When a Maricopa County park ranger noticed usually low water levels in a desert tortoise’s watering hole, he set up a hidden camera to investigate.
Johanna Huckeba/

A coyote, a quail and a javelina walk into a Cave Creek watering hole on a hot day. They say to the sleepy tortoise bartender, “Stop Sonoran and give us a drink!”

Sorry for the cheesy joke. But can you believe it’s true?

Sonoran Desert creatures are flocking to a Cave Creek Regional Park basin belonging to a desert tortoise named Piccolo to quench their thirst. And a park ranger’s hidden camera is capturing surprising and adorable moments with animals rarely seen so close.

From rabbits hopping around the pool to bobcats lapping cautiously to an owl named “The Queen” taking a luxurious bath, Park Ranger Mark Paulat shares footage of them all on the park’s Facebook page. Sometimes the animals seem to take “selfies” as they inspect the camera, like a fawn whose big black nose and ears take up the whole frame.

“It’s almost like a treasure hunt,” Paulat said. “It’s fun to look through these videos and pictures and see what shows up.”

The candid glimpses have drawn admiring fans.

“If I go on vacation, people are very disappointed that I’ve been gone and there haven’t been videos for three or four days,” the park ranger said. “I’ve created a monster, I guess.”

‘They jump right in there and drink up’

The watering hole originally was built for Piccolo in the park’s outdoor nature center. When Paulat noticed the water levels dropping dramatically, he set up the camera to find out which other guests were stopping by.

Animals are most likely to visit during warmer months such as April, May and June before the monsoon rains begin, he said.

“These animals can smell the water from a pretty good range. Once they get a whiff, they come and check it out,” Paulat said. “They jump right in there and drink up.”

Being an interpretive park ranger is a dream job, said Paulat, who spent years in the Coast Guard and in the auto, recycling and computer industries before discovering his true passion.

“(Previous jobs) bored me to tears because I needed to be outside,” he said. “When this position came open, I begged and pleaded for it.”

‘You have to admire these plants and animals’

He tries to educate Facebook viewers about the uniqueness of desert animals.

He often includes factoids, like noting how a female desert spiny lizard blends into her surroundings and how a coyote sheds his coat in summer.

“You have to admire these plants and animals that have adapted to this really, really harsh environment,” he said. “You gotta be out of your mind to be out here when it’s 115 degrees and looking for something to eat. That’s tough. And if you’re a plant — well, hope it rains soon. How do you adapt to that? How do you survive through the lean times?”

The wonders of nature are so close if Arizonans take the time to look away from their TVs and phones, Paulat said. He hopes the Facebook videos will encourage them to visit the park in person.

And for those who don’t live here, Paulat hopes to bring them a moment of inspiration.

“Hopefully (people who see the animals) will have a little more respect and admiration for our planet and our little corner of it,” he said. “And maybe they’ll even pass some of that along to the next generation.”


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