Master Naturalists in the Field: Wild Burro Trail Hike

Pima County Chapter Master Naturalists
Skills-Based Advanced Training
Wild Burro Trail Hike
Saturday, March 19, 2022

On a mild and sunny morning, a small group of Pima County Chapter Master Naturalists met for an Advanced Training hike. We explored the Wild Burro Trail in the Tortolita Mountains, which began near the Ritz Carlton at Dove Mountain in Marana. Paul Stillman (C3) was our terrific guide, with Franklin Lane (C1) serving as an excellent tailgater. The rest of the group included Deb Petrich (C1), Jean Boris (C2), Joan Calcagno (C2) and me, Kim Girard (C6). After an informative intro from Paul and some shared hiking tips, we headed out. The Wild Burro Trail began flat and sandy, and included several crossings of a dry wash. We soon encountered the first of several petroglyphs on a large bolder lining the wash. These petroglyphs are Hohokam, and dated to approximately 1100-1450. We were privileged to view these historical records of early inhabitants of the area.
Throughout the hike, Paul shared his considerable knowledge of the area – human history as well as plant/animal life, and his own adventures. We all shared hiking stories, wildlife encounters and identification of the many wildflowers we encountered along the way. We stopped for lunch and snacks in the large wash, where there was ample shade and flat boulders on which to rest.

One view of a number of petroglyph sites

We were treated to wonderful views throughout the hike, surrounded by Saguaros and many other cactus species. The wash was lined with blooming Chuparosa in every direction, and we all remarked at how many there were and the amazing color they added to the landscape.

A boulder-strewn hillside with pops of color, mostly brittlebush

There was a steep and rocky section of the trail, but Paul kept a moderate pace and we made frequent stops to enjoy the surroundings catch our breath. When we reached the Alamo Springs area, we saw the remains of an old rancher cabin and a hand-dug well. There was an excellent interpretive sign that showed photos and information about some of the early, non-indigenous inhabitants of the area.

Remains of an early rancher cabin
Exterior of the hand-dug well
Interior of the well – sure glad I didn’t drop my phone!

Along a low and shaded area of the trail, we stopped short to see a large Gila Monster moving along through the brush. Wow! This was my first view of a Gila in the wild, and it was just one of so many highlights on this hike.

The day warmed as we headed back toward the trailhead. Paul promised one more surprise – and we were not disappointed! Most of us are familiar with crested (or cristate) Saguaros, and perhaps a Barrel Cactus with an unusual top. But none of us had ever seen a Crested Cholla! There is still debate on what causes these unusual features (virus? genetics), but regardless of the cause, they are always a wonderful sight.

When we reached the last junction in the wash, a few hikers headed toward their cars, and the rest of us accompanied Paul for more petroglyph views. He led us on a short path behind the hotel, to a paved area below a hillside covered in boulders. A number of petroglyphs were easily viewed from there.

The group learned 3 facts on the hike (and lots of other cool stuff too!).
* Curve billed thrashers and cactus wrens like to nest in cholla cactus, but the trashers break off the spines to create a “sticker-free” environment for their young.
* Staghorn cholla has fruit without spines (remember the “s” in staghorn also starts the word “smooth).
* Buckhorn cholla has spines, thus causing a horse to “buck” if you put it under the saddle (from Paul Stillman).

The following is a list of wildflowers the group was able to ID. Thanks Paul for this list.
Creosote bush
Fairy duster
Desert chicory
Arizona jewel flower (twist flower)
Bigelow ragged rock flower
Mexican gold poppy
Blue dicks – wild hyacinth
Desert honeysuckle
Slender evening primrose (California suncup)
Desert anemone
Bajada lupine
Gooding’s verbena
Desert wishbone bush
Trixis (American threefold)
Parry false prairie clover
Rattlesnake weed
Desert marigold
Desert rock pea
London rocket
Globe mallow – including a gorgeous lavender variety

Tracks and Scat April 16, 2022

Who doesn’t wonder what animal made the tracks we sometimes see on hikes, or even in our own yards? And who hasn’t wondered what kind of scat we “tripped” over. 

On April 16, 2022 Cohort 6 had a special lab at Cienega Creekled by Master Naturalists Hank Harlowe, PhD, Michelle Kostuk, and supported by Master Naturalist Deb Petrich and AlexWolfe, Environmental Program Specialist with PCNRPR. We had 8 students: Diane, Francesca, Chris, Trinity, Carly, John, Izetta, and Kim; and tracks and scat were the order of the morning. Hank and Michelle set up ahead of time and greeted the group at the side of the (dry) creek. Big shout out to Deb Petrich for pulling it all together, and to Alex Wolfe for their contribution.

We started by naming the possible critters who lived in this area and what families they were in; deer, javelina, skunks, bobcat, ringtail, mountain lion, coyote, fox, bear, turkey, and vulture were some of the animals discussed. Hank and Michelle showed the tracks of most of these critters, some prepared tracks and some they came upon naturally. It’s actually a complicated process to analyze tracks! A full analysis will tell a story. Was the animal sauntering along, running from danger, on a missionto get someplace, or maybe stalking prey?

Students were then shown how to cast molds of tracks using paper mâché, salt, and water.  Once the solution was added to the tracks, we started off down the trail to search out the real tracks and the real scat, as the molds dried.

Some mentioned how excited kids were to talk about poop. From my observation kids aren’t the only ones! Hank brought along bags full of different scat so we could compare and contrast each animal’s poop, including cow and horse because they too occasionally roam the area. An animal’s diet is a big factor in identifying scat, as are shape and form. We think we saw fox, bobcat and coyote scat on the trail. Figuring out scat seemed a little easier than tracks and it was certainly easier to see! 

It was a perfect southern Arizona day with a breeze, a hazy sky, and the beautiful shade of the cottonwoods. And we learned a lot thanks to the generosity of our knowledgeable Master Naturalist instructors!

It must be Spring…. Vultures are back!

Blogpost written by PCMN: Kathleen McLin

Black and Turkey Vultures may strike fear into some individuals but to me they are unique, fascinating birds.

Their scientific name Cathartes aura is Latin for “ cleansing breeze”. Their bald head prevents carrion from sticking and rotting as they dig into carcasses. Strong internal enzymes destroy bacteria from the rotting meat they eat to keep them healthy. These birds do not have talons like Raptors. Their feet are more like that of a chicken. They use their strong well developed beaks to tear at hide and meat.

Turkey Vultures have a highly developed sense of smell and can locate a dead animal in as little as 12 hours after death and up to a mile away. Black Vultures lack this keen ability and fly higher than their lower flying Turkey Vulture cousins to locate a meal. Both have 2 nostrils that are large and open so it is possible to see right thru them. If a piece of meat gets lodged in the cavity it can be removed by a talon.

A large number of these birds is called a kettle. Both species may share a meal but it is the larger Turkey Vulture who eats first.

Vultures can hiss or grunt but have no other vocalizations as they have no voice box. We receive injured, both Turkey and Black Vultures at the Tucson Wildlife Center from time to time. Upon arrival I very much look forward to helping with their recovery. Holding one, seeing it so close up is a memorable experience.

They weigh only 2 to 4 lbs. with a wing spread of up to 6 feet. Freaky amazing!

Prickly Park and Pima County Native Plant Nursery

Blogpost written by PCMN Peggy O.

Members of Cohort 6 of Pima County Master Naturalists (PCMN) attended their first in-person field experience together at Pima Prickly Park on Saturday, March 5, 2022. Dick Wiedhopf, the President of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society (TCSS) shared the history and mission of the Park, a partnership between Pima County Natural Resources Parks and Recreation and the society. The ever-evolving collaboration has resulted in a “work-in-progress landscape highlighting cacti and other succulents. Free and open to the public since 2011, the park has been maintained and improved by a dedicated group of volunteers from the TCSS who “rescue” cactus and succulents to add to the park and sell at community plant sales to subsidize their work…fulfilling the TCSS mission of “knowing, sharing, growing, and conserving.”

Amy Belk, the Program Coordinator for Pima County’s Native Plant Nursery (NPN), continued the tour of the facility that grows and cares for plants being raised for a variety of public projects. The NPN also rescues native plants from public and private property slated for development and maintains a seed library of 130 native species. The MN’s also had a chance to “get their hands dirty” sampling some typical volunteer duties including weeding, watering and transplanting. 

Special thanks to the Pima County Native Plant Nursery and the Tucson Cactus Native Plant Society for providing an example of what is possible with vision, creativity, and dedication. They have created a partnership that benefits all residents of Pima County and provides leadership in the conservation of our Sonoran Desert Natural Resources. PCMN have worked as volunteers with both organizations and have logged more than 500 volunteer hours at the Prickly Park and Plant Nursery.

Cohort 6 at “Saguarohenge” at Prickly Park
Dick Wiedhopf, President of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society, leads a tour of Prickly Park.


Southern Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Fair

By Franklin Lane

Every year SARSEF conducts a regional science fair for local school, science fair winners.  These students compete for awards in various categories and for an invitation to the National level competition.  For the last three years the regional fair has been virtual.  Normally projects are displayed and judged live at the Tucson Convention Center.

SARSEF’s mission is to create Arizona’s future critical thinkers and problem solvers through science and engineering.” Participants have gone on to become “neurosurgeons, engineers, wildlife conservationists, veterinarians, teachers and professors, journalists and so much more.”

Student projects can additionally be recognized by SARSEF sponsors. This year the Pima County Chapter of the Arizona Master Naturalists sponsored an award for K-8 students. The Chapter Board of Directors voted to award a trophy and a $100 cash prize to that project which best explored “The Ecology of the Sonoran Desert.”

An ad hoc committee consisting of Peggy Ollerhead (C3), Marlene Shamis (C4) and Franklin Lane (C1) was formed to apply for SARSEF sponsorship and ultimately judge eligible projects.  Hundreds of projects were triaged electronically for both age group and topic relevancy.  A final six were then carefully considered by the committee for the PCMN award.  The winner was Myla Closterman, a 2nd grader in Ms. Laura Kupper’s class at Canyon View Elementary School.  Myla’s research investigated Antlions (Myrmeleon sp.) and was aptly named “The Lion Project”.

You can view Kyla’s project here:

Hopefully this will become an annual event for the Chapter.

Unexplored Land in …Marana?

by Dave DeGroot, Cohort 2, Feb. 23, 2022

I am fascinated by the 2,400-acre piece of raw desert northwest of Tucson called the Tortolita Preserve. The land is leased from the state by the town of Marana and its boundaries lie within the Marana city limits.

You could say that almost half of this huge piece of land – close to a thousand acres – is unexplored. The western 40% of the Preserve (shaded red in the map) lies outside of the Preserve’s well-known hiking and biking trails and beyond the utility road that most people mistakenly think is the western boundary. There are no good roads into this area. At present, this part of the Preserve is the domain of off-roaders, lots of cattle, and (illegal) target shooters. Few people even pay attention to the western border, let alone understand this area’s plants, animals, geology, and cultural history.

Ethan Fraijo and I are close to completing an amateur, preliminary biodiversity survey in the Preserve. Lately we have been stepping off the western boundary lines with a special topo map, a GPS device, compass and some temporary surveyor’s tape on tree branches, which we plan to remove later. When you add up the distance we are walking around the western border of the almost-thousand acres, it adds up to about 2 ½ miles, running through rough, trackless and virtually unexplored land.

Ethan Fraijo puts up a temporary boundary marker at a key point on the Preserve’s west border.

Just a few of the interesting discoveries we have made in this western 40% of the Preserve include:

• …remains of an old aqueduct that channeled water from deep in Wild Burro Canyon eight miles to dam-like berms constructed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) at the southwest corner of the Preserve. Yes, the USBR is the same government agency that is famous for constructing the Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon Dam, and dozens of other mega-dams throughout the western states during the last three-quarters of a century! Seventy-five or 100 years ago there must have been a substantial amount of water running through the Preserve – enough so the USBR was working on ways to conserve it.

• The northwest part of this area features hills of Pleistocene soil documented by State of Arizona geologists. While this particular kind of soil may not be unique around Tucson, it is fascinating to consider that it may a hundred thousand years older than all the other soils in the Preserve – land on which 14-foot tall mammoths, saber-toothed cats, camels, dire wolves, ground sloths, etc. may have roamedbefore the end of the last Ice Age.

• The southwestern grassy areas of the West Preserve could be called the Kingdom of the Ants, with huge clearings made by harvester ants and turrets constructed by leaf-cutter ants. In some washes you seea dozen or more ant hill/turrets in close proximity that are probably the home territory of several queens cooperatively ruling a massivecolony.

• The western acres (unfortunately) have many examples of dumping and destruction by irresponsible off-roaders and shooters. We foundold TVs, a bullet-riddled automobile fender, lots of shot-up beer cans, and hundreds of old shell casings. This misuse of the desert will hopefully be alleviated as the Town of Marana finalizes plans to put up fences along much the same western boundary lines now being temporarily marked by DeGroot and Fraijo.

This Bureau of Reclamation marker is located at the top of Mineshaft Hill, near the southwest corner of the Preserve. The damage was probably the result of gunfire.

Master Naturalists will have an opportunity for some memorable personal exploration of the Tortolita Preserve in a few months. Franklin Lane iscurrently collecting names of Master Naturalists who are interested in participating in a big BioBlitz planned by

• the Town of Marana,

• the Tortolita Alliance, 

• Arizona Master Naturalists, 

• the Coalition for Sonora Desert Protection, and 

• the Arizona Game and Fish Dept.

Training will be provided. The big event, which could take place in November, will probably put Master Naturalists in prominent positions in a small army of citizen-scientists. PCMN Franklin Lane is gathering names of interested participants now. If you think you would like to be part of the BioBlitz, please send Franklin an email at

…and if you have a couple of hours to spare sometime, drive out to the main entrance of the Tortolita Preserve at 6250 W. Moore Road and walk a mile or two on the user-friendly 9.5-mile trail system.

Getting to the Root of Things

Getting to the Root of Things

Blogpost written by PCMN Kathleen Mclin

Volunteering with Jessica Paul, Master Naturalist and Community Gardens of Tucson Program Leader is a real life “Growth“ experience. Students, teachers and myself included are learning valuable skills
and life lessons as budding gardeners.

When I signed up to volunteer I had little more than a basic knowledge of gardening. At home, a few flower beds, failures and successes with a few veggies, not sure what I might contribute but one thing I knew for sure, where there is a garden there is life!

With my camera in hand I decided to dig right in (pun intended)
and hoped to add my love for all creatures great and small.
Together we are helping our youthful participants appreciate the great diversity of life that exists in and around a garden. And, we get to see, feel, smell, and eventually taste the fruits of our efforts, while learning life lessons to carry with us throughout our lives. See the example below.

Equality versus Equity a Garden’s Lesson in Fairness

Planting a garden does far more than providing food, fragrance and beauty. And though none can deny the healthful, spirit lifting benefits that sunshine and fresh air provide, Gardeners also learn different plants are not meant to be treated as equals. Gardening teaches us that fairness requires an understanding of the value of diversity. This does not mean that every plant enjoys equality (“every plant gets the same thing”) as compared to equity where (“every plant gets what it needs”).

Every plant has it’s growing season, a time when it has the best chance of taking root, thriving and maturing.

Every plant requires a certain soil depth, amount of light, and water. Some more, Some less.

For example: Beans versus Lettuce

Beans prefer warmer weather, so plant in full sun. Water plants regularly. Though compost can be worked into the soil prior to planting, don’t overfertilize the beans.

Most varieties of lettuce require cool weather or slight shading for best growth. Aged compost is optimal but average soil will produce healthy seedlings if soil is kept moist but well drained. Plant during the cool part of the year, when temperatures range in between 50/60 degrees Fahrenheit. You can plant lettuce as soon as the ground can be worked in spring.

So what is better for these 2 plants?

Equality or Equity?

Students which concept best applies to You? Why?

Tending a garden teaches great life lessons:

1. Patience
2. Caring
3. Perserverance
4. Respect for life

Care for yourself like you care for your garden. It’s in your hands to give it/and you what is needed to thrive. You reap the rewards of your own efforts.

Care for yourself like you care for your garden.  It’s in your hands to give it/and you what is needed to thrive. You reap the rewards of your own efforts.

The Community Garden School project is always looking for volunteers. Contact Jessica Paul if you’d like to help

Purrll, Purrll….

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

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

Photo and post by Mely Bohlman, C5

Javelina Haiku

Collared peccary.

Golden hour illuminates ~

beauty of not-pig.

Linda Doughty C 6

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

Rillito River at Alvernon

“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

Tori West – Bobcat in the backyard

“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

love Reconciliation

River, Apache

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.”