Your thoughts about safe & responsible animal observing in southern Arizona

I’ve got a trip coming up, spending a few weeks traveling around Phoenix, Tucson, and Sedona (and surrounding areas). I’m hoping to add a bunch of lifers to my lists, and learn a lot about the animals and plants in the area. But I want to do this safely and responsibly.

I’m from the US Mid Atlantic, and I’m reasonably knowledgeable about staying safe around the things that live here and could hurt me. I don’t have that same base of knowledge about the US Southwest, so I’m going to be a lot more careful as I’m hiking around. But basically I have two questions:

1) How much can/should I interact with the environment? Around where I live some disturbing of the environment isn’t really damaging, as long as one is sensible. For example, I’ll flip over a log or a rock to find snakes or salamanders, and I’ll often pick them up if I know them to be safe to handle. It’s an absolute must to always replace the log or rock exactly as it was before I touched it, and make sure the animal is able to safely get back under it, and overall leave things as I found them. But causing that level of disturbance isn’t considered problematic, at least as I understand it (please feel free to correct me if that’s wrong). I asked a question about this approach on an Arizona hiking forum, and was politely but firmly told that I’d be seriously damaging to the environment. But that was a forum focused on hiking, not nature/wildlife/etc. I might have come across as a reckless jerk, planning on carelessly destroying things as I go past. So before I take it as gospel I wanted to ask here, since folks here are likely to be similar to me: interested in seeing as much as possible, while at the same time being very careful not to damage or disrupt nature. Will I really be causing serious damage to the environment if I carefully pick up a rock to see what’s under it, and then place it back exactly as I found it?

2) What do I need to know about staying safe? I already know about staying hydrated and dealing with the heat, and how cuddly chollas tend to be. I lived in Phoenix for a few years a long time ago (long before becoming interested in nature) so I’m familiar with the climate. Also, I’ll be there in March and April, so it’ll be hot, but not crazy summer-in-Arizona hot. I’m more worried about animal encounters, in particular Africanized bees. If I use common sense and take the time to ensure there aren’t bees coming and going from anything I’m considering looking closely at (flipping a rock, for example), will I most likely be ok? Or will just getting close to them be enough to set them off? I trust myself around snakes, scorpions, spiders, etc, and I’m not terribly worried about large mammals (should I be?). In terms of large animals, I suspect I’m more likely to be hurt by an encounter with the wrong bipedal primate than any coyote/mountain lion/javelina/etc. Any advice about staying safe around bees, or any other AZ wildlife, is appreciated.

Thanks for your thoughts, everyone!

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Don’t forget elevation and sun. The entire southwest tends to surprise visitors who don’t think of the flat areas being 3-7,000 feet above sea level (can cause headaches and other symptoms) and UV radiation is less filtered due to the extra altitude. Also, the air holds less humidity on average, so you’ll be thirstier more than back east.

I’ve never seen an africanized honey bee in Arizona or New Mexico and I didn’t know that others were concerned about encountering them. Coyotes are scared of humans.

Flipping rocks isn’t usually worth the time in low desert areas, because it’s so dry anyway, versus in a moist habitat or forest, where logs and rocks host invertebrates (mostly ants and millipedes honestly).

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Rattlesnakes could be active as early as March-April. That requires some caution when walking through brush or climbing/hiking in rocky areas. Pay attention where you put your feet and hands.

The US-Mexico border is a little crazier than it used to be which requires you to be alert to other humans in your vicinity.

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I lived in Tucson for some years. Word was that Africanized bees were responsible for more deaths per annum in AZ than any other critter. Occasionally you would see a warning sign at trailheads about a specific location. I remember a hiker having to be helicoptered off Pontatoc ridge in the Catalinas after a bee attack.
My strategy was to include bees in my awareness of what might be dangerous and at any sighting of more than one or two, to slow right down and consider a detour or turn around. The only time I got stung was a few blocks from home in the City! Clothing color is said to be important but the info online that I’ve seen is contradictory.
Rattlers are a concern. However present and alert I thought myself to be, there were a few occasions when I got a lot closer than I would have liked because they are so dang well camouflaged.
Be aware that another jaguar has been picked up by trail cam in SE AZ, though I would consider a sighting an incredible privilege!

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Well, you’ve already covered my boilerplate about hydration. :slightly_smiling_face: Some of the firm discouragement from the hiking forum probably came from inadvertent damage to archaeological sites; as Professor Jones tried to tell his class, X never marks the spot, and some evidence of early hominin presence can be really subtle. (Desert varnish on rocks can be used to evaluate potential dig sites, for instance.) If you’re in an area that sees frequent human activity, you should be safe enough. It’s not impossible that a new Paleo- to Neolithic site will turn up in a regularly-travelled area, but it’s much less likely than if you were in the backcountry .

I know that you said you lived in Phoenix a while back, so you’ve probably got a better feel for local safety than most folks, but I will gently remind you about the lightning storms in the Frying Pan. Fun to watch when you’re standing on the hotel patio, predicting and pointing to the next strike (at least until you get accused of trying to blow a 19th hole in the golf course); not so much fun if you’re trying to get back to your car at the trailhead. Also, it seems to me that dust storms and haboobs are more common than they used to be, so keep an eye on the sky.

Coyotes are usually scared of humans, true, but they habituate awfully easily. We had some try to set up housekeeping in the neighborhood a while back. It finally got to the point where we resorted to hazing and chemical deterrant. Learned a few tricks that I’m keeping in my back pocket now that I spend so much time wandering alone.

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Disturbing wildlife in the desert can be very hard on the animals. These are creatures that conserve energy at all times. To make them expend energy unnecessarily is not being a good steward of the land. So look, don’t pick up, please.

Watch where you’re walking. Cryptobiotic soil is really fragile and can take forever to recover once you disturb it.

I’ve lived in the desert most of my life and if you’re going to be flipping rocks, I’d worry most about spiders. The Arizona Brown Spider (Loxoceles arizonicus) is a recluse spider and a bite from one can lead to tissue necrosis. They are often found hiding under rocks.

You also need to watch where you step/sit so you don’t accidently find yourself on an ant hill (I sat on one once and wouldn’t wish that on anyone!).

Please also make sure your vehicle is in good shape. I’ve stopped many times to rescue tourists in Death Valley because their car conked out, there is no cell signal there, and they had no water.

Keep an eye on the weather. Flash floods can come out of nowhere, even if it looks like the rain is far away.

And don’t forget sunscreen!

Otherwise, have a fun trip and I hope you find some interesting things along the way.

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Keep your eyes open for jaguars. Not that they’re a threat, we just need more reliable observations in AZ and NM. There’s apparently a new individual that’s been detected in AZ.

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Thanks everyone, this has all been really helpful!

I should say that I’m not planning on going deep into backcountry or anything like that. I’m going to get some distance between me and the cities, so hopefully I’ll be in less-traveled places, but I’m planning on staying on trails, so hopefully that’ll make it less likely that I encounter bees in any concerning way, or anything else that could hurt me.

@GothHobbit thanks for the heads-up about Desert Varnish, that’s new to me and I’m glad to now know what it is so that I can admire it if I encounter it, and also be sure not to damage it.

@wildmaven thank you, I won’t be picking up desert animals, thanks for that advice. I hadn’t really considered how much more stressful that might be than it is to my local fauna. And also thanks for the heads-up about Cryptobiotic soil, that’s another thing I’ve learned about as a result of this thread.

Thank you to everyone else that took the time to offer advice, I really appreciate it!
And boy would it be cool to see a jaguar!

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I’ve been startled by Border Patrol officers on more than one occasion when doing field work close to the border. It can be alarming while also comforting, knowing they are checking on your security while also checking to see what you’re up to. Having a Border Patrol officer in a vehicle appear out of nowhere in the middle of the night can disrupt your nature experience. You definitely get the sense you’re being monitored even if no one seems to be around. I’m always a little edgy when I’m within a few miles of the border.

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Re: Africanized honeybees. I spend a lot of time in grasslands and Sky Island ranges in Santa Cruz County, AZ (south of Tucson near the Mexican border). I encounter wild bee colonies frequently, though most encounters are benign. I’ve been chased by honeybees once while hiking and got a few stings, though the guy running behind me unfortunately got more. We were very lucky it wasn’t a big colony. But colonies can set up in new places every year, including in tree hollows and rock crevices (and inside walls and attics). Personally I would assume that most wild-occurring honeybees in my area are Africanized to some degree and will defend their colony fiercely. If you hear a lot of buzzing, you might be near a hive and need to back away, or you might be next to a flowering tree or shrub they are nectaring at, which isn’t typically a problem unless you’re allergic. The third possibility is you are hearing a swarm passing over, which means a colony is on the move looking for a new home; they aren’t defensive or aggressive when they’re “swarming,” despite the connotations attached to that word.

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Thanks! I figured, like the bees I encounter here in the east, they’re not particularly inclined to sting when at flowers. I’m never concerned about getting close to them when they’re in a flower and doing their thing. I won’t be quite so cavalier while out west, though, just in case. I’m not allergic, but nonetheless I have no interest in tempting fate. My main concern was that just being within the vicinity of a hive will set them off and send me running for cover.

Obviously there are no guarantees, but based on your experience it sounds like, as long as I’m aware of what’s going on around me and keeping my eyes open I hopefully won’t aggravate them. Of course if I hear buzzing or see a lot of bees coming and going from some hole/crevice/etc I’m turning right around.

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You aren’t likely to be influenced by the border until you’re well south of Tucson, but a long-time Patagonia-area naturalist once gave me some useful insight.

Whether the person of concern is a refugee, an economic migrant or a smuggler they have their own mission to carry out and that mission does NOT involve you. They mean you no harm and would much rather not be noticed by you. So don’t notice them - don’t stare, don’t point, don’t raise your binoculars, don’t raise your camera, don’t pull out your phone, don’t take any interest in them even if you have to pass each other on the trail. Mind your own business.

Obviously, it’s another matter if they are in great distress and reach out to you for aid.

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