By Franklin Lane PCMN C1
7 February 2022, (near) McNeal Arizona.
I visit the Sulphur Springs valley south of Wilcox, Arizona several times a year. Normally I’m enroute to the Chiricahua Mountains or, accompanying a historian friend tracing the route of the old Butterfield stage line. But early every February I’m outside McNeal at the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. This is the major Arizona wintering spot of Sandhill Cranes (Crus canadensis). ‘Purrll’ might not be an accurate description of their distinctive call but that’s what it sounds like to me. Hard to distinguish when several thousand birds are all communicating at the same time.
The Sandhill is one of just two cranes native to North America. The other is the much more threatened Whooping Crane (Crus americana). The other dominant, migratory species at Whitewater is the Snow Goose (Anser caerulescens).
I go in early February because the timing is right to observe the birds re-massing at Whitewater between 10:30-11:30 a.m. after their morning scavenging. This makes the departure from Tucson for the approximate two-hour drive much more civilized. I also drive the ‘back way’ through Tombstone. Shorter and prettier than taking the Interstate to the Dragoon or Wilcox exits. Birds can be seen, however, from November to early March.
What particularly struck me this year was the realization that the Sandhills represent the largest gathering of vertebrates that I will probably ever see. Other than Homo sapiens in a football stadium where else can we observe 10 -15,000 individuals of a species this large?
This year the AZGFD has cordoned off the ramada where a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is nesting.
Additional Blog posts about Whitewater Draw are archived inApril 2020 and August 2018.
Happy Valentine’s Day Arizona! On February 14th, 1912, Arizona became our 48th state. In celebration, Pima County Master Naturalists helped with creating a collaborative project sharing what they love about Arizona.
“I love the diversity of the cultural and natural history of this region. Tucson’s community is a incredible place where we recognize that diversity and celebrate it by continuing to learn about and care for the place that we call home. The desert also has always been a space where I have been able to recenter myself regardless of the stresses that life may bring. I’m so thankful for all of the wonderful people that I’ve met as an AZMN. I always look forward with continuing to collaborate and learn from you all!”
Thank you to all of our members that have helped with project! PCMN Josh S, Cohort 3
My favorite thing about Arizona is the ‘open space’. A walk, bike ride or short drive and you can be away from the trappings of man and enjoying the incredible biodiversity of the Southwest. Being a Master Naturalist allows me to better appreciate what I observe.
Franklin Lane C1
“After living all over the United States, at age 67 I fell in love with the Sonoran Desert. I felt a kinship to the desert where animals and plants not only survive but thrive in the harsh conditions. I fell in love with the towering saguaros, the palo verdes that dance in the wind, the howl of the coyotes and the smell of the desert after a monsoon rain. Every night I turn my gaze into the dark skies and give gratitude for my new home.” Chris Robie, Cohort 6
A Love Letter to Arizona
Thank you Arizona, for being home to wondrous landscapes that others travel so far to see. We may be known as the Grand Canyon State, but we know that we have beautiful landscapes and rich natural and cultural history in every pocket of our state. The lands I feel most connected to, the Sonoran Desert (also known as unceded lands of the Tohono O’odham and the Yoeme), is well known for its’ biodiversity of plants, animals, soils and species, the impressive families of saguaros and desert life, the rainbow streaked sunrises and sunsets, and the life-giving monsoons. Sharing what we love and how we want to continue doing better for this state, its’ peoples, its’ cultures’, and its’ lands is a big part of why I’m with Arizona Master Naturalists. Photo and post by Mely Bohlman, C5
Golden hour illuminates ~
beauty of not-pig.
Linda Doughty C 6
“I love the rivers of southern Arizona even when they are dry. Monitoring flow in the Rillito River has given me a greater appreciation of the beauty the river bed shares with us, no matter the flow.” Post and picture by Jan Schwartz
“I love the desert because of its great diversity of people, cultures, wildlife and plants. I was born here, as was my mother, and I grew up seeing the glorious mountains surrounding our home, exploring the desert on foot and on horseback, building forts in cactus, and waiting in anticipation for the monsoon rains. Being an Arizona Master Naturalist has helped me discover new things about our area, but more importantly, I have discovered many opportunities to help protect our Sonoran desert and help others learn about its fragile beauty.” – Tori West – Cohort 4
“I love the Sonoran Desert because of how WILD it feels! I love seeing nature all around me, from stately saguaros to vibrant little verdins. The wilderness just feels closer in Tucson than it does in other places I’ve lived, and it makes it feel like home. I especially love the abundance of bird life that share the desert. They make it so that there is always something exciting to photograph!” – Sam W
Haiku for the Santa Cruz 2022.
Arrowwood grows now
Submitted by Kathy Altman C5:
“We got here in 1979 because I had become aware of the wonderful bio-diversity here! Especially regarding the Butterfly species. And quickly found several rare residents like Thessalia fulvia, cyneas and Liminitis archippus and Astyanax.”
Wild at Heart Burrowing Owl Project
Written by Deb Petrich (C1) and Kathy McLin (C3) with contributions from Penny Miller.
Photos taken by Kathy McLin.
On a sunny winter’s day in January, a group of 10 Pima County Master Naturalists (PCMN) and other volunteers, embarked on building 13 small release tents over artificial burrows at Wild At Heart’s Martin Farm site in Marana. Wild at Heart (WAH) is an Arizona-based Raptor Rescue Organization and their Burrowing Owl Project relocates burrowing owls rescued from construction or land development sites across the State of Arizona. Burrowing owls are federally listed as endangered species in Canada, threatened species in Mexico, and protected by varying laws in 9 US states. Reasons for their decline include habitat destruction, climate change/drought/fire, and farm pesticides which kill their insect prey. For the Martin Farm site this day, 26 Burrowing Owls were being relocated from Phoenix and released in our 13 newly constructed tents by Greg Clark, Burrowing Owl Habitat Coordinator, from WAH. Each tent contains 2 burrowing owls, 1 male and 1 female.
For the next 6 weeks, PCMNs Jean Boris (C2), Penny Miller (C2), Debbie Petrich (C1) with Kathy McLin (C3), and Kathe Sudano (C3), in addition to 3 other volunteers, who were trained on feeding the owls mice on boards and changing out water, will return on their specific day to do so. Important information such as number of mice remaining on boards, number of owls observed, and any external disturbances around the tent from possible predators is recorded in each tent site notebook by that day’s volunteer. In addition, Greg is notified via email with this daily information so as to alleviate any potential issues with the owls.
Around week 5 the tents will be removed and the owls will be free to remain in their burrow or seek out another home. In our training, Greg advised us that none of the owls relocated to the Martin Farm site in the past has tried to return to Phoenix. Penny Miller may address this concept of “Home Site fidelity”, the tendency of burrowing owls and other relocated wildlife to return to a previously occupied place or nesting site, in a future blog post.
Other PCMNs who volunteered to help build tents in the morning session were Sam Wilber (C4), Jenna Marvin (C3), Dre Hoerr (C3), Kim Stone (C2), Marlene Shamis (C4) and Carly Pierson (C6). See the end of this post for several photos from this very rewarding experience and especially of the burrowing owls.
Thank you Wild at Heart for your dedication to saving these charming little owls and inviting us to be a part of their relocation. Their mission (from their website): ‘Wild At Heart is a rescue, rehabilitation and release center for birds of prey. Its primary purpose is to rescue injured owls, hawks, falcons and eagles; rehabilitate them; and, ultimately, release them back into the wild. Its guiding mission is to do what is in the best interest of these magnificent birds.’
The Pima County Chapter of the Arizona Master Naturalists held its annual membership meeting on Sunday 12/5/21 at the home of the Chapter Secretary, Carrie Barcom, in Tanque Verde. Previous meetings have been held at Tucson Botanical Gardens (2018), Molino Basin Campground (2019), and on Zoom (2020).
The primary article of business was to confirm the selection of Jan Schwartz (C4) as president for 2022 and Melissa Fratello (C5) as President-Elect (2023). In the photo below Jan is front row, third from the left not counting ‘Cameron’ the pooch. Melissa Fratello is back row, sixth from the right. The other bookend husky is ‘Haiku.’
The central theme of the gathering was ‘resiliency.’ We were reminded that we are a volunteer organization run entirely by volunteers. We have weathered (and continue to weather) almost two years of pandemic restrictions and the loss of elected leadership during that critical time. While we don’t always get our hours posted in Volgistics with ‘disciplined regularity’ we nonetheless are back out there volunteering and serving our desert and community. Our brand is becoming a real presence in Pima County. As recent evidence of this, the City of Marana has asked for our assistance in conducting a species survey of the Tortolita Preserve. We would participate in partnership with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, and the Tortolita Alliance. More to come in early 2022.
Brand new ‘Certified’ Master Naturalists from Cohort 5 were recognized: Paula Redinger, Les Krammer, and Kathy Altman.
Prior to the meeting and potluck picnic there were a couple optional activities to participate in. Several MN’s joined curriculum instructor, and Chapter supporter, Jeff Babson from Pima County, Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation (PCNRPR) on a bird walk in Agua Caliente park.
Jeff was able to turn the session into some coveted Advanced Training (SKILLS) hours by teaching his protocols for species identification; shape, size, habitat, etc. Among the species the group observed were a vermilion flycatcher, grey flycatcher, and Lincoln’s sparrow (below).
Members also had the opportunity to earn some regular Advanced Training hours by participating in a collaborative, desert ecology walk along the Pink Hill Trail in Saguaro National Park East. Learning from each other along an incredibly diverse and representative section of Sonoran Desert was a rewarding experience. Below, a few members both mourn and examine an iconic species.
After the picnic lunch, our Chapter Advisor, LoriAnne Barnett-Warren, conducted a raffle of items donated by the membership. These incredibly handsome donations and the generosity of participants netted the Chapter around $250.00 that can be used to continue to increase our diversity by providing scholarships and/or offset the cost of our course of instruction. Special thanks to PCMN members who donated personal works of art. Reminder, if you are willing to donate your copy of A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert for a scholarship student in C6 just let anyone on the Board of Directors or Curriculum Committee know.
Finally, our incoming president announced to those members present that the preparations for Cohort 6 are being finalized. Three information sessions were held on Zoom and interviews are being conducted. It is anticipated that C6 will be a hybrid course with live field sessions and a mix of both live and zoom classroom instruction. But as always, we’ll be flexible!
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!
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.