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


view of Ruby ghost town Arizona

Ruby town view looking east.

“Any fool can be uncomfortable in the bush,” explained Howard, as he prepared delicious margarita drinks.  “Personally, I always travel with the necessities.” We presumed that meant not only his margarita mixing skills but his little coffee press among other things. Howard was indeed a world traveler – an American raised in Australia,  a wildlife biologist in Tanzania, where we met him.

“Are you really moving to Tucson Arizona?” he asked us. “Yes, we’ve bought into an intentional community there.” “Well then” said Howard, “you must meet my parents and visit Ruby, our ghost town.” And thus with taste and ease he created a bridge between our Tanzanian past and our American future.

Not long after we landed in Arizona we met Howard’s parents and visited Ruby. Love at first sight; we were hooked.

Ruby is an abandoned mining area being reclaimed by wildlife. We can camp by a shriveled or full lake near the sand dunes of the former tailing piles. These days the ghosts of Ruby are silent at night. From our campfire we hear only the owls and poorwills and the songs of coyotes. The stars have the sky to themselves and it’s the silence, the beauty and the wildlife that has made Ruby ghost town so important to our own survival. Here we come to free our shuttered senses from the assaults of urban ugliness, traffic, phones and the internet. At Ruby we soak in the subtler pleasures of nature and experience, that joy that only fools comfortable in the bush can claim.

Photos – the beauty of Ruby