A neon emerald patch flashes by, surrounded by a sea of dark feathers. It’s here, gone again, then back for less than a second. As this Magnificent Hummingbird darts in to feed, I wonder how long it took to evolve such brilliant hues of green, purple and turquoise. The colors morph continuously with the angle of the sunlight.
I am in Madera Canyon, at the foot of the Sky Islands, which host the smallest and largest birds of North America. Broad-billed hummingbirds nectar only inches from where turkeys forage for seeds, insects and juniper berries. While only a few species of hummers remain in Madera Canyon in late fall, 15 species abound in the spring and summer. I could hear them at different elevations as I hiked up into the Sky Islands that cradle Madera Creek, but I could see them up close at the feeders hung by local resort owners to draw birds and visitors, such as Chuparosa Inn http://chuparosainn.com and Santa Rita Lodge. http://santaritalodge.com/
The Sky Islands are the mountain ranges of southeastern Arizona from about 4,000′ to 12,500′. They include the Santa Rita Mountains and Madera Creek. This relatively small region in the Coronado National Forest boasts more than 240 species of birds, a wide range of succulents, including cactus, yucca and agave, and an intermix of conifers, oaks, madrones and other plants that host fascinating insects and spiders. The mountains stand just miles north of the Mexican border.
The Sky Islands are home to fresh water springs that freshen the landscape while sycamores paint the sky with autumn colors. During July and August monsoons wash over the shallow roots of cacti and yuccas in time to provide just enough hydration to help them survive.
Seventeen different tribes of the greater region, such as the Apache (which has many different groups speaking their own languages), and O’odham, have developed many uses for the succulents and other plants there. Just ask local naturalist Vincent Pinto, who knows some traditional uses and has created new applications himself. Take the plentiful mesquite, for example. He knows just how many leaves to chew, however bitter, to alleviate bad digestion. He knows which grasshoppers are edible and which are not. Want to see a painted redstart? Look to Vincent to imitate a Northern pygmy owl, one of its enemies, to draw the bird out of the treetops. You can contact him to arrange a tour or learn survival skills. http://www.ravensnatureschool.org
The iconic succulents of Arizona, the saguaro, are not so plentiful here. But many others are, such as the Prickly pear, opuntia engelmanii, the Cane cactus, cylindropuntia spinosior and the Ocotillo, Fouquieria splendens.
It’s impossible to describe or even name the hundreds of species of flora and fauna that have evolved in Madera Canyon. If you can visit, you won’t be disappointed, but if you can’t, I invite you to my slideshow in Oakland, CA at 4 pm on January 22, 2016 at Kehilla Community Synagogue, 1300 Grand Avenue. http://kehillasynagogue.org/