Bighorn and scorpions and bats, oh my!
“Do you suppose we will meet any wild animals?”
Yes, Dorothy. This is Arizona, where you’re likely to see many creatures. From low desert to chaparral to coniferous forest, the state’s life zones accommodate a diverse and rich population of more than 900 species, not including insects and arachnids — there are tens of thousands of species of the creepy crawlies.
It’s an early Sunday morning at Canyon Lake, a small body of water nestled between the larger Saguaro and Apache lakes, part of the Salt River Basin north of the Superstition Mountains. The sun has yet to breach Canyon Lake’s citadel walls, but it’s already a parching 80 degrees. At a boat launch site, low chatter is broken only by lapping waves and a single jet ski buzzing about in the distance.
On the dock, Jeff Meyers and Randy Babb hand red life jackets to aspiring wildlife photographers about to board two pontoon boats. There’s anticipation in the air as the boats are readied for a bighorn sheep photography tour led by the naturalists from the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
As the boats glide away from shore, Meyers says they came across some bighorns here a few days ago during a scouting trip. He tells the photographers that about 6,000 bighorns occupy pockets of habitat across the state. The greater Canyon Lake area has 500 to 600 desert bighorn sheep split between the north and south side of the lake. He also says their sandstone color makes it difficult to pick them out against the rocky desert cliffs.
The information does not inspire much confidence; the chances of seeing the agile mountain sheep seem unlikely. Nonetheless, long lenses and binoculars are at the ready, and eyes are peeled for what Babb calls “charismatic megafauna.”
Babb and Meyers run the Watchable Wildlife Program for the game and fish agency. They, along with Arizona Game and Fish wildlife photographer George Andrejko, are leading the first of two summer bighorn photography tours, one of the newest events in the program. I signed up for the tour on impulse, never having had much luck at photographing wildlife on my own. But maybe luck has little to do with it.
Babb and Meyers later let me in on what I don’t know: This is a good time for viewing bighorn at the lake because there’s little water elsewhere, and the sheep tend to concentrate near waterways in the bone-dry months of June and July. Also, bighorn are inquisitive creatures. As long as they are at higher ground and you’re quiet and still, you’re not likely to scare them off. I now know that learning about an animal’s habits and habitat is the first hurdle to taking good wildlife photos.
Andrejko, who’s been photographing wildlife for three decades, gave some other photo tips, encouraging us to increase shutter speed and narrow the aperture for sharp images that take in the whole of the scenery. He told us to lookout for the white rumps of the bighorn, the part of their bodies that stands out best in the terrain.
To the photographers’ delight, we spotted more than a dozen bighorns during our five-hour tour. Our shutters clicked away like the cameras of paparazzi on a red carpet. The sheep were our compliant celebrities.
Later, in an email, Andrejko gave me additional advice for would-be wildlife photographers.
“Keep at it,” he wrote. “It doesn't all happen overnight. It is a learning experience that will take years to hone.” Master your tools, he also advised. “Learn how to operate your camera off of the automatic settings. Study the wildlife that you want to photograph so that you know before you go. Practice photographing wildlife close to home. Have patience with the wildlife and yourself.”
Wildlife education has long been part of the conservation mission of the Fish and Game Department. Babb, who has been with the agency since the mid-1980s, said that back then they would lead wildlife tours for teachers “to empower them to talk to their students about what they saw and experienced.”
Those opportunities, he said, formed the basis for the Watchable Wildlife Program that the agency and its offices now coordinate, often with help from other conservation groups. He said the Game and Fish World of Wonder events have become quite popular over the last five years, and funds to sustain the program come from fees paid by participants. Elk, scorpions, bison and bats have been the focus of some of the tours.
“The reason we exist is to better acquaint the public with wildlife, to increase the awareness of these animals and to aid in their conservation,” said Meyers. “People tend to protect what they know and love.”
“The idea is to let people know the intrinsic value of wildlife,” Babb added. “When people come to a broader acceptance of wildlife, they make for better stewards of our world, better conservationists.”
While the central office of Game and Fish hosts a number of watchable events throughout the state, the regional office in northern Arizona works with the Arizona Wildlife Federation, the City of Flagstaff, Coconino County Parks and Recreation and the U.S. Forest Service to create wildlife education and observation events. Together they formed the Arizona Watchable Wildlife Experience, also known as AWWE.
“I wish we had one of these groups in every urban area in the state,” said Babb. “They’re real trailblazers in promoting the passion for wildlife.”
Game and Fish watchable wildlife events are open to all, and even veteran animal watchers like Babb and Meyers are amazed by each experience.
“It’s never rote for me,” Meyers said. “Every time I go out, I learn something new about the animals and the people observing them.”
On this trip, he said he was thrilled when he saw a bighorn butt a barrel cactus, cracking it open to get to the juicy interior.
“I’ve read that they do that, but this was the first time I witnessed it. I have a renewed sense of wonder each time I go out on these wildlife adventures.”
In August and September, Game and Fish will hold World of Wonder events focused on bats near the Verde River and on nocturnal creatures in the desert. Visit https://www.azgfd.com/wildlife/viewing for the latest listing of events.
At the Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area near Eagar July 28, the agency will host the annual High Country Hummers Festival from 8 a.m.-noon. Ornithologist Sheri L. Williamson, a leading expert on North American hummingbirds, will be on hand for the free program.
The next event on the Arizona Watchable Wildlife Experience calendar is July 21 at the Picture Canyon Natural and Cultural Preserve in Flagstaff. The public is welcome to join the free presentation and walk beginning at the Picture Canyon Trailhead at 6 p.m. The group will then hold an elk viewing at Mormon Lake the evening of Aug. 18.