Lets be Batty for Bats! 🦇

Blog post written by PCMN Josh Skattum

Happy Bat Week to all current and future bat aficionados! October 24th through October 31st was International Bat Week! At this time of the year we commonly are preparing for the spooky festivities of Halloween. Often this holiday can be hallmarked by our beloved bats! I must forewarn you all, this is not a scary spooky blog post. In fact I am here to adore you with cute bat photos and inspirational insights about these incredible flying wonders! International bat week is a time to raise awareness about these animals. Plus, Tucson is such a wonderful place for us to do that!

Let’s first start with how incredibly diverse these animals are! There are roughly 6,500 different species of mammals found on our little planet. Within that about 1,400 species are bats making up over 20% of mammalia. They can be found on almost every continent other than Antarctica. These animals have adapted the locomotion of flight and are the only known mammals that can do so. Now you might ask, what about the flying squirrel? Well guess what, they glide, can’t fly. And then you might ask, well I heard about flying foxes once. Well guess what, they’re a glorified Australian bat that just look really cute like a fox. These animals found their niche and it only gets better from here!

I hope after reading this you tell yourself, Arizona is blessed with bats, because it’s true! I’m a relocated Midwesterner and there we could only observe 8 different species. Here in Arizona, we have nearly 30 different kinds! These animals are intrinsic to our Sonoran Desert Ecology as well as our local Tucson festivities. Let’s swoop into why!

Bats have adapted all sorts of feeding habits and they’re so important. We’ll first debunk the classic cliche that they’ll suck your blood. Only vampire bats, hairy-legged vampire bats, and white-winged vampire bats consume blood and are endemic to the rainforests of America. So unless you live in Mexico, Chile, and Argentina, you should only be thankful for these animals. Many bat species consume insects including mosquitos! If we’re thankful for a great monsoon season, then we should thank the bats for helping us keep those blood suckers at bay. (Mosquitos of course).

The lesser long-nosed bat is known as a fruigivore! They consume fruit and nectar from several of our columnar cacti and agaves. Due to their diet selection they serve as pollinators for these plants! Their symbiotic relationship is what allows us to consume and sometimes enjoy tequila! One of my favorite festivals here in Tucson is the Agave Festival, as we also celebrate the lesser long-nosed bat while enjoying our historic downtown. There are many other wonderful ways to celebrate bats here in Pima County!

Here we have batapalooza at Agua Caliente Park. At batapalooza fun games and activities about bats were displayed for friends and families. As the sun sets, mist nets and acoustic software were used to identify these animals. Did you know that researchers can make an ID based off of the acoustic wave lengths that are emitted during echolocation? It’s a great way to identify their presence or absence without an invasive means. There is also a device called “echo meter touch”, which you can plug into your phone / tablet and be used to identify and learn about bats flying overhead. Another option for researching migratory patterns of specific individuals is by what we call “mist netting”. These animals fly into the nets, are carefully taken out, and then the researcher may ID tag the animal while taking notes. Did you know that Mexican free-tailed bats can live up to 18 years. We know this because of this kind of research. Imagine ID’ing the same bat for 18 years! Cool fact! Some bat species look so similar that scientists will look at the shape of the tragus as a distinguishing characteristic while using a dichotomous key.

These animals will roost in unique structures! The western yellow bat enjoys palm trees, canyon bats will roost in crevices and caves within canyons, and Mexican free-tailed bats can be observed roosting within infrastructure such as underneath bridges! Historically Pima County Parks and Recreation has had multiple events were you can watch plumes emerging from underneath bridges along the river walk. There’s even a cute little bat sculpture riding a bicycle! Only females of the Mexican free-tailed bats migrate to Arizona to create what’s called a nursery roost. They typically only have one pup and will invest care into the individual until they’re ready to leave. Females are able to identify their young using echolocation despite being surrounded by possibly 20,000 other individuals.

The desert museum is also a great place to learn about these animals! During the summer and leading into fall, bat’s are typically out and about anywhere you go at night. However, at the Desert Museum, there are many educational displays to learn about these animals. They also will have fun summer night programs where you are able to celebrate and learn about Sonoran Desert, all while experiencing the desert at dark!

Bat aficionado at the Desert Museum, learning about ear adaptations for echolocation.

Not only can you enjoy experiences where you can learn about these animals, you can help save them by volunteering with the flowers and bats project. This is a community science project where you hike predetermined routes and identify specific blooming plants. Due to climate change, habitat destruction, wild fires in our non-fire adapted ecosystem, and invasive species; the Sonoran Desert could be changing! Without these blooming plants, lesser-long nosed bats could run out of necessary food resources that they depend on for their migration back to Mexico. We then would lose the animal that pollinates our agave, the source for tequila for our margaritas! Okay I lied, so maybe we do have a scary spooky plot here.

We all know the stories that people share giving bats a bad rap. Though they’re kind of the underdogs of the mammalian world and we need them to pull through! Otherwise instead of saying to yourselves, “Bats give me the “heebie jeebies”. You might find yourself saying; “oh my gosh, I am covered in mosquitoes, oh my gosh, help me”. Or “I really miss the blooms of these beautiful plants” Or “why is there a bat riding a bicycle statue?” How about? “Remember when we could enjoy a crisp margarita on a hot afternoon?”

Plus, who wouldn’t miss these cute little faces?

Resources

“Holy Crap, Look at All That Poop!”

Dave DeGroot and Dan Collins (both Cohort 2) recently investigated a huge “puma latrine” in relatively flat desert terrain northwest of Tucson. Dave says that when he first discovered almost 2,000 large pieces of scat in the main and adjoining areas measuring about 50 square yards, he was amazed and puzzled. “Am I looking at a giant kitty litter box?” he wondered.

He called in his friend Dan Collins, who gives puma presentations as a Volunteer Interpretive Ranger at Saguaro National Park West.

“Yep, it’s a puma latrine,” Dan confirmed when he saw the site. 

Multiple cats (a.k.a. mountain lions or cougars) have been known to defecate in a relatively small area. It often starts when a female puma is raising kittens and does her business at a distance from the offspring, so predators will not be attracted to the den. As time passes, the growing cubs use the same area. Then a wandering male or two may defecate and urinate, and the site becomes a kind of community bulletin board for the big mammals.

Dan says the location of the site, in a large expanse of relatively flat desert, illustrates why naturalists prefer the name “puma” for the big cats, as opposed to the common name, “mountain lion.”

“If you have the mindset that these animals are mountain dwellers,” he says, “then you can miss signs of them in the flat desert. Many individual pumas, in fact, frequent the lowlands.”

Before the monsoon rains darkened them, hundreds of pieces of mountain scat appeared to be pale gray or white.

Creosote Connoisseurs

By Dave DeGroot, Cohort 2

Creosote bushes are so common in Pima County that we hardly give them a second thought. Many desert animals, however, give the creosote a second and third thought – some depend on the bush for their existence. Animals with a very close relationship to the plant include the desert iguana and the leafcutter ant. Other animals that have an interest in the creosote bush include mice, pack rats, kangaroo rats, jackrabbits, chuckwallas, many species of bees, beetles and millipedes.

The big desert iguana can be seen rummaging around in creosote bushes, eating yellow flowers and munching on the waxy leaves when the blooms fade – even duringsome of the hottest days of the summer. Not only does the big lizard feed in the bush, but it digs burrows under it to escape predators and find relief from extreme heat. In fact, the desert iguana’s range corresponds to the territory where creosotes are found, in the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts. 

Captions: A desert iguana in the Tortolita Preserve northwest of Tucson.

At the other end of the size-spectrum is another creosote connoisseur, the little leafcutter ant – not to be confused with its larger tropical cousin with the same name. In our area, leafcutter colonies can be found scattered throughout creosote flats. The ants often parade in single file, carrying pieces of creosote leaves back to their holes. They don’t eat the leaves they work so hard to collect, though – they cultivate a fungus that grows on theirstockpiled leaves, and it is the fungus they use for food. 

A leaf-cutter ant transports a piece of creosote leaf to its colony.

Interestingly, another very close animal-creosote relationship probably flourished in our area eons ago, totally disappeared for 15,000 years, and then started up again (briefly) in 1856. This odd footnote to history was written when Arabian camels were imported by the U.S. Army Camel Corps before the Civil War. Camel wranglers noticed that their transplanted dromedaries happily munched on creosote leaves, and this led to speculation that little extinct North American camels dined on creosote cuisine until they disappeared around 15,000 years ago.

Birth of a Bio-Blitz…it all started with two guys walking around in the desert

By Dave DeGroot, Cohort 2

For the Pima County Master Naturalists newsletter
During the lockdown in 2020, I came across a big piece ofdesert northwest of Tucson called the Tortolita Preserve. It is being fenced off by the Town of Marana, with recreational use mostly restricted to folks on a perimeter trail: hikers, bicyclists, joggers, and horseback riders.
Ethan Fraijo and I were curious about the “interior” of the Preserve. We both had time on our hands during the lockdown, and we started exploring the washes and cattle paths that crisscross the area. Data we collected during these walks eventually caught the attention of three respected environmental/conservation organizations. And as this is being written, it seems likely that these three organizations will cooperate in a “bio-blitz” in the Preserve.

How did informal hikes by a couple of guys turn into plans for a big bio-blitz?

Neither Ethan nor I saw it coming. Our initial reaction was that the land was dried out and overgrazed. A little later, we began to see plants and animals that were still flourishing despite the drought and the cattle. We noticed the size of the chain fruit chollas, the vocalizations of the coyotes (often fairly close to us), the lines of leaf-cutter ants carrying pieces of creosote leaves, all kinds of lizards (including a huge, bold iguana lizard), and occasional encounters with solitary velvet ants (Dasymutilla sp.) that are nicknamed “cow-killers.” Later we came upon a massive puma latrine, a herd of javelina, a bobcat posing for my trail camera, mule deer, and huge sphinx moths.

Then Ethan and I made a decision that I would recommend to other Master Naturalists: we decided to organize and quantify our observations. With some advice from a PhD botanist, we created imaginary north-south “transect lines” across the preserve and inventoried all the plants and animals we would see within 6 feet of each line, on either side. We counted only species that we observed – no non-observed species went on our list unless someone else’s sighting was very well documented. Our master list quickly grew to approximately 85 plants, 50 birds, a dozen mammals, 20 insects/arachnids, and a dozen reptiles, and it is still growing. Then we started to find cultural artifacts (which we have been asked not to provide details about).

Next came a breakthrough (for us, anyway). 

We shared our data with a fairly new, 700-member organization comprised mainly of folks who live in the vicinity of the Tortolita Preserve, whose mission is to conserve and protect the land. The organization goes by the name of Tortolita Alliance, and they are involved with both the Preserve and Wild Burro Canyon in the Tortolita Mountains. The interest of the Tortolita Alliance board was immediate and genuine. They invited Ethanand me to meet with some of their board members. These volunteer board members were struck by the fact that a couple of amateurs – “citizen scientists” – could assemble hard data on their Preserve – and they realized that assembling usable data wasn’t the exclusive domain of graduate school instructors and assistants, advanced degree candidates, or paid professionals. Three days later, board members and an archaeologist trekked with us along one of our transect lines through the middle of the Preserve.

The Tortolita Alliance board then decided they wanted to continue and expand the work Ethan and I had started – they began planning to involve volunteers in a larger-scale survey of the preserve. They floated the idea of a “citizen science survey”with the government agency that controls the Preserve. The agency’s reply: “We want you to work with a **[well-known, respected coalition that is involved in environmental causes around Pima County].” That coalition indicated an interest in the proposed larger-scale survey.

As the Tortolita Alliance is preparing to work with this organization, the Alliance also has been introduced to some Pima County Master Naturalists for the first time. Cohort 2 members Jean Boris and Diana Holmes have explored the pumasite and scouted plants with Alliance president Mark Johnson and myself. Johnson now says the Alliance would definitely welcome participation by Master Naturalist volunteers in the upcoming survey. 

So at this time Ethan and I, along with the Tortolita Alliance, wait for guidance from the **[well-known, respected coalition that is involved in environmental causes around Pima County]. It seems likely that the larger-scale survey will involve many volunteers in some kind of bio-blitz, perhaps timed to coincide with one or more of the Sonora Desert’s five seasons. When concrete plans take shape, Pima County Master Naturalists will be notified and asked to help with the survey. 

Do Ethan and I regret that our amateur survey has been taken out of our hands? No, not at all! We are proud of the role we played in catching the attention of the Tortolita Alliance, the land’s governing agency, the Master Naturalists organization – and now the **[well-known, respected coalition that is involved in environmental causes around Pima County]. We feel that we set in motion plans to understand and ultimately protect 2,400 acres of beautiful, struggling desert northwest of Tucson.

**I can share the name of this organization later, when the bio-blitz plans are further developed.

Prepare For Take off

By Dave DeGroot, Cohort 2

Dozens of species of sphinx moths – some of the largest moths in the world – work the “night shift” during Pima County’s monsoon season. Unfurling their long proboscises, they zero in on the nectar offered by pale flowers such as sacred thornapple Datura, Jimson weed, evening primrose, honeysuckle, different kinds of phlox, penstemons, and other desert plants that are somewhat visible in the dark. 

An adult White-Lined Sphinx Moth “vibrates” while sitting on Ethan Fraijo’s hand

The big moths’ nighttime flights take a lot of fuel. Their bodies are relatively large and they stay airborne for long periods of time. They have a way of hovering at flowers like hummingbirds, a skill that is very useful for drinkingnectar but burns up calories.  

On cool nights they have a little trouble. When their body temperatures drop below 96 degrees F., they cannot fly efficiently. Daytime insects utilize higher ambient temperatures and the sun’s warming rays to stay active, but the nocturnal sphinx moths need another strategy.

Not to worry. The sphinx flyers have developed a way toraise their body temperature to achieve the necessary 96 degrees F. They vibrate. They use wing muscles in a kind of quivering behavior that raises the temperature of their thorax. They sit on a perch and vibrate to prepare for take-off, something like an airplane warming up on a runway.  

Ethan Fraijo and I witnessed this behavior during a nocturnal foray into the Tortolita Preserve in September. Our goal was to obtain moth photos. Our method was to hang up a white bedsheet and mount an ultraviolet light next to it. Sphinx moths would often be among the first visitors to our outpost. One sphinx crashed into our bedsheet with an audible “smack.” Not much finesse – we thought it was having trouble with a low body temperature. So we decided to give it a hand.

The moth seemed to feel secure in the palm of Ethan’s hand and began to quiver. In just a couple of minutes it spread its wings and took off. Interestingly, it hovered around our ultraviolet light for only a short time before flying away. Other sphinx moth visitors came and went. Meanwhile dozens of tiny moths remained enthralled by our UV light. The big guys, however, sized up our outpost quickly and departed. They weren’t about to waste precious body heat hovering around a nectarless lightbulb. They had things to do and places to go – while their temperature gauges registered 96 degrees.

A hornworm (Banded Sphinx larva ) is just days away from dropping into soft dirt forming a pupae.

What To Do When You Get Stuck

Metaphorically or Very Literally

We all sometimes find ourselves in a situation where we just feel stuck. In relation to volunteer work, sometimes we might feel stuck with feeling overwhelmed that there is too much to learn or do or fix. We might feel stuck behind red tape, behind paperwork or permits, or behind inequitable systems. We might feel stuck with exhaustion, compassion fatigue, or too little time. Sometimes we might also find ourselves feeling literally stuck in a smoking Jeep Wrangler in loose sand in a damp wash nowhere near a paved road in a hot summer desert. Funnily enough, my not-an-expert advice for how to get unstuck from any of these situations is roughly the same.

I volunteer for the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. As a Desert Monitor for this organization I trek out to a handful of remote wildlife field cameras once a month. Getting to my assigned set of cameras and getting back has proved to be the most difficult part of this role. My personal vehicle happens to be a 2012 Jeep Wrangler that is an ace at off-road work. Having this vehicle allowed me the unique privilege to volunteer to monitor cameras that were in some of the hardest spots to access by foot. All of my cameras can be reached by hiking, but driving several miles down a nearby dirt service road allows me to get much closer and service more sites and more cameras on each outing.

In late August I set out with two other volunteers to check on the cameras. I was joined by fellow Pima County Master Naturalist Josh Skattum, who is my most frequent volunteering buddy and is used to bouncing around in my Jeep and getting lost in the desert with me, and guest volunteer for the Coalition Kevin Krumwiede. Fellow Tucsonans know that we had a fabulous monsoon season with heavy rain. The rain was wonderful for our desert but bad for our cameras. It ripped many of them off of their mountings and washed them away in floodwaters. On this particular day we were heading out with Kevin’s fleet of metal detectors to see if we could recover any lost cameras (we didn’t). The dirt road was the worst I’ve ever seen. It was washed out and rocky with newly cut ravines, flowing water, and loose areas of fine gravel. We had a big shovel with us and determined that with a little digging and rearranging of rocks here and there we could get out to our cameras and back — and we almost did.

We had to go down a steep bank in the road down into a wash early on in the trek. The Jeep handled it fine despite scraping a little bit on the steep grade. The rest of the road was rough, but doable. We made it out to all of our locations, and made it back to the big wash. My Jeep is a manual transmission and I could feel that it seemed to be working a little harder than usual to get up and over the steeper bits, but I wasn’t worried. When we reached the steep bank I just went for it and almost made it to the top before stalling and sliding back down into soft sand and a few inches of running water. Kevin and Josh got out of the car to try to guide me up the bank. I revved it again and got about halfway up before my tires started spinning in the bank’s mud and I slid back down. We tried this several more times, taking turns digging out the bank with the shovel and strategically placing large rocks. The car kept making it mostly up before getting stuck or stalling out and slipping back down. I still wasn’t worried until smoke started to leak out from under the hood. Eventually we all had to concede that we were truly stuck.

So what do you do when you’re stuck?

Step 1: Be prepared

The most important thing we were prepared with was gallons of drinking water. It was about 100F out at the time this was occurring — which isn’t that bad for Tucson in August — but isn’t great. Because we had access to water and shade we weren’t in any immediate danger. We also had a first aid kit, an emergency roadside kit, and of course our trusty shovel.

All volunteer organizations should help you prepare for issues that might arise in your role. You should ensure that you have access to people within your organization and outside of it that can answer questions or lend a helping hand. Through the Arizona Master Naturalist community I have been able to build up a network of contacts for any sort of question I might have in relation to naturalist work or most anything else. This network helps me feel prepared for any adventure!

And while that’s cute advice and all, I’d like to reiterate that the actual most important thing you need to be prepared for volunteering in Arizona is water. Even if you’re volunteering on a couch in the air conditioning — ALWAYS BRING WATER.

Step 2: Work together to make a plan

I suppose step 1.5 would be to not panic. That’s easier said than done, I know, but remind yourself that you are prepared and have support for the next steps. When the three of us realized how stuck in the mud we were we stopped trying to drive up the river bank and started talking through a plan. Our first idea was to look for another way out of the wash. We pulled up satellite images on our phone using Google Maps and saw that there appeared to be another exit around the bend. Josh walked ahead to scope it out and confirmed that there was another way out — so off we went! The hood was consistently smoking and we struggled and spun a bit in the mud but we successfully drove to the other exit point. Josh stayed outside of the car and talked us through navigating around debris and up the much gentler bank. Success! We were out of the wash!

Volunteering very often includes working in teams for good reason. Even if you feel that group projects aren’t your thing, teamwork is critical to success. Students in the Pima County Master Naturalist classes work together in teams on a number of activities. We are taught teamwork skills that translate to many situations (like getting your car stuck). Whenever you feel stuck, look to your team! Work together to make a plan that best addresses the issue.

Also never go into the desert alone! Always bring a hiking buddy or fieldwork friend.

Step 3: Call for help

We got the Jeep out of the wash and back on the dirt road, woohoo! We made it to within a measly 0.2 miles of the main, paved road before the smoke started to worsen. We had a steep hill to climb and about halfway up my trusty Jeep just stopped going forward. No amount of revving the engine would make it budge. Turns out, I had burnt out my clutch. Oops. We were in a safe location now that we were out of the wash, but unfortunately we also now had a car that needed a tow. If the situation worsens, call for more help! We called around and discovered that you need to be within 30 feet of a paved road to get towed by most tow trucks. We were farther than that and down a steep hill. Hot, hungry, and only 0.2 miles from a real road, we decided to ditch the Jeep and call for a ride home. My boyfriend Aidan saved the day by arriving with snacks and icy water to drive everyone back to our meet-up point in town. We all went back to our own homes to rest, but I still had a car abandoned out in the desert, so I had more calls to make.

When a mishap occurs while volunteering, reach out to your organization! I sent an email describing my predicament to Jessica Moreno, the Conservation Science Director for the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection and my go-to contact for everything relating to monitoring these cameras. I asked Jessica if she had any ideas for how to get the Jeep unstuck, and she delivered! Jessica and her husband dropped everything to borrow a pick-up truck from a family member and meet me back out in the desert. Together we tied my jeep to the truck and they towed me up the hill and out to the main road (in the rain, might I add). Now within regular towing distance, I was able to call a tow truck to arrive and tow me to a garage. A few days and one clutch-replacement later, and my Jeep was back in action.

Step 4: Accept help

Being open to calling for help and accepting help can be tough, but ultimately it’s what will get you unstuck! So many people had to help me get my Jeep unstuck and it is humbling to know that I needed every one of them. Once I was hit with the bill to replace the clutch I had to reach out for even more help from family members. Being part of a volunteering team means that everyone needs to help each other, and in my experience everyone wants to help each other! If any of my fellow teammates ever need my help in return, I will be there with my trusty shovel to help dig them a path.

While no one likes getting stuck, pushing through it can lead to better changes that benefit everyone. A few days ago I went back out into the field with my shiny new clutch and Aidan as my volunteering buddy. We were prepared to hike the entire journey assuming that the road was still impassable, but I screamed in delight when I saw what had happened to the site: someone had fixed the road!!! A giant earthmover was parked nearby and had come through and smoothed the entire road to fix all of the damage that had been done by the monsoons. The steep bank had been smoothed out and boards had been installed to make crossing the shallow water safer. I would like to believe that the mess of tire tracks and dig marks I left had something to do with this repair. Perhaps instead the story shared by the Coalition or by the multiple towing and repair companies involved made it back to the keepers of that dirt road. If you see a problem, say something! It just might get fixed. The more we work together to help each other through muddy situations the more we can fix the entire path so that fewer people get stuck. Go team!

A True Bear Wallow

By Franklin Lane and Deborah Huie

One of the most overlooked sky islands in the Pimería Alta is the Whetstones. While many people have visited Kartchner Caverns on the eastern slopes few have explored beyond that. Just south of the entrance to Kartchner is an unimproved road leading into French Joe Canyon. There is a small sign out on Highway 90. You’ll need high clearance and either Four or All-Wheel drive but it’s worth the effort. The road ends at the mouth of the canyon and there is some terrific dispersed camping among the oaks. No facilities! A hiking trail takes you further into this secluded canyon and, with a little bushwhacking, all the way to Apache Peak. This is the highest point in the Whetstones at 7,714 feet. It’s about 12.5 miles round trip. The Spanish called this range the Sierra del Babocomari, an Opata word that still describes a river to the south of the range that is a tributary to the San Pedro. Starting in the mid nineteenth century the name ‘Whetstone’ started appearing on maps. Supposedly because of deposits of a very hard, fine-grained rock (Novaculite) that could be used for honing knives etc.

A sign post stands in front of an open field of grass. The sign reads, "Hunting Closure. No prairie dog hunting. Black-tailed prairie dog reintroduction area."

Deborah Huie, Cohort 1 (all photo credits), and I have been volunteering together with the University of Arizona Spotted Cat program since 2015. We’ve retrieved film from trail cameras in the Santa Ritas, the Huachucas, and now are monitoring the Whetstones for jaguar and ocelot. We have a camera along the western slope that requires about an hour 4-wheel drive to approach and then a short hike. The drive passes through a very cool black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) restoration site located on the historic Sands Ranch.

The approach road and hike itself offer some spectacular scenery of the high grasslands to the west toward Sonoita and south toward the Mustang Mountains. On Saturday, October 2, we checked our cameras for the first time since June. Those fabulous rains of the 2021 Monsoons have completely transformed the area. It is more stunning than ever.

In June, before the monsoon rains, a spring that we monitor was dominated by cattle. Apparently it was the only water around. Since the rains the cattle obviously drink elsewhere and we didn’t have any on this film. Humorously, the SD card this time was about 80% pictures of three distinct black bear individuals, (Ursus americanus) wallowing in the spring throughout the hot days. Although, as you can see, only one of them was actually black. We also had one good mountain lion shot which tells us its suitable habitat for other cats.

Feel free to contact the authors if you’re interested in more details about exploring this part of Southern Arizona.

2021 Monsoons!

Flash floods, torrential rain, severe thunderstorms, high winds. Who would’ve thought that these words could describe one of our seasons of summer here in the Sonoran Desert Climate!

The Sonoran Desert can be described as having 5 different seasons; Spring, Dry Season of Summer, The Summer Monsoon Season, Fall, and Winter. Both our winter rain and summer monsoon seasons are typically characterized with rain, however, both seasons’ storms are different in nature. Our winter rainfall tends to have longer, softer storms. Whereas our summer monsoons are as described above, quick intense storms that can create strong winds, downpour, severe thunder and lightning, and flash floods.

Monsoon storm picture provided by PCMN Penny M
Monsoon storm picture provided by PCMN Penny M

Life in the desert depends on rain for survival. Many people love to watch the storms come in and as naturalists we have the opportunity to observe and enjoy the bursts of life and distinct phenophases. The winter rain brings in a prolific spring of super blooms of native wildflowers. Mid-June is when we began to anticipate our summer rainfall knowing that July is typically when storms come in full force. Many plants and animals, like the spadefoot toad, reserve their resources and wait to reproduce for when it is known that we will have a wet summer. These amphibians await for the rainfall and storm vibrations triggering their emergence for their breeding season, thus fulfilling an important part of their lifecycle.

Spadefoot Toad at the Sonora Desert Museum

One of my favorite things as a desert dweller is to recreate during monsoon season! It’s a time where we can see the desert thrive and become even more green again, swim in vernal pools in canyons, and visit waterfalls to listen to the force of water here in the desert. Some of my favorite places to visit include Tanque Verde Falls, Sabino Canyon, Romero Pools, and the Cataracts along Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway. Typically it is always stressed to think about water and safety while hiking in the summer. This is still true during monsoon season, but in a different way in comparison to our dry summer. Yes, stay hydrated! But also be aware of the place you’re hiking and what potential there is for flash floods. Some great safety tips include looking at not only the weather forecast, but as well as the radar, research the area, and if available, talk to a park ranger to better understand what to expect!

Lush Greenery at Catalina State Park after recent monsoon rains.
Waterfall within the wash at Tanque Verde Falls
Beautiful Waterfall at Tanque Verde Falls
Water flowing within the Riparian at Sabino Canyon

2020 was a summer of drought and wildfires. We continued to hope for rain as our mountainsides went up in fire and smoke. It was marked as the driest summer since 1895, having only 2.97 inches of rainfall. Seeing this year’s monsoon season was an extension of relief that 2021 has brought me all while observing record rainfall! As of July 25th we’ve experienced over 5.82 inches of rain here in Tucson. Almost twice as much as last year’s total. So far this year ranks as the 4th wettest July and 6th wettest calendar month on record!

https://www.weather.gov/psr/2020MonsoonReview

Resources:

https://www.weather.gov/psr/2020MonsoonReview

https://www.desertmuseum.org/books/nhsd_patternslife.php

https://climas.arizona.edu/sw-climate/monsoon

My Experience Becoming a Master Naturalist

By Paula Redinger, Cohort 5 Pima Master Naturalist

Last month, a small brown envelope appeared in my mailbox. I knew exactly what was inside: something I’d been working towards since mid-January. After a triumphal Facebook post and associated comment flurry, I thought more quietly upon it. What does it, mean, exactly?

In the simplest of terms, it means that I successfully completed a 17 week course, with its generous amount of associated reading, labs, and homework, as well as the required hours of volunteer work and “advanced training” (a sort of continuing education). I gritted my teeth during “ice breaker” class activities (I’m an introvert), pored over hundreds of pages of books, articles, and scientific papers, sailed through biogeographic zones and desert fauna (mostly), wrestled with geology, wondered in awe at and grieved the Sea of Cortez, felt despair and hope as I learned about our Santa Cruz River, continued my personal journey in understanding systemic racism (this time in a naturalist framework), cursed and celebrated team assignments (did I mention I’m an introvert?), wailed and whined inwardly that I’d nehhh-verrrr be able to identify plants, designed and completed a self-directed capstone project in order to help me do just that, witnessed the phenology (timing) of springtime events in my own backyard, prepared and presented an “interpretative talk” to my cohort-mates, scowled at invasive plants, bemoaned climate change, grew to appreciate our rich cultural history, sketched, photographed, presented, asked, listened, touched, sniffed, tasted, wondered, researched…. and that’s just the class portion.

Towards the completion of my volunteer hours, I counted birds on multiple survey routes, looked for evidence (ie – dead birds) that would indicate migration window strikes, hand watered thousands of native plants destined for county planting projects, climbed mountains and hiked miles to survey the health of wilderness springs, released masked bobwhite quail, helped train other volunteers, attended meetings, presented about my experiences… for nearly 100 hours and counting.

In the name of advanced training, I attended hours of COVID-style webinars (and a few socially distanced guided walks) on various topics: specific bird identification skills, the Bighorn Fire, wild mushrooms, our watersheds, landscape conservation, beaver reintroduction, invasive grasses, as well as training sessions specific to my volunteer tasks. And now, there is the towering spire of relevant books I’ve accumulated since I began this endeavor.

It has been an absolute nature lover’s cyclone. The result of this wondrous chubasco? I am, irrefutably, a member of that “corps of skilled volunteers able to provide leadership in education, citizen science, and stewardship programs to natural resource organizations in the State of Arizona” that our organization seeks to develop. Looking forward, in order to maintain my certification, I will have to fulfill volunteer and advanced training requirements each calendar year.

So now you know what my little name tag means. But do I? I’m not sure. Perhaps I can say that my title of Certified Master Naturalist bestows upon me the dubious honor of knowing a bit more of what I don’t know. My list of questions about our natural world has, curiously, not gotten any shorter. Why was there a 10 million year gap in volcanic activity during the early Cenozoic Era? If ashes are a source of lye, will the fire-then-monsoon-induced slurry that comes down from the Catalina Mountains be toxically alkaline? How can you really distinguish amongst our various oak tree species or Empidonax flycatchers? Why are cold currents found at the western edges of continents? With every question answered, the dragons’ teeth inexorably spring forth. In an attempt at consolation, I say, “Self, you are a lifelong learner!” Going down wormhole after wormhole is both exciting and exhausting. But some days, I really would like to know All the Things. Now.

I also seem to do a lot of noticing of what I don’t notice. I recently realized, with not a small amount of embarrassment, that the volunteer palo verde tree growing in the rubble of my back yard is actually a graythorn bush. Similarly, that mesquite tree in my fiancé’s yard? Whoops! It’s an acacia. I drove back and forth to the Tohono Chul Gardens at least three times this spring, trying to catch their Arizona Rosewood in bloom for a capstone project sketch. Sheepishly, I recently observed one growing a mere two blocks from my own house.

Mostly, I’m learning about patience, trust, and the art of slow observation. The knowledge, experience, and associated confidence will come when it comes. In the meantime, I’ll be content to watch the spider wrapping its pray in the corner of the room, before swatting it out the doorway.

I’m still terrible at identifying plants. Fingers crossed none of my friends ask me about any.