Patagonia Youth Enrichment Center photographs wildlife
Just an hour south of Tucson, the landscape transitions from a spacious desert landscape to a sea of golden grasses. The high deserts that surround the Sonoita/Patagonia area are filled with staple plants such as yucca, juniper, oak, ocotillo, and pine. The fauna types include pronghorn antelope, mountain lion, black bear, jaguar, ocelot, golden eagles, and much more. This diversity is exactly why Seeds of Stewardship partnered with Jan Shipper and Chelsey Tellez from the Phoenix Zoo to bring youth from the Patagonia Youth Enrichment Center out onto the Arizona Trail. This partnership has two intentions, to set up wildlife tracking cameras along southern sections of the Arizona Trail to monitor who and what is using the Arizona Trail, and to teach students about conservation work through technological monitoring, track and sign observation, and ecological studies. October 27th was the first expedition of the semester for PYEC youth, and one that really set things off with a bang.
We began this adventure on the Hershaw Road Trailhead hiking South. The sun was bright and relieving in the chilly air. The kids were excited to get their legs moving with SOS again and eager to learn about the wild landscape in their back yard. The sub-straight under our feet was cracked dry mud that held the prints of traveling wildlife like cuneiform clay tablets. This made teaching animal track and sign identification easy; sometimes nature makes learning easy. Together we stopped and circled tracks of different species and family groups, observing key differences between canine and feline, coyote and fox, mountain lion and bobcat, horse and cow, and many others. I explained that tracking was an ancient method all ancestries share, and is a practice all people can be good at with practice. Tracking helps us see back in time, and get a deeper understanding of who lives where and why. It can tell us about a landscape’s health and with enough time and attention we can begin to see a societal chain. I reminded kids that human made trails are used by all wildlife, and that is why we planned to set cameras. “How do trails impact wildlife positively, and how might they have negative consequences?” The students were quick to answer, letting me know that wildlife can bypass foliage and travel further longer. Trails also let wildlife travel quieter which might keep them safe, or can let predators get closer to prey faster. Students shared that more people can get further into wild places which might scare the animals, and that means more trash too. Animals that are considered dangerous might get used to people and can endanger themselves if they get too close. I could see the gears of trail life were turning for the kids.
Our hike took us past some prickly pear, and excitedly I ran to the cactus after spotting white bumps all over the pads. The kids, curious and confused as to why I would be so interested in such a common cactus walked over with interest. Cochineal is an insect that produces a red liquid when crushed. The white silk it lives in becomes a red absorbent sponge holding the liquid in a manageable form. Using this we painted each other’s hands and faces, laughing and playing outside while learning that this insect is used to make the color red in most food dye, and was even used to dye the coats red of British soldiers in the 18th and 19th century. This was an awesome little lesson for the students, and one that even included arts and crafts.
After so much anticipation, Jan and Chelsey taught the students how to set up tacking cameras, the requirements, necessities, and considerations one must take before choosing the placement location, and how to record the GPS information accurately. The students were very excited to learn all of these things, taking responsibility for important roles in the entire process. We moved along and set up three cameras in total. Chelsey and Jan explained that this type of research is critically important to protect habitats and wildlife. They are using cameras all over the Americas to track jaguar and other endangered animals and their relationships to human used areas. Doing real and important work for the wildlife that surrounds their homes was inspiring for the youth, and they all seemed proud to be engaged with such work. After setting all three cameras we speculated what animals we might see. Raccoons, dogs, skunks, ravens, people, deer, and javelina were the animal’s students expected to see. At our last point, we followed a game trail up a hill only to discover it was the path of a mountain lion. Its large long scat was the evidence, and together we dissected it to gain more information. We hiked up the path and found tall rock structures that offered us incredible vantage points. Here we spent a long time quietly listening and practicing mindful meditation practices that helped us ground ourselves in the landscape. Even though the students had so much fun exploring and learning all that we did, this was their favorite part. They said they felt so calm and connected to nature, it helped everything they learned sink it. This is an important piece of information.
Our hike back was full of excited conversation and more playful learning. The kids hiked along and seemed to genuinely enjoy the time under the sun out on trails. Most of the students have been with us in years past, and expressed their joy to be back with the program. They were very excited to know we would be coming back to not only set up more cameras, but then to collect the digital info to finally solve who and what is using the Arizona Trail. The opportunity is all thanks to Chelsey Tellez and Jan Shipper of course, who dedicated so much of their time and resources to provide opportunities like this for these students. The youth from the Patagonia Youth Enrichment Center are dedicated hikers, explorers, and learners to the Seeds of Stewardship program. After this trip, the kids were incredibly excited for the next, looking forward to all the wonderful places we will go, and things we will learn.