Both black bears and mountain lions can be found in the woodland areas of the Huachuca Mountains in south-east Arizona. But it‘s not these animals - as big and exciting as they are - that I have come to see. What I‘m looking for is a much smaller species that doesn‘t need the skill or patience required to track a bear or big cat.

In fact, all I have to do is tilt my head slightly and there they are - groups of tiny hummingbirds darting through the air like rainbow-coloured bullets, dipping and diving into trees, hunting out spring blossoms for nectar. In just 20 minutes, four different species (Broad-tailed, Rufous, Magnificent and Anna‘s) have flown past me in a feathery emerald and ruby blur.

With their jewellery-box colours, exquisite poise and elegant sword-like bills, these exotic birds seem out of place in the shady woods here, which, with its discreetly blossoming oak and sycamore trees, feels rather British. Magical-looking birds such as these look as if they belong in a sunlit South American cloud forest, sipping nectar from big showy blooms and swooping through flowering vines with giant butterflies for company.

But this is where I am wrong. The Huachucas may not be exotic, but the hummingbirds are here for good reason. This mountain range - around 22 miles long and just over eight miles wide - is something of a natural wonder and one of the few places in the US where water (in the form of the San Pedro river) runs north. As the river flows, it creates a verdant ecosystem, filling these mountains with life.

Elsewhere in Arizona, many mountain canyons are dry and arid. Desert rules the landscape and vegetation is minimal. The Huachucas (known locally as a “sky island“), with their water and abundant greenery, stand out from the surrounding desert like high-rise oases.

Close to the Mexican border, this part of Arizona is an amazing green crossroads where flora and fauna from the Rocky and Sierra Madre mountains overlap with the species of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, creating a wildlife hotspot - second only to Costa Rica in its diversity - inhabited by 78 species of mammal, 60 reptile species and more than 170 species of birds.

Following the San Pedro north, every spring around four million migrating birds use the Huachucas as an avian superhighway. Hummingbirds, in their tens of thousands, use this flight path, stopping off for refuelling or nesting as they make their way north. At 6,000 feet above sea level, one of their favourite places to rest their wings is in the woods of Miller Canyon.

Here more than 15 different species have been seen here, taking advantage of many feeding opportunities, including nectar-rich flowers as well as sugar feeders strategically placed around Beatty‘s Miller Canyon Guest Ranch on the edge of the wood. This is the hottest hummingbird-watching spot in the state. The feeders at the ranch owned by Tom and Edith Beatty attract so many hummingbirds from the woods that up to 14 different species have been seen competing at feeders in just half an hour.

With wings beating at around 70 times per second, these little birds burn up more energy, size for size, than any other creature. Maintaining such a high-octane pace of life means that hummingbirds must refuel constantly. Determined to eat their fill, and with no fear of humans, they congregate at feeders so near me that I can observe them at incredibly close quarters.

The only birds that can fly backwards and remain stationary mid-flight, they move upwards, downwards and from side-to-side, creating a kaleidoscope of colour, as if they were being operated by remote control. One of the birds - a Broad-tailed female - having had her sugar fix, darts into woods behind me. Then she is back - wings spread like a delicate Oriental parasol. Using her long, pointed bill like a needle, she pulls out cotton threads from my cardigan. Beak full, she darts back to the woods. I am told that she will use the threads for her nest.

Using nature like a haberdashers, females create tiny, fragile nests from moss pieces and plant fibres. Then, as if they are sewing, they bind them together with gossamer stolen from spider webs. Back at the feeders, two males are fighting. Despite their dainty appearance, hummingbirds are solitary and often aggressive birds that will defend their territories to the death. As the birds lunge at each other, their high-speed, feathery show reveals a toughness of spirit essential for migration survival.

For many hummingbird species, leaving the Huachucas and their tiny fairy nests, will involve flying hundreds of miles north (sometimes as far as Alaska) in search of their next sugar high.

Share This Story