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by Stan Tekiela
February 11, 2019
Turning off the main paved road onto the dirt mountain road my headlights sweep across the rouged rocky nighttime landscape. With each switchback we gain altitude going higher and higher into the Arizona mountains. Recent rains have left sections of the dirt road washed out and very rocky making it difficult to navigate. I needed to slow down to a crawl and steer my truck through the large exposed rocks that now constitute the road.
Several miles down the road I pull into a small road-side pull out, just beyond a dry creek bed. Stepping out of my truck and into the moonless night, the darkness completely envelopes us. Above us, the night sky is a blanket of stars. Millions of stars stretch from horizon to horizon and the Milky Way Galaxy paints a white swath across the middle of the sky.
We gather our photography gear and flashlights. The night is cool but comfortable with a slight breeze. We walk back towards the dry creek bed and begin to hike along the bank. Using our flashlights to illuminate the way, we hike up to a small clearing just below a rock wall and the entrance to a large cave. We leave the camera gear and climb up into the cave. The entrance is large enough for us to walk right inside.
I’ve come to the mountains of southern Arizona in search of the Ring-tailed Cat (Bassariscus astutus). For many years I’ve been searching for these elusive nocturnal members of the raccoon family. They are native to the arid regions of North America. They are also called the Miner’s Cat or Bassarisk. Sometimes they are called Civet Cat. Unfortunately, all of these common names refer to them as a cat, but they are not a cat at all.
They have the face of a fox, the body of a cat and very long tail, about the length of the body, with 14-16 dark rings, hence the common name Ring-tail. They have straight, semi-retractable claws which allow them to climb trees and scramble over rocks.
The Ring-tails often use the cave for shelter and sleep during the day. We climb back down to our camera gear and set up and get ready for a long night of waiting. We sit down on the cold ground and look up. Above us the branches of a large Sycamore tree frame an opening to the night sky above exposing the stars. It’s peaceful and magical all at the same time.
After several hours of waiting we decide to check the cave once again. This time we go further into the cave and a solitary bat starts to fly around us. Bats are usually not active in winter at this elevation, so we are a little surprised. Wanting to know what species of bat I remember that I have a “bat identifier” in the truck. I make the hike back down to the vehicle and grab a tiny plastic devise that is no larger than a book of matches.
On my smart phone I have a very sophisticated app that interacts with the tiny plastic ultra-sonic receiver. I return to the cave and plug the devise into my phone and start the app.
As soon as I turn on the app it started to capture the ultrasonic sounds of the flying bat. Of course, to our ears we don’t hear anything, but the app translates the ultrasonic sounds into something we can hear. My movement had stirred up some insects and the bat takes advantage of this and zips past me scooping up the insects just a few feet away. Around and around the bat flaps by me.
Within a few seconds the app has recorded the ultrasonic sounds and identifies the bat as a California Myotis. I am thrill. In the past it would have been very difficult to identify the species without catching it and doing a detailed physical exam.
After some fun discussions with my friends we return to wait for the Ring-tails. At one point we hear something walking slowly through the fallen leaves. We switch on our flashlights only to discover a Hooded Skunk which scurries off into the darkness. Our waiting is in vane and the Ring-tails never show up, but none-the-less it was a great night to be in the mountains of Arizona. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U. S. to study can capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com
The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.
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