Beretta handgun“Hermano, hermano!” shouted the crouching man, twenty yards up the canyon, aiming his handgun at us. Oddly, we felt no panic but wondered why he would point a weapon at a “brother”. We held still. A second man had his hand at his hip but soon relaxed and smiled at us. The gunman looked embarrassed and walked off behind the trees, to make some very important radio call. Trying to take it all in, we just sat on our log under the shady oak in a remote canyon near the Mexican border.

Officer Friendly came closer and apologized for mistaking us for illegal immigrants. We actually had to laugh; two more unlikely illegals would be hard to find.  Officer Quickdraw joined in the apologies, revealing that they were border patrolmen new to the area. They went their way without even noticing the Covert Assassin.

The what? That was the inconspicuous trail camera attached to the oak tree behind us – its brand name probably designed to lure hunters to buy it. We were downloading its photos of deer, javelina, mountain lions, foxes and a turkey.

Have you ever walked in the woods and wondered what happens when no-one is there? What shy creatures prowl at night? A trail camera can tell you. It’s a weatherproof digital camera with a motion sensor. Anything moving in front of the camera gets photographed, day or night. In places where people don’t go, we can use a camera with a flash. On trails often used by people, our cameras use an infra-red lamp which shows only a faint red glow – certain kinds of nocturnal hiker might smash the camera if they realized it was there!

We monitor several cameras for Sky Island Alliance, an organization that studies and protects the wildlife of the ‘sky island’ mountain ranges scattered across the Southwest. To avoid becoming genetically isolated, animals must travel from one ‘island’ to another, across a ‘sea’ of farmland, desert and suburbia. Which routes do they use? SIA’s Wildlife Linkages volunteer program investigates this through direct tracking (subject of a future blog) and through the use of trail cameras.

Every month or two, we visit our cameras. Will they still be there? Will there be something rare like a jaguar or ocelot? Those spotted cats are the Holy Grail of animal trackers in Arizona, but so far we’ve not found any. However, our sightings of commoner animals add to knowledge about their daily and seasonal activity patterns.

Checking the cameras is always a thrill, even without confused gunmen.

Here are some of the animals we’ve ‘captured’ on our cameras:

Mountain lion walking

Mountain lion

Bobcat walking



Coyote walking


Coatimundi walking


Female turkey walking

Female turkey. We’ve never seen or heard a turkey in our area but the camera finds one occasionally.

Golden eagle bathing in stream

Golden eagle bathing in stream

Two gray foxes watch a striped skunk

“Phewwww – smell something?” Striped skunk and gray foxes

4 javelinas walking in line

A javelina family group

3 white-tailed deer

White-tailed deer


3 Responses to Covert Assassin

  • Very nice, we have a nice variety of animals at the house in northern Illinois. Deer occasionally, turkey fairly regularly, coons are common, there are jackals; but I have yet to see one in the yard, possums not unusual, I have been within less than a yard of a very pretty skunk – fortunately a glass door between. But the most nicest animals are Flying Squirrels (unfortunately not in the southwest). They are pretty well habituated at this point and eat out of a feeder stuck to the outside of the patio door (a story off the ground). I was amazed that I was a biology graduate from a local college & NO ONE had ever mentioned them.

  • Although you don’t always see them, there are lots of wild turkeys at Ramsey Canyon in Sierra Vista. The visiting hours there at Ramsey are not very accommodating for viewing the turkeys cause when I’ve noticed them is as it is getting dark and I’m leaving {at that time they are settling in the trees not far from the parking lot}.

  • I have had a game camera set up on our land for several years now. In addition to catching the usual wildlife (deer, turkey, bear, and an occasional bobcat), it also records all the vehicles that come up and down our private road. For the last 8 years we’ve mostly been living away from our house, and from the photos we can tell who has come to hunt or do maintenance or read meters. The most interesting vehicle photographed was a fire truck. I had to call the Fire Department about that one — they went up to our house to use our deck to visually check on a forest fire. It has also recorded our dog going AWOL at night when she was just supposed to be out of the house for a quick “nature call” (or should I say “tire check”?).

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