By Nancy Steele, Executive Director
My travels this summer have taken me to New England, Chicago, Washington, D.C, and the Angeles National Forest and the San Bernardino Mountains in southern California. I’ve enjoyed watching wild things and learning new plants in all these places. I’ve added many species to my lists, exceeding 1,000 iNaturalist records this summer.
Back home, I had a free Saturday morning in early September, so I decided to join a local birding outing. The trip was led by Kay Hawklee, the president of Northern Arizona Audubon. Kay is very generous in sharing what she knows and leads frequent birding trips.
I was looking forward to being out with some experienced birders who could readily identify species that would otherwise stump me. I was also looking forward to visiting a place I hadn’t been to before, namely V Bar V Heritage Site.
And so, at 7 am on a Saturday, I met with Kay and seven others at the Beaver Creek Picnic Area. On my drive in, I spotted a great blue heron sitting hunched in a tree by the road. A good harbinger!
We saw many birds as our group walked slowly and quietly on a trail by the creek. We spotted a flock of cedar waxwings, many phainopepla (the all-black males and grey females identified by their crests), northern cardinals, summer tanagers, and many more birds.
After birding near the creek for a couple of hours, we moved on to V Bar V Heritage Site, arriving just as it was opening. We were hoping to see some different birds in the dryer, upland habitat. But then, as we walked down the trail towards the petroglyph rocks, we were startled by some very different animals.
Right in front of us, a band of white-nosed coatimundi bounded across the path, making their way towards Wet Beaver Creek. Following at least a dozen adults were four babies. What a special and unexpected experience! We were mesmerized and thrilled.
The coatis were easily recognized by their long, white-tipped noses and long tails. They didn’t seem afraid us. It was like they just wanted to cross the trail before we got in their way and cut them off. It was kind of like when you run across a road during a break in traffic, knowing you’ll make it to the other side before the cars get there.
Coatimundi, known scientifically as Nasua narica, are found in Arizona and southern New Mexico in the United States and throughout Mexico and Central America. Close relatives of coatis that are also found in Arizona are raccoons and ringtails. While coatimundi is a protected species in New Mexico, they are not protected in Arizona.
I couldn’t find information on whether their populations are increasing or decreasing or even the size of their historic range. Coatimundi are considered common in southern Arizona, and yet, here they were. A healthy band of coatis with young. Other than some speculation that they might be increasing in northern Arizona with the warming climate, I could find little about their occurrence in northern Arizona. The two records mentioned in a Google search were the group at the V Bar V Heritage Site and another sighting at Walnut Canyon near Flagstaff.
Coatimundi are active during the daytime, as we saw. They live in bands of up to 20 individuals and spend time on the ground and in trees. Their diet is omnivorous, meaning they, like us, eat both plants and animals. They like fruits, insects, snakes, eggs, small lizards and mammals, and will eat carrion.
We all considered ourselves lucky to have seen this band of coatimundi at V Bar V. We had expected to see many types of birds; it was a happy bonus to also see the coatimundi. For me, one of the true joys of being outside in nature is the unpredictability of the experience. My senses are heightened by a walk outside. Paradoxically, that sensation is simultaneously stimulating and calming.
Knowing that we have healthy populations of creatures like coatimundi in the Verde watershed makes me feel that our work is meaningful. I value all of the benefits that go along with keeping the Verde River system healthy and flowing, such as healthy populations of birds and mammals. You can learn more about that work at verderiver.org.
As September comes to a close, the monsoon rains have ended. We had an average amount of rain, I’m told, although my neighborhood could have used more precipitation. Soon leaves will put on their fall colors. Already, it is cooler in the mornings but, as I write this, the days are still warm. The cicadas are trilling their final songs, trying to get eggs in the ground before it’s too cold. Enjoy the fall!