There are many wild animals living in Arizona’s Sonoran desert. Maintaining the six golf courses of the Desert Mountain Club, fifty miles north of Phoenix, has provided me with opportunities for some memorable encounters with wild animals.
Recalling these episodes each time I travel around the golf courses has encouraged me to share my memories with you. Read along and enjoy these funny, thrilling, and downright scary moments.
The Cochise and Geronimo golf courses are set in an 8000 acre complex in the foothills of the Continental Mountains, the northernmost point in Scottsdale, Arizona. Our maintenance shop is in the middle of the Geronimo golf course, so it’s normal to pass through the front nine of the Geronimo course to get to the Cochise golf course.
As I passed by the first hole on the Geronimo course, I saw mountain lion tracks crossing the snowy fairway. At 3000 feet elevation, three to four inches of snow falls once or twice a year. Seeing the tracks reminded me that I’d heard we had one on the property, but I always thought a lion would be up in the mountains – not down here. Many of us drive through this area just before sunrise every day, and I wondered when the mountain lion had passed by here. I found the scene unsettling.
I first saw these tracks around 1994. There have been visual sightings since then. One is posted on the internet. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dC-ZLZqkaBw.)
Having passed the mountain lion tracks I head to one of my favorite animal sightings. I turn right into a large dry river bed – “Oh my God!” A seven foot Red Racer snake (non-venomous) is coming out of the grass right at me. I will run over him with my cart! I can’t stop quickly enough, so I hit the gas to race past. I’m astonished to see the snake move so fast. I thought it was under my front wheel, but instead, the snake’s head appears four feet off the ground and even with my shoulders. How did he get there? Startled, I pressed on the gas harder. His body was looped like a rope in vertical steps one foot apart. The snake leaned away about two feet from my cart. Thank God because I’m looking him in the eye. I passed the snake and lost sight of it as I slammed on the brakes, sliding to a stop in the gravel. Whirling around I looked for him but saw only the last foot of the creature slither into the brush.
Oh my God! What just happened? I shook as I recalled what I had just experienced. The snake’s head at my shoulder gave me chills, and the way he coiled up into the air like the steps of a ladder was amazing.
Whew! I take a deep breath and move on to another one of my favorite animal sightings by turning left off the main wash into a smaller wash between the #1 Cochise tee, and the 9th fairway. I slow down and look up to my left at the top of a huge boulder where I see a rock squirrel with his legs sprawled out, sunning himself to warm up.
What‘s interesting is when I usually go back to the shop around 9 a.m. there will be a Chuckwalla taking his place, also trying to warm up. I’ve always wondered how these two arranged this time share. Every day it’s the same story. I’ve grown so used to them over the years that I worry if one of them doesn’t show up.
As I leave the sunbathers and cross the cart path for the #1 tee on the Cochise course I look to my left and up the hill at a round tee that looks like a lily pad. I’d say it’s about twenty-five yards up the hill. There was a lot of activity in the area at the time, with workers raking bunkers and mowing greens. I just finished setting the tee markers when I saw a mother bobcat and her two cute cubs walk by in the wash.
I stopped what I was doing and stood on the edge of the tee admiring them. The mother bobcat turned, looked straight at me and snarled. Well now, I don’t know what caused that, but I didn’t want to upset her again or she might tear my clothes off. As I started to back away from the edge of the tee I looked down at my feet and felt so dumb and foolish. I wore a bright yellow rain suit to ward of the morning drizzle. No wonder I attracted her attention standing there like a giant yellow flag. The cubs continued on ahead, but mama didn’t move or change her expression until I had backed away far enough that she couldn’t see me. Her posture relaxed. Her snarl ceased and she joined her cubs, while I immediately removed my bright yellow rain suit.
On another occasion I was driving by hole #2, when I saw Jose on a mower in the center of the fairway. At that moment his mower skidded to a stop tearing up three feet of grass under the rear tire. I was surprised. Jose had years of experience at Desert Mountain and knew there cannot be imperfections like that on a Top 100 golf course. What would cause him to be so irresponsible?
It was weird to see him jump off the mower and ran to the edge of the fairway. He sat down and put his head between his knees. I was concerned and rushed toward him in my cart to see if I could help.
“Jose,” I said, “what is the matter with you? Are you sick?”
“I saw a snake,” he said.
“Come on, you’ve seen snakes before.”
“I know, but when I looked to turn right a snake was coiled around a hydraulic hose looking me in the face.”
“What kind of snake,” I asked.
Jose looked at me like I was an idiot. “Are you kidding me? Who cares? I hit the emergency brake and jumped.”
“Are you going to finish mowing?” I asked.
“No! Not until someone proves to me the snake is gone.”
What a dumb question. Wish I could take it back.
On down the way by the green at hole #3, there’s usually a coyote snoozing in the shade. Easy now, I need to stop for a rattlesnake is on the cart path out in front of me. I’ve always been curious where they go, so I have an idea where I should be looking out for them.
The snake left the cart path and moved up the slope of the 3rd tee. Looking up on the tee I saw a foursome of golfers teeing off. They don’t see the snake as it crawled through the plants and coiled around the base of a shrub only six inches from the edge of the tee. I got chills watching a golfer step back and stop with his foot only inches from the snake.
I reached for my radio, prepared to call in an emergency. The snake didn’t move. The golfer didn’t move. The last golfer teed off and they all left the tee, not knowing how close they were to a dangerous rattlesnake.
Now I’ll drive in front of the tee and follow the wash down toward the green, so I don’t disturb the golfers, to see something far less dangerous. There’s a very familiar coyote sleeping under a tree. Some days when he’s sleeping we like to annoy him and make him get up on his feet. I’m going to drive by him and as long as I keep moving he won’t look up or move. I’ll turn around and drive by again, but instead of passing him I’ll stop beside him. I get the “look,” like he’s annoyed at me. He gets up and looks over his shoulder with disgust as he walks away toward the fairway. He’ll do this every time. As soon I drive off he’ll return to his spot and continue his nap.
Moving on to the 4th fairway, the most unusual thing happened here on March 29, 2011. For whatever reason, a female mountain lion I spoke of earlier brought her two yearlings out into the open during the daylight. Someone caught a photograph of them and it eventually was published in the local newspaper. They’ve never been seen together since.
Continuing to the sixth hole I turned a corner and started down a sloping cart path when there were sounds of a bird screeching in pain. I stopped my cart and walked slowly and quietly toward the bottom of the slope. I peeked around some brush and saw a roadrunner fighting a father quail as mother quail spreading her wings around her brood of bite sized babies the roadrunner wanted for lunch. I watched a beautiful dance as the roadrunner dodged right and mother quail whisked her brood off to the left as father quail dove in between to attack the roadrunner. This annoyed the roadrunner who went after father quail aggressively before moving off to challenge mother’s wings to get a tasty chick.
The dust rose above them as they dashed into attacks and defense. As big and aggressive as the roadrunner appeared, the quail were winning. For all his effort the roadrunner was getting nothing out of it, and appeared annoyed at father quail’s attacks. The fight ended when the roadrunner flew a foot over mother quail’s head and father quail met him there fiercely. When they landed the roadrunner dashed away, leaving the quail family to gather themselves before moving on.
Something happened at the seventh hole that shocked the bejebbers out of me. There’s a pump station there, not far from the irrigation lake. Our superintendent, Scott, met me there to discuss work that needed to be done on the island. We were standing outside talking when suddenly, just 15 feet away, a quail flew into the air by the pump station wall. Instantly a bobcat leaped from the brush to snatch the quail with one paw. Without giving us a glance, the bobcat put the quail in his jaws, turned, and walked away into the desert. We were stunned to be standing so close to a bobcat that we never noticed.
The 13th tee has been a troublesome golf hole for the Tradition golf tournament. Every year the senior PGA golfers begin tournament play on April 1st. Rattlesnakes wake up, stretch, and leave their dens about the same time. It could be that the golfers and rattlers would never meet, except a rattlesnake den is in the rocks behind the 13th tee. Understandably, many golfers are deathly afraid of snakes. I’m sure many other golfers aren’t excited to tee up and have a rattlesnake slither by their feet. Each year, to protect the golfers and spectators, we station a maintenance employee near the tee with a snake loop. At least one snake has been removed from outside the den every year, and three or four in some years.
Like the 6th hole where I told of the quail and roadrunner fighting, the 15th hole is where I also witnessed a wildlife duel. As I drove down the cart path towards the dry river bed I heard a clucking sound. I didn’t see anything, but I came to a stop anyway and then rolled my cart slowly and quietly toward the wash. I saw a baby roadrunner and a baby rattle snake about 18 inches long. The roadrunner darted from one end of the snake to the other, pecking at the snake like he didn’t know which end to attack.
The little rattlesnake was stretched out and would raise his head to look back at the crazy bird pecking his tail. The little snake moved ahead and the roadrunner jumped ahead to pecked at his head again. Then he’d dash back to peck his tail, encouraging the little snake to move ahead some more.
Because roadrunners kill and eat snakes, even rattlesnakes, I surmised these “young’uns” weren’t familiar with this fact, yet. I chalked it up as practice for a day when they both are mature.
Driving along the 16th hole, I saw one of the most interesting events I’ve ever witnessed. I passed the 16th fairway and noticed something on the putting green, and it was big. It didn’t look like a coyote or Javelina, so I parked and quietly walked up to a mound by the cart path where I could hide from view.
As I peeked over the mound to look at the green I saw a two-and-a-half foot tall great horned owl slowly walking on the green, and stopping periodically to tilt its head. “Wham!” She quickly stabbed the ground. Walking a bit more she did the same thing; stopping, tilting her head to listen, then quickly stabbing the ground with her beak.
What’s she doing, I wondered? I thought owls hunted at night. I watched some more. Then it dawned on me she’s feeding on worms. Can she hear them in the ground? How does she know where to penetrate the ground to get the worm? This seemed like magic to me, and I watched in awe.
I don’t think I disturbed her, but without warning she quietly and gracefully flew away. She looked awesome. I went right up to the green to see the damage. There was none to see. I couldn’t believe it. While other birds feeding off insects on the green leave a small hole, the owl left none. I know where she had walked and followed that path to where she’d caught worms, and looked there. Still I saw no holes where she’d pecked the surface. I felt privileged to witness this great bird using its sophisticated hearing to hunt food underground.
Over on the 17th hole on the Geronimo course I had a bone chilling experience. It occurred on a day when I was spraying weeds in the cracks of the cart paths. Dressed in white Tyvek protective overalls carrying a backpack, spray wand, and mixture of weed killer I was not prepared for action. Walking with my head down, scouting for weeds, I was unaware of any animals around me. Eventually I stopped to take a break and looked around the rock formations surrounding the green. What I saw took my breath away. I had walked up on a big male bobcat sitting proudly and staring at me from only 20 feet away, on the top of a rock formation. I froze in place, only breathing as I looked at this magnificent animal. If only I had a camera instead of these bright white overalls this cat’s majestic pose was a sure fire Arizona Highways magazine cover. He stared at me and I stared back at him, trying not to move a muscle. I didn’t know what his intentions were, but I was giving him all the room he wanted. We stared at each other for so long I began to think we were in a mental séance. Then Virgil, our agronomist drove down the cart path from hole #18. I wondered what the bobcat would do, but Virgil stopped on the cart path above and behind the bobcat.
The bobcat continued to stare at me not even giving Virgil a glance. I hadn’t moved since I first saw him, and grew very anxious when he left his perch and started down the boulders toward me. My heart pounded, and I nervously watched the cat walk by me, only 10 feet to my right, and continue toward the wash behind. I felt safer but still anxious. Slowly I turned and saw two females waiting for him, and then falling behind to follow the male down the wash. Wow! There couldn’t be a worse place than between a male bobcat and a female bobcat. Surrounded by three bobcats, I was lucky to get out of that situation without a scratch.
Often I go by the clubhouse as I head back to the maintenance yard. I rarely go inside the clubhouse, but on one particular day I wanted to buy two new shirts. Stepping inside I got a strange feel about the place. No one was around. The golf pro wasn’t there to make a tee time, and the merchandise sales people were not to be seen anywhere.
“Hello! Is anybody home?” I shouted.
“Shhh! Be quiet! We’re all over here.”
About 10 people, employees and members, were pressed up against the window of the clubhouse. When I quietly joined them I saw the attraction . . . a beautiful male bobcat slowly walking along the stone window ledge. The heavily tinted windows prevented him from noticing the crowd on the inside. So, we got an extreme up close and personal view of a real live bobcat. Although some members appear to be unaware predatory cats roam on the property, here was first hand evidence.
We watched until the cat reached the end of the ledge, jumped off and bounded across the practice green into the desert. We were so close to the location of my earlier encounter with three bobcats, it made me wonder if this was the same male.
I hope you enjoyed this exposure to my wild animal encounters. I’m sure you can find folks who can share many more stories of personal encounters with Arizona wildlife. Just keep your eyes open and you’ll have your own wildlife encounter.