Years ago, on a trip to Australia, we took a hike with a guide in one of their national parks with the hopes of encountering native animals. After hiking 14 miles, we returned to our cabin with no sighting of wildlife except for one spider and several birds. An older couple who were on the same trip with us had spent their day sitting on their porch with a beer. “We saw an echidna, a brown snake, a wombat, and several kangaroos!” they happily reported to us. It was a lesson we ignored.
When we hike, we always look for wildlife, but we expect to see it only rarely in the desert on a chilly, windy day like our last hike. On those times, we resign ourselves to sightings restricted to a few birds. But, as always, we look for signs of animals as we hike, and, as always, Chuck carries his snake hook.
The first sign of an animal on this recent hike was a pile of horse droppings. “I guess someone’s been riding on this trail,” I said.
Chuck had a better observation. “Could be burros,” he said. Of course! We were in burro country at Lake Pleasant Regional Park northwest of Phoenix for the morning. Farther down the trail we discovered miniature hoof tracks shaped like horse shoes in soft sand – definitely burro tracks. We felt we had a better chance of spotting a burro than any other animal since the signs were fresh. So as we hiked, we peered down into ravines and along washes where burros might spend the day resting under an ironwood canopy, but we also noted signs of other animals, as well.
No doubt multitudes of rabbits hop through this territory, but we discovered evidence of only one rabbit’s droppings, which appear as small round pellets no bigger than a chocolate chip. But although we have seen rabbits running in the desert at times, we have rarely, if ever, seen a pack rat, likely due to their nocturnal nature. On this hike, however, we passed by at least four pack rat middens laden with twigs, cactus fragments, trinkets, and a multitude of burro droppings.
“How would you like to sleep in a house covered with burro poop?” I mused.
“It’s good insulation,” said Chuck.
Droppings and tracks from dogs and coyotes were plentiful. Generally, dog droppings are dark and uniform in color, while coyote droppings can be variegated depending on available food source. We noticed several such piles, some including bits of hair from a furry critter they dined upon.
We knew there was little or no chance to encounter snakes or lizards on a day like this, but each time we passed cavities in rock outcroppings, we couldn’t help but examine them for wildlife, especially looking for coiled serpents evading the cool temperatures. But because clouds blocking the sun restricted basking opportunities, no reptile was active or visible this day.
Creosote bushes along the trail harbored an assortment of small holes beneath their branches that could shelter species of mice or squirrels. In an open area, we passed by a mound with larger holes that we suspected was home to a kangaroo rat. And holes had been pecked in several saguaro cactus by flickers creating nesting cavities.
Eyes Out for Burros
All the while, we kept an eye out for burros, but even as fresh signs of them became more frequent, the animals evaded us. A bird rested long enough on a cholla cactus that we could train our binoculars on it and identify it as a curved-bill thrasher. Another bird caught our attention as it burst from a nearby palo verde tree and flew off before we could identify it. If we were birders, perhaps we could have recognized its flight pattern.
After four miles of hiking in the desert in the cold and wind, we saw no wildlife other than the two birds. No reptiles. No rabbits. No squirrels. No mice or rats. No burros. Not even a human or his dog.
Return to Car
We returned to our car, tossed our backpacks in the back seat, and drove away. But we didn’t get far before something caught my eye. “Stop a minute!” I demanded.
By the time Chuck slowed the car, we had passed my observation. He turned the car around and slowly drove over the same route. “Tell me when to stop,” he said.
“There they are!” Not far from the road, just behind a barbed wire fence, was a small herd of burros staring in our direction.
Perhaps the older couple on our Australia trip had the right idea. Sometimes the best wildlife viewing can be done from the comfort of a car or a chair. But we’ll probably keep hiking.