Sometimes when you end up in an unexpected place, it leads to a great experience.
The Fobes family was looking for a “big garage sale” on a recent Saturday morning, when they instead found themselves at “Leapin’ Lizards Family Day” at Agua Caliente Park.
“We will definitely be going again,” Mike Fobes says.
“That was fun,” agrees Raquel Fobes, his wife. “I enjoyed it.”
About five families arrived at the park that morning to participate in the 90-minute program hosted by Pima County Natural Resources Parks and Recreation. The park hosts family day once a month, with rotating subjects.
It starts with a slideshow in the Rose Cottage Education Center, presented by Axhel Munoz, an environmental educator with Pima County.
“What’s that?” Munoz asks the class, when a picture appears on the screen.
“No, not frogs. Toads,” Munoz replies.
He then describe the differences between the two, as well as other “herps” or frogs, amphibians, snakes and reptiles.
“If you find a snake, especially a rattlesnake, please don’t pet them,” Munoz says.
The families laugh, but Munoz is giving a lesson on safety, prior to heading out to look for lizards.
“Are there snakes that, like, spit?” asks Reegan Bundrick, 6.
“No, we don’t have spitting cobras or anything here,” Munoz assures her. “We have lots of rattle snakes. The best way to deal with them is don’t get close. If they rattle, that means back off.”
After a few more questions, it’s time to go outside.
“First thing we’ll do is look for lizards and habitats of lizards and snakes,” Munoz says. “Then we’ll come back here and I’ll show you how to use a lizard stick and we’ll catch lizards. If you see a snake, are you going to catch one?”
“No!” the group yells.
The group stops in front of the small pond, alive with turtles and fish.
“Look, a turtle,” shouts a child. “It’s coming over here.”
The kids — and parents — all look out at the water with their binoculars.
Now, it’s lizard time.
Munoz leads the group to a majestic mesquite tree to find tree lizards.
“Oh. I see a lizard,” Munoz says, and shows the families.
“It’s called an ornate tree lizard.”
A walk along the path through the mesquite trees provides several lizard sightings, much to the delight of the children in the group.
Following a short break, families get to attempt to catch lizards with a special stick with a loop on the end.
“Remember, this is really hard,” Munoz says. “Almost nobody catches one.”
The families take off, sticks in hand, on a mission.
But, the lizards have another idea.
None are found, let alone captured.
On another recent spring morning, Erin Sol, environmental educator with Pima County prepares to lead the Nuts About Nature Preschool Hour, which has recently begun at a second location — Brandi Fenton Memorial Park — after rave results at Agua Caliente.
“We wanted it to be a little more central for folks,” Sol says.
Each one-hour program starts with story time, then an interactive activity and a craft that focuses on a different aspect of the Sonoran Desert. This week’s topic? Lizards.
“There aren’t that many programs geared to preschool,” Sol says. “It’s our first foray into this age group. They’re so eager and enthusiastic.”
Zachary Van Devender, 3, and his mother, Anna arrive at the park.
“Do you like lizards?” Anna asks.
“That’s my favorite animal,” Zachary replies.
The morning opens with Sol reading a book about lizards.
“They have eyeballs, too!” Zachary says excitedly after seeing an illustration of a lizard’s anatomy.
Next, Sol leads Zachary — the only participant in today’s class — in a game, where he gets to pretend to be a lizard foraging for food and hiding from the elements. Plastic bugs are placed around the area as food and hula hoops serve as shelter.
“Where do you think lizards live?” Sol asks.
“In the desert,” Zachary says.
The day ends in a craft, where Zachary gets to create his own foam lizard with big googly eyes. He names him Larry, like the example lizard Sol shows him.
“That way there can be two Larry the lizards,” he says.
Pima County Natural Resources Parks and Recreation hosts a variety of family-friendly activities each month, at least four a week.
“We have wonderful parks that we want people to get out and see and use,” says Wendy Burroughs, environmental education program manager. “And there are a lot of visitors in the area that may not be familiar with the environment, so we offer programs to help people get out into nature and enjoy it.”
The department recently implemented an online system for signing up for programs and leisure classes and for reserving ramadas at parks.
It has also started a membership program for classes and public programs.
“With our outdoor programs we are offering a $50 annual membership — annual from the day you pay — that allows you reduced or free enrollment in the outdoor activities,” Burroughs says. “So those would be birding hikes, nature walks, Nuts About Nature and Family Outdoor Days...Most programs have a $5 fee and there would be no fee if you have the membership...We have a lot of people who do birding and they may go once or twice a week, so over the course of the year this could be a significant savings.”
Keep your eyes open for new outdoor programs.
“We’re always varying them,” Burroughs says. “The newest thing we’re doing is programs at Colossal Cave Park...We did a wildflower hike and a geology nature hike...We’re gonna be doing regular birding walks, about once a month...We expect to be expanding those programs throughout the summer and fall.”
Here are a few of Pima County’s upcoming events. Most are free for members and $5 for non-members. Registration is required. Find more at pima.gov/nrpr
Go on a guided birding walk at Agua Caliente Park, 12325 E. Roger Road, to find wetland birds, hummingbirds, songbirds and raptors, at 8 a.m. every Thursday. No binoculars? No worries. You can borrow some at the walk. Wake Up with the Birds is for all ages.
Explore the world of owls and other nocturnal birds at the Nature Night: Evening Owl Walk at 7 p.m. April 23 at Tucson Mountain Park Ironwood Picnic Area, 1548 S. Kinney Road. The walk is for all ages. Bring a headlamp or flashlight.
Learn about the desert after dark at the Blacklighting for Bugs and Star Gazing at 7 p.m. April 30 at Tucson Mountain Park, Ironwood Picnic Area, 1548 S. Kinney Road. Pima County naturalists will be there to identify and talk about the insects that are attracted to blacklights. You’ll also get to look at the night sky through a telescope with Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association volunteers. Bring a flashlight. The event is for all ages and is free to attend.
Families with older kids — ages 12 and over — can go on a cactus hike at 7 a.m. May 13 at Tucson Mountain Park, 8451 W. McCain Loop. You’ll hike two miles with botanist, Meg Quinn to learn about local cacti and their ecology and uses.
Nuts about Nature Preschool Hour takes place bi-weekly at both Agua Caliente and Brandi Fenton Parks. Each session touches on a different aspect of the Sonoran Desert and includes storytime, an interactive activity, crafts and a take home. Classes at Brandi Fenton Park, 3536 E. River Road, are on the first and third Tuesday every month. Sessions at Agua Caliente Park are on the first and third Wednesday of the month.
Bring the whole family to Outdoor Family Day: Exploring Aquatic Life at 10 a.m. May 7 at Agua Caliente Park. You’ll learn about the diversity of life that inhabits the pond at the park. You’ll use nets, skimmers and buckets to collect water samples and then look at it under the microscope. The event is geared toward families with children ages five through 12.
“They’re just a great environment,” said April Bundrick, a participant of Outdoor Family Day. “And they’re fun.”