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Madera Creek © SR Euston

Madera Creek © SR Euston

On Monday we visited a beautiful, remarkably biologically diverse habitat, Madera Canyon, in the Santa Rita Mountains about 15 miles southeast of here. Renowned for its bird life and rare riparian habitat, it’s a naturalist’s paradise.

Or so they say. While it’s true Madera Creek is running (an unusual and delightful) event, water music was the only sound I heard the whole morning except for airplanes and a crow (or maybe it was a raven, I didn’t see it.) And along the trail we saw any number of unidentifiable plants including a flexible, soft two-needle pine, (like a white pine but it has five needles or perhaps it was a mutant three-needle Chihuahua?), and a multi-trunked shrub with alternate, smooth, leathery oval leaves with grey undersides (like a silver buffaloberry but they don’t grow in Arizona).

For me, this describes my all-too-common naturalist experience: Rarely do I see anything (especially wildlife) and if I do I can’t figure out what I’m looking at (especially plants). So I’ve come up with a few observations and recommendations for other amateur naturalists as they head out on the trail:

  1. You’ll almost never see what’s in the guide. Be it animal, vegetable or mineral, your specimen will always be unique.
  2. So go ahead and be decisive when identifying. Probably nobody else saw that bird you just  pointed out. And if anybody did, do they have a photo? If not, louder, bigger and absolutely certain usually wins. So go for it. Case in point: that was a Mexican Jay we (hardly) saw in Madera Canyon.
  3. Shrubs are a real thicket. Oaks too. Nobody knows and don’t let anybody  tell you otherwise. Your Emery oak is bound to be somebody else’s Gambel’s. Not to worry. Even the oaks don’t know. They’re too busy interbreeding. And shrubs? There’s a reason why most guides use line drawings. It’s up to the identifier to sketch in the details. Ferns and grasses? Forget it.
  4. My best advice? Marry a naturalist who’s been looking around at the natural world longer than you have. Even better, marry one with an encyclopedic memory for everything from the Golden Guide to North American Birds to the Boy Scout Handbook to Thoreau’s Journals (all fourteen volumes). Then go forth (together) and identify!
    Unknown Pine © AME

    Unknown Pine © AME

    Unknown Shrub © AME

    Unknown Shrub © AME

    Naturalist on the Snowy Trail at Madera Canyon © AME

    Naturalist on the Snowy Trail at Madera Canyon © AME

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