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



Panorama of San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Panorama of San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Can’t afford a safari to Africa? Easy solution, go to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. We just spent a whole day there, at a fraction of the cost of a day on safari in Africa. And what a lot we saw: wildlife galore, maybe not in its natural habitat but in great variety and totally visible and easy to photograph. We were especially charmed by the mother cheetah and her four cubs, two of the last living northern white rhinos, gazelles, giraffes, oryx, warthogs, elephants and other typical animals of the African plains. Moreover, we saw animals that you would not see on most safaris, rare forest dwellers such as lowland gorillas and okapi,  and so many kinds of birds and forest creatures from the world’s tropics – all healthy and housed in spacious enclosures in ‘natural’ social groupings.

gorilla at San Diego Zoo

Gorilla at San Diego Zoo

Safari clients often say to us, “Don’t you hate to see animals in captivity? I could never go to a zoo after this.” We say, We LOVE zoos, especially now when zoos are so involved in conservation and captive breeding. While at the Safari Park we also visited the research institute, and were impressed by all the work going on; saving the egg-cells of old rhinos, freezing tissue samples of rare animals, breeding 165 endangered species, and supporting field research in over 35 countries.

The park was packed with families, riding the trains and the safari trucks or just strolling the grounds; a wonderful learning experience for kids. David’s childhood visits to a local zoo were the most exciting and memorable events in his young life. Zoos help fuel young minds for learning and caring more about animals.

Check out this amazing zoo and its older relative, the downtown San Diego Zoo, a bit commercialized, but both state-of-the-art facilities whose well-treated captives are ambassadors for the natural world.