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!






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.

The YETMAN Trail

What may be the first in-person gathering of Pima County Master Naturalists (PCMN) since we started Zooming our Board Meetings back in March of 2020 took place in the Tucson Mountains on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Six MNs and a family member initiated the PCMN hiking Program with a four mile hike along a section of the Yetman Trail. Although it was already well into the 80’s at 0615 when we started, everyone was excited and prepared for the desert heat.

Photo: Avery Lane
Pictured here at the historic Bowen Stone House are (L-R) Josh Ruddick C1, Jessica Paul C4,
Jean Boris C2, Franklin Lane C1, Penny Marshal C2 and Melissa Mundt C5

This particular route was selected because it is a great ‘novice’ desert trail. One goal of the PCMN Advanced Training Committee is to encourage members to enhance their appreciation of the Sonoran Desert by offering an introductory level course on local hiking. While together, the group discussed an informal curriculum that could qualify for either Advanced Training (Skills) or minimally, Advanced Training (AT) credit. Hikes, especially more challenging ones, would also be offered simply for recreation and comradery. Something we can all certainly use! Our new C5 colleague, Melissa, also suggested a family and friends options that we will explore.

“We have Master Naturalists, including me, that relocated to the Sonoran Desert, as well as local folks who have not hiked much. The AT Committee would like to offer various levels of hiking classes so MNs can hike safely, and learn new trails. Hiking with other MNs also brings the added dimension of their knowledge in specific areas, so much shared knowledge occurred on this awesome first in-person class since Covid hit!” Penny Marshal, Chair PCMN Advanced Training Committee

While there are several accesses to the Yetman Trail, this inaugural hike left from the Camino de Oeste Trailhead near the west end of Speedway at Gates Pass Rd. The first half mile is through a nice steep canyon so was shaded a bit from the rising sun both in and out. The historic Bowen Stone House is at the 1.5 mile mark. A good turn-around point and Southern vista is at 2 miles.

Photo: Jean Boris
Hikers explore the Bowen Ranch House built in the early 1930’s by Sherry and Ruby Bowen.
At the time, Sherry was city editor of the Arizona Daily Star

At the turn-around point we could see the Clearwater Renewable Resource Facility. Jean Boris subsequently researched it and learned that this is where Central Arizona Project (CAP) water is stored after it is pumped up from the aquifer before delivery to our taps.

As mentioned, an added advantage to hiking with other Master Naturalists is the knowledge that can be shared. Josh Ruddick explained/showed how rock lichen reflects local air quality. An amusing memory aid was offered; “Alice algae took a lichen to Freddy fungus but we hear their relationship is on the rocks”

The group also observed and discussed the abundance of Saguaro blossoms this year. The theory being that it’s a species response to the challenging conditions of draught and excess heat. Everyone was also offered some of the ‘candy of the desert’.

Photo: Penny Marshal

We were able to develop a strong curriculum of ‘best practices’ for hiking in the desert which we’ll begin offering on future hikes. Topics range from trail safety and protocol to hydration and equipment. In the meantime you can contact the Advanced Training Committee with any specific questions. Our hiking sub-committee includes Paul Stillman C3, Deb Huie C1 and myself.

Franklin Lane

Palo Verde: The Sonoran Desert Tree of Life

Capstone Presentation created by Pima County Master Naturalist Intern Marcia Lambert from Cohort 5.

City nature Challenge 2021 Wrap-up

Round-tailed ground squirrel by southwestsemanticist on iNaturalist.

April 30 through May 3, 2021 the Arizona Master Naturalists participated in the City Nature Challenge where community members documented plant and animal species using the app iNaturalist. The City Nature Challenge is a global project and 1,270,767 observations were made this year. Over 45,300 species were identified and more than 2,100 rare, endangered, and threatened species were observed. Over 52,777 observers participated in the event while enjoying the outdoors as volunteer community scientists.

Here in Tucson about 200 people participated in the event! Over 2,500 observations were made and included over 640 species. Our most common observations included:

Prickly pears by restringham on iNaturalist
  • Saguaro, 35 observations
  • Fish hook barrel cactus, 28 observations
  • Creosote bush, 24 observations
  • Desert spiny lizard, 24 observations
  • Common slider, 23 observations

Our top Observers included usernames:

  • Direwolfplayz – 335 observations of 70 species
  • JMarvin – 164 observations of 126 species
  • Roomthily – 139 observations of 71 species

The locations in which observations were made could reflect where accessible natural spaces exist in our city. Tucson is located at the base of surrounding mountains and is famous for being surrounded by parks and trail systems. By looking at the City Nature Challenge’s interactive map we can see that participants were able to make observations both within our parks and our urban environment!

Check out what observations were made by visiting the Tucson City Nature Challenge Website.

Thank you to everyone who participated and enjoyed the outdoors while celebrating community science month, and special thanks to our community members that helped coordinate this event!

The Arizona Trail

My youngest daughter (Avery Lane) just completed the 800 mile Arizona Scenic Trail (AZT). I provided logistical support and accompanied her on a few of the segments. It took her (50) days to complete the (43) passages from the Mexican border, in the Huachuca Mountains, to the Utah border on the the Kaibab Plateau.

Start 3/25/2021
Finish 5/13/2021

The first couple of miles are a bit odd. You can park at Montezuma Pass in the Coronado National Monument but then must hike south for ~2 miles to the obelisk marker at the actual border. When Avery and I did this section, the trail to the border was still ‘technically’ closed due to border wall construction…..!

Coincidentally new wall construction ended exactly at the AZT Trailhead on 1/20/2021! To the left (east) is still the original wire fence.

As you turn back and head north you pass Coronado Peak. This is where Dale Shewalter, a Flagstaff public school teacher, envisioned the idea of linking trails on private and public land to span the entire State. The last passage of the AZT was completed in 2012. There is a Golden Spike on Passage 16 just north of the Gila river to commemorate this accomplishment.

The remainder of this post will attempt to show some of the amazing biogeography of our State. Hopefully it will encourage you to consider exploring some of the passages. Most people who enjoy the AZT are not ‘through-hikers’ but rather divide it up over time. Please feel free to contact me or Avery if you have any questions. Contact info below or through Pima County Chapter of the Arizona Master Naturalists.

Agave parryi var. huachucensis
Captured on a UofA Jaguar Monitoring Camera on Miller Peak

From mountain snow to desert heat.
Quemada Canyon near Colossal Cave, Vail Arizona
Water where you can get it in the desert. North of Oracle Az.
Gila River near Kearney
West of Superior Az.
Champion Juniper in Reavis Canyon
Mazatzal Peak in the Tonto National Forest just south
of Payson Az.
Snow again near Mormon Lake SE of Flagstaff. But coffee helps!
And just when you think you’re almost done; The Grand Canyon!

Franklin Lane


Volunteer Spotlight: Burrowing Owl Project

Pima County Master Naturalists Penny M and Joshua R recently volunteered with Wild At Heart’s Burrowing Owl Project. Wild At Heart (WAH) is a nonprofit conservation organization that rescues, rehabilitates, and releases birds of prey. Their Burrowing Owl Project creates artificial burrows for owls and relocates owls from upcoming development sites to safe spaces throughout the region.

Wild At Heart was created in 1993 and was the first program to create artificial underground owl burrows. Bob and his wife “Sam” Fox, founders of WAH, identified a need to build artificial owl burrows in Arizona and began this relocation program. In 2001, Greg Clark became Wild At Heart’s Burrowing Owl Habitat Coordinator who expanded Wild At Heart’s rescue and relocation procedures.

“We are currently in one of the high intake periods where owls are being trapped to remove them from new development areas at a rate of 400-500 per year,” shares Clark. “Last year I relocated 400 Burrowing Owls but we still have owls coming in and we are in a foot race to get more habitat installed so owls can be relocated as fast as possible.”

Volunteers are part of this solution! Wild At Heart burrowing owl events are open to the public. Thousands of volunteers have helped build over 6,000 artificial burrows — providing homes for 2,500+ owls.

Western burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) are charming little owls who get their name from nesting in underground burrows. They incubate and raise their chicks within burrows that they borrow from other species like prairie dogs and ground squirrels. Burrowing owls are vulnerable to predation from a variety of other wildlife and are especially vulnerable to construction and land development projects. The western burrowing owl is the only fossorial owl species in the Americas, and is endangered in Canada, threatened in Mexico, and a species of special concern in the United States.

“Land next to active irrigated farmland is preferred by the owls,” says Clark. “Marana is one of those areas. Most of the owls come from Maricopa and Pinal Counties. Specifically, Buckeye is in the bullseye right now. Perhaps your chapter can help us find more land for relocation.”

If you are interested in helping The Burrowing Owl Project or volunteering with Wild At Heart you can donate, head to their website, follow them on FaceBook, or contact them at info@WildAtHeartOwls.org.

Burrowing owl eggs inside of an artificial burrow.

Create Habitat for Sonoran Desert Wildlife in Your Backyard

Capstone project created by PCMN Erin Posthumus.

Resources and Reading list:

Selecting native plants: http://www.aznps.com/grownative.php
Top 10 plants for birds in Central Arizona: az.audubon.org/conservation/top-10-bird-plants-central-Arizona
Habitat for Lizards: http://www.aznps.com/documents/lizardbrochure.2.pdf
Plants for Pollinators: http://www.aznps.com/documents/SelectingplantsforPollinators.pdf
Arizona Game and Fish: Reading list for Landscaping for Wildlife:

Arizona Game and Fish: The Wildlife Friendly Garden
The Arizona Native Plant Society: Native Gardening
Center for Biological Diversity http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/
Desert Connections: A Partnership between Tucson Botanical Gardens and Pima County Public Library http://www.tucsonbotanical.org/desertconnections/