Birding Groups Join Forces to Protect a Hummingbird Hotspot

Photograph by Michael Lundgren
Photograph by Michael Lundgren

Birding Groups Join Forces to Protect a Hummingbird Hotspot

Tucson Audubon and the American Bird Conservancy keep Paton's birder haven safe.

By Tim McDonnell
Published: March-April 2014

Paton's birder haven is an hour south of Tucson, Arizona, down a two-lane desert highway that cuts between twisted saguaro cacti, cloud-capped mountain peaks, and countless open acres of cattle pasture. Drive straight into the two-block heart of Patagonia (pop. 913), take a right at the Wagon Wheel Saloon (est. 1933), look for a wire gate with a sun-faded sign, and behold one of the unpolished gems of American birding.

Tucson Audubon has now taken possession of Paton's from its original owners, in order to preserve the site for future generations of birders. But when I arrive in December, it is still the territory of Larry Morgan, 61, who is shelling homegrown pecans on the front lawn. Larry's business card designates him "Ambassador to the birds"; he has been the caretaker here since early 2012. He shakes my hand and points out a pair of white-winged doves in a tree nearby that, he says in an unexpected Delta drawl, have been "guarding the place" all morning.

"I just watch birds," he says. "It's the best job I've ever had."

Larry stands up and twitches his bushy white handlebar mustache. I take a pair of binoculars around to the backyard. There's a guest list with visitors from places like Philadelphia and Berlin, park benches clustered under a sun tent, and birdfeeders dangling from almost every tree.

The only thing missing on this late December day is a hummingbird.

"Haven't seen any today," says Larry.

That's not a huge surprise at this time of year but would be unheard of any time between March and November. A staple on the rounds of birders in the West, this humble tract is known as one of the most reliable spots in Arizona to catch a glimpse of more than a dozen hummer species. In the late-summer peak season, Larry says, he goes through three gallons of sugar water a day to keep hundreds of birds well fed--including the elusive and stunning violet-crowned, which makes its way here from Mexico in warmer weather to breed.

Wally Paton, on the other hand, made his way here for business. In 1974 he left his job at a company that made parts for lunar space modules, plucked his wife and daughter from the Boston suburbs, and headed west. They landed in this dusty desert outpost, which today deals primarily in the work of local New Age-y artisans. Paton's aim was to open a factory across the border in nearby Mexico, so the family settled into the low-slung clapboard house with a blue tin roof, squeezed between the town and the lush Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. Marion Paton, an avid gardener, populated the grounds with bushes and flowers, which soon began to attract a diverse assortment of avian guests.

By the early '90s violet-crowned hummingbirds were a reliable presence at the site. One day writer/photographer Arthur Morris visited, and saw numerous hummers, including a violet-crowned. After his story about the visit ran in Bird Watcher's Digest, Paton's reputation went global, with knocks coming to the door from as far away as Africa.

"So," recalls daughter Bonnie Paton Moon, "they decided to let the public in."

And in the public came, thousands of guests a year. The Patons essentially ran an open house for the rest of their lives (Wally passed away in 2001, Marion in 2009). Bonnie has managed the place since then. "The best result would be to save it for future birdwatchers," she says.

That's exactly what was set to happen in mid-February, when Bonnie was to close on the $280,000 sale of the property to the American Bird Conservancy. Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, ABC, and Tucson Audubon collaborated on the fundraising, with most of the money coming from the birding community. ABC plans to hand over the reins to Tucson Audubon, according to Paul Green, the chapter's executive director. The group will spruce up the old house, overhaul the feeders, and offer more educational materials for visitors.

But today it's been a few hours, and still no hummingbirds. Instead, we're visited by Inca doves, acorn woodpeckers, a red-tailed hawk, and Mr. and Mrs. Johnson of Kenai, Alaska, who "stop by" every winter. When a housecat approaches from a neighboring yard (this is a place housecats fantasize about), Larry lets out a threatening hiss and fires off a pecan. All in a day's work.

This story originally ran in the March-April 2014 issue as "Haven Preserved."

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