to further separate and have a harder time connecting in the wet seasons. “Let’s say something bad happens and a population gets wiped out in one place. If these habitats are connected, then these fish can recolonize,” Daniel Allen, Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Oklahoma, said in a phone interview.
Allen analyzed ten years, (2006-2016), of citizen scientist collected data from Cienega Creek performed by trained volunteers from The Nature Conservancy and the US Bureau of Land Management. The citizen scientists conducted yearly long-term wet/dry mapping surveys.
Allen created simulations and models to compare stream drying patterns with temperature, precipitation, streamflow, and drought conditions. In the areas that he studied in Cienega Creek; perennial water decreased by 14 %. As temperatures rise due to climate change, the habitat connection that local fish species need to survive could diminish, explained Allen. This threat to the habitat could push some species, such as the Gila Topminnow and Gila Chub, toward extinction.
Franklin Lane is a Citizen Scientist Team Leader for the Sky Island Alliance Spring Assessment Project. Despite this project not being affiliated with Allen’s research, Lane’s citizen scientist spring data collection methods are like those used in Allen’s research.
Lane and his wife go to their designated Arizona spring five times a year. They wake up at 5:30 in the morning to ensure they have enough time to hike to their location. Once there, Lane ties a measuring tape to a tree and then wades into the stream that is roughly sixty meters long. Every meter he takes a depth measurement. “I’ve done this by myself and that takes almost an hour and a half. My wife and I can do it in just under an hour. It really helps to have someone recording the data as you’re shouting it out,” Lane said. Lane does not analyze his own data, but Marco Robles, a Conservation Scientist with the Arizona Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, also uses similar citizen scientist data for his work.
While the southwest might be getting warmer, the full picture is more nuanced than the area simply getting drier. The Colorado River Basin supplies water to parts of California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and all of Arizona. Robles commented that drier temperatures due to climate change are diminishing this reserve. “All the states had to recently renegotiate their treaty because of drought and water supply. The states are prioritized in terms of who gets what amount of water and Arizona is low on the list. This is not going to just impact the cities, but also agricultural use,” Robles said.
Another source of water in the Colorado River Basin is runoff from snow-melt, but rising temperatures and forest fire risk could threaten the efficacy of this water supply. “When we’re talking about the snow-pack, the data is really clear that warming is going to impact the water flow and the amount of water in the upper Colorado River Basin,” Robles said.
Arizona is drying and its water supply is diminishing. Yet another threat is the increase in forest fires, which threatens both water supply and quality. Fire management is playing a large role in these trends.
Over the last 100 years in Arizona, fire management has concentrated on prevention. While this has helped save buildings and property in the short term, this strategy has thickened forests with dense layers of underbrush. When fires burn, this clears out the forests and runoff is filled with debris that clogs water systems.
Trees take a long time to grow and open spaces are prone to a runoff in rain events. When it rains after a forest fire, local waterways become filled with debris. “Healthy forests are really good for the water supply from a water quality and water quantity standpoint. That is one of the risks of having unhealthy forests that are really dense,” Robles said. Now, the fires that rage in these forests burn hot and decimate the local forest communities.
There are many factors that play a role in how Arizona’s streams and basins are recharged and maintained. Climate change is making intermittent streams and the animals that depend on those water sources scarcer. Fire is transforming the way runoff water is collected in the Colorado River Basin. Many of the long-term data sets researcher depend upon are observed and documented by citizen scientists.
After previewing the charismatic mammals that paraded in front of our camera, we packed up and re-secured the camera so we could collect our data bounty for next month. As we walked back, I noticed the water-smoothed rocks shining brightly. During previous trips, those rocks had been submerged under the water. The signs of fire and climate change are not always apparent, but an apt observer can notice the trends and hopefully fathom the implications of these changes.
Note: Franklin Lane and the author are both a part of the Sky Island Alliance and the Arizona Master Naturalist Association.
List of Sources
A Capstone Project written by PCMN Marlene
Target Audience: elementary school children.
Silky Pocket Mouse (Perognathus flavus)
The Silky Pocket Mouse is so small it can fit inside your pocket! It’s about the size of your pinky finger (2 ½ – 3 ½”). One of the smallest mice in North America, it has grayish brown fur on its back and white fur on its belly and legs. You’ll know it’s a Silky Pocket Mouse if you see a tan spot of fur behind each ear. It has a short tail, for a rodent, and amazingly soft fur: that’s where it gets its name, the Silky Pocket Mouse. And this amazingly soft fur is also on its back feet.
What is so incredible about the Silky Pocket Mouse is the way in which it has adapted to our desert environment. Think for a minute about what is in short supply here in the desert: water. Well, the Silky Pocket Mouse NEVER has to drink water! It gets all the water it needs from the food it eats. Just as some of the food we eat is juicy, it’s the juice in the food that the
Silky Pocket Mouse eats that keeps it going without ever having to drink water. Isn’t that amazing!
Now let’s examine what the Silky Pocket Mouse eats. Like most other mice, it eats plant parts like seeds and berries. And it likes to collect the seeds and berries and take them to its burrow to store them in storage chambers for later use. But how do they get the food back to their burrow? They have pouches, or storage bags, in their cheeks to carry things in. Some mice have cheek pouches with the opening on the inside of their mouths, but every time they open their mouths to put something in the pouch they lose a little bit of moisture into the air. But our little Silky Pocket Mouse has its cheek pouch openings on the outside of its cheeks so it doesn’t have to open its mouths to fill them and therefore doesn’t lose any water. And if you don’t ever drink water you don’t want to lose any unnecessarily, right?
So, the little Silky Pocket Mouse never has to drink water and has external cheek pouches as ways of adapting to the harsh desert environment. If you are out in the desert and you see 2 or 3 small holes under a cactus or shrub, you might be looking at the entrance to the burrow of a
Silky Pocket Mouse. All entrances to the burrow lead to a central room. From this room tunnels radiate out in all directions leading to storage chambers and nesting chambers. So keep your eyes open when you are out in the desert for the tiny Silky Pocket Mouse.
Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys merriami)
The Kangaroo Rat is not really a rat, but a strange looking rodent in the same family as the pocket mouse. It has a large head, short front arms, very long back legs and feet, a long tail with fur on the end, large eyes and small ears.
The most amazing thing about the Kangaroo Rat is it’s ability to jump up to 9’ in a singe jump! That’s all the way across a medium sized bedroom. And that’s how it got its name; it can jump like a kangaroo! And it prefers to hop to get around rather than run.
The Kangaroo Rat is 4+”; about the size of the palm of your hand, with sandy brown fur and a white belly and white markings on its face. Its long tail, 5-7”, helps to balance the rodent when it hops.
The Kangaroo Rat, like the pocket mouse, is almost perfectly adapted to the desert, and like the Silky Pocket Mouse it never has to drink water. All the water it needs is provided in the seeds and mesquite pods that it eats. And it has those outside cheek pouches so it doesn’t have to open its mouth and lose precious moisture from inside its mouth when it fills them.
They have a maze of underground burrows that have several entrances to better escape predators. If a predator comes in one burrow, The Kangaroo Rat can escape out another.
Predators include rattlesnakes, coyotes, weasels, owls and other birds of prey, foxes and bobcats.
Kangaroo Rats have another unique quality they use on predators: they kick sand in their faces with their very long feet, or jump up and down to frighten them.
A Kangaroo Rat can live anywhere from 2-5 years. They live alone in their burrows.
Grasshopper Mouse (Onychomys torridus)
The Grasshopper Mouse is a robust little rodent of southern and western Arizona. It’s about the size of your index finger (3 1/2 – 5 inches long). It’s small but very ferocious, as we shall learn.
Let’s start by examining what most mice eat: plant parts, like seeds and berries. But unlike other mice, the grasshopper mouse eats MEAT. In other words, they eat other animals. So what other animals do you think the Grasshopper Mouse eats? Judging by its name, it must eat grasshoppers. It also eats spiders, beetles, lizards and even other mice. But, its diet consists mainly of SCORPIONS!
But how can it eat scorpions without getting stung by them? Well, the answer is it does get stung, but it’s immune to the scorpion’s venom so it doesn’t get sick. Not only does it not get sick, it changes the venom into a pain killer for itself!
There is another unique fact about the little Grasshopper Mouse. After it kills a meal, it stands on its hind legs and howls into the night air: a very high-pitched scream. Some say it’s howling at the moon and for this reason it is sometimes called the Werewolf Mouse.
There are other interesting things about the Grasshopper Mouse besides killing scorpions and howling at the moon. Like other mice it lives in burrows in the ground but instead of just one burrow it has four burrows: one for sleeping, one for storage, one for raising the babies, and one is a bathroom. And when a male and female Grasshopper Mouse get together to raise a family they stay together for their entire lives and raise their families together.
Bibliography for photos
Beatson, R. Russell. “Perognathus Flavus (Silky Pocket Mouse).” Flickr, 16 June 2012, flic.kr/p/cfR53d.
Harrison, George. “Kangeroo Rat.” USFWS National Digital Librry, Kangeroo Rat, 18 Apr. 2008, digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/645/rec/1.
“HD.16.027.” Flickr, U.S. Department of Energy, 15 Aug. 2014, flic.kr/p/osHoKq.