A brief natural history of the new UA field ecology course

After one week on the run from Biosphere 2 to a camp in the Santa Ritas, the field course has been holed up in a hideout on Mount Lemmon for the past week. Tonight, I have internets (and a shower!). Saturday, we flee onward toward Mexico. Here are a few of the highlights so far.

Post saguaro census at Saguaro National Park East. Note the lack of saguaros in our plot.

The mammals we encountered, or How I Earned the Nickname “Hantapants”:
Deermice occur in this region, and have been known to carry the dreaded hantavirus. After I handled an adorable little disease vector too timidly, allowing him to escape, he disappeared.
“Where is he?” I asked the group. “Be careful not to step on him!”
“He’s up your pants!” someone told me.
Instead of carefully feeling along my leg and trapping the little bugger, I unfortunately jumped up with a shriek, and started shaking my leg. Not my proudest moment. Fortunately, the mouse survived uninjured, and so did I (so far).

Kangaroo rat (Merriam’s? or Ord’s? Haven’t conclusively ID’d the species) tracks in the early morning light, with chapstick for scale.

In other mammal news, we’ve also found packrats and pocket mice and kangaroo rats. One student, who we’ll call Phil, even managed to surprise a mountain lion on Mt. Lemmon by falling down a hill to where it was chilling. Both Phil and the lion were pretty startled, but survived the encounter. The rest of us were jealous, and disappointed he didn’t get a photo.

Food: Every day.
I’ve learned that 14 people’s worth of food for 5 days is really hard to estimate, but that having a little too much is preferable to a little too little. I’ve also learned that you will be heckled no less if there’s extra than if you’re short, and that sloppy joes taste okay for lunch the next day. One student, let’s call him Trenton, transformed the ingredients to make hot-cheeto-sloppy-joe-dogs.

The only way to eat leftover sloppy joe, clearly.

Besides the plethora of sloppy joe fillings, we have acquired an overabundance of s’mores ingredients. Perhaps this is the reason the cookies involved with birding (expained below) generated so little competition within the group.

Will it be fooled into thinking Kevin is a canid (dog or coyote) and squirt blood into his mouth? No.

The course instructor, who we’ll call Kevin, is in fact NOT eating this horned lizard. They are probably not good to eat, since they are one of the few vertebrates that can deal with ants’ formic acid, and survive on a diet of mostly ants. We did learn at Raven’s Way (our stopover in the Santa Rita mountain range) from Vincent Pinto that some other common small lizards can be a good food source in a survival situation, in addition to the invasive crayfish we caught and ate (pictured below). We also grazed Texas mulberry and ocotillo flowers and goosefoot out in the field. This was a more human and useful side of our ecology and natural history experience.

Mmmm, delicious invasive species that we waded through a creek to collect.

Other herps: mostly the first week
“Herps” being short for “herpetofauna,” (think “herpetology,” or study of reptiles) not “herpes.” Did you know the push-ups lizards do are a display of their brilliant chest color to intimidate other males away from their territory?  The gila monster was the only venomous reptile we have caught so far (do NOT try that at home – Kevin’s a professional).

Wild? Yes. Venomous? No. Gopher snake? Yes. Male? Yes. Want to know how I know that? Definitely not.

Water and elevation: the first and second Tuesdays.
The instructor of the field course has implemented an experiential learning technique I suspect to be unintentional, but effective, to emphasize the importance of  water resources in this environment. He tells us we’re going on a relatively short early-morning hike, or that re-fills will be possible. Then he either changes his mind about the length of the hike, or takes off with our water jugs, leaving us on empty. I think the importance of shade and water resources for Sonoran Desert ecology is pretty intuitive by now.

Birds: Tuesday-Wednesday
The last time I tried to go owling, I wound up seeing more mountain lions than owls. This time, I mostly saw sleepy college students. The last two students to come in did claim to have heard a great horned owl, but it was awfully windy. Owls are probably less active in windy conditions, or at least respond less readily to the calls of birders. But I did learn how to whistle for a saw-whet and a flammulated owl from Jennie Duberstein, of Sonoran Joint Venture, who joined our field course for an evening and morning to go birding with us.

Mexican jays eating peanuts from the “feeder.”

They will weigh several before choosing their favorite to take first.

The lesser goldfinches and pine siskins are far less picky, and less territorial than the hummingbirds, but they scare easy, especially when a hawk circles over head.