Rock collecting in Arizona is something I've done most of my life. It's a wonderful place for a rock hound to enjoy his hobby. When spending a lot of time in the desert you are bound to come across the creatures who also call the desert their home. Many of them navigate by crawling. Such fascinating animals as snakes, Gila monsters, and an assortment of lizards are found afoot and are interesting to watch but should be avoided. Then there are the eight-legged creatures like black widows, brown recluses, and tarantulas to avoid. This latter arachnid is a true desert dweller. Assorted four-legged types like coyotes, pumas, bobcats, bears, deer, and the rare coatimundi and jaguars who wander north are beautiful to see in the wild.
Evan and I met one of these handsome creatures while camping in the late fall on Mzatzal Peak. It was a chilly, foggy night and deadly still as we settled by our campfire after a day of hiking and digging at a nearby flowing snowmelt spring. In Arizona, any water is like a magnet to animals. It is the giver of life and the desert animals know every source.
While sitting by our campfire we heard rustling in the nearby brush. We knew bears were about because Evan and a fellow scout had camped in this same area before.
We flashed our lights and lit up a gorgeous, regal-looking male deer. His antlers were at least eight points. Neither of us carry a gun or shoot animals so we did not move as we watched him. He obviously sensed no danger so just turned away and strolled down toward the stream for his evening drink.
One of my most exciting encounters was when I was collecting fluorescent calcite-willemite in the desert near Red Rock north of Tucson. A power plant at Red Rock had installed towers to deliver power to the Ajo area. It was not unusual for power line workers to rock hound during their free time and one of them had found a three-foot-wide vein of calcite nearby. The calcite vein ran at least 100 feet and had small willemite crystals scattered through it.
He staked claims as a zinc property and later worked it during his free time. He eventually dug a shaft down over 20 feet, but the ore never improved and he finally gave up. While he did not hit a rich vein of zinc ore, the combination of red fluorescing calcite and green fluorescing willemite was popular among collectors and he invited local clubs to visit the site. The small dump he made was good for collecting and that’s where I did my collecting.
Watering Hole Visitors
To check out the deposit I met the miner late one afternoon. He had a good reason for me to come while it was still daylight. About 50 yards across from his mine was a desert seep in the limestone where animals came in to drink in the late day. The seep was about a 10-inch-wide hole in a limestone formation where water could be reached. As we sat by his mine and waited at dusk, desert animals began to appear. The more powerful desert animal came first, a mountain lion. He was leisurely as he had his fill. Next to appear was a small family of wild pigs or javelina. They were followed by an old bobcat. A trio of coyotes came next. They left and many minutes later a trio of deer slowly approached and took turns drinking and watching for danger. Finally, an animal showed up I did not recognize. The miner said it was a coatimundi. Looking like a huge cat with a bushy tail. It took a hasty drink and scurried away. Seeing such an assortment of wild desert creatures in the wild is an unforgettable treat. After that desert animal show, I collected some nice calcite-willemite.
A Mountain Lion Encounter
Bill Panczner and I collected at the Weldon mine on a local Reservation. It produces nice dog tooth calcite on large plates and galena with cerussite and barite. To collect underground you follow a long tunnel then take a side tunnel to the calcite deposit. As we walked into the mine it was evident some animal had been in there.
We spent the day collecting, then packed up to leave. At the exit, we could hear an animal making noise and stirring in the brush outside but this is cow country so we were not concerned. However, as we listened, it was obvious the animal was an unhappy mountain lion that we were in his home. We could not see him but heard his distinctive throaty snarling. We hightailed it down the mountain slope as fast as we could. I have not collected in that mine since!
Spiders! Oh My!
On one of our trips to Mexico, we visited the mine that produced wonderful Iceland spar calcite during World War II. We camped at the foot of the mountain and sitting around the campfire I heard Bill say, “Well! Well! What are you doing here?” He was looking down at his foot and we looked too. Sitting on Bill’s boot was the biggest furry tarantula I’ve ever seen. It was huge, motionless, just sitting there. Bill knew how to handle them so he reached down and with two fingers picked up the hairy thing and carried it off into the darkness. He put it down and sent it on its way. Why we slept on the ground that night makes no sense now.
Owls at the Rowley Mine
Bill Panczner and I often collected wulfenite underground at the Rowley mine where it occurred in quantity. At day’s end instead of carrying our tools and specimens up the steep incline exit, we took advantage of a vertical shaft at the end of the tunnel. I’d go to the surface and lower a rope. He’d tie off the flats and I’d haul away. One day I did not realize a great-horned owl had taken up residence in that shaft. As I hauled up the boxes that huge bird with what seemed like a fifty-foot wing span suddenly burst forth and zoomed just over my head. He sure scared me but I did not drop the precious cargo.
A Bobcat Home
The most common creatures to watch for in the desert are scorpions. They live under rocks so I always wore leather gloves and flipped rocks over and looked before picking them up.
I live out of town surrounded by horse ranches so we do get uninvited visitors now and then. The coyotes sing to us on some nights.
One morning we had a pleasant surprise when we had a visitor to our front atrium wander in from the desert. Lots of lizards and other visitors were always there. We were thrilled one day when a gorgeous young bobcat arrived and took up residence in the atrium. He stayed for two weeks until he ran out of lizards and small rodents from the ranch next door. He had beautifully patterned fur and would sit on our fountain wall like a young prince. It was midsummer with daytime temps around 110 and he had found a home.
When you visit Arizona to collect, just remember you are an intruder in the desert. The wildlife was here first. Mineral collecting is wonderful here but watch for the desert denizens. Just admire them for their ability to survive in a challenging environment.
This story about desert animals previously appeared in Rock & Gem magazine. Click here to subscribe! Story by Bob Jones.