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National Perspective | AMERICAN ALBUM

To bird fanciers, couple's yard is a humdinger

Many and varied are the hummingbirds, and hummingbirders, that visit Arizona pair's property.

November 12, 1998|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PATAGONIA, Ariz. — They're gone now. The cars, the dust and the people. And, alas, gone too are most of the tiny, beautifully colored birds. Flown home to Mexico on their iridescent wings.

Wally and Marion Paton can reclaim their backyard now. The bird-watchers have moved on, migrating to winter homes just as the birds do. The Patons are in their quiet time after hectic months of hosting bird fanciers from around the world, who have made the trek to the couple's modest one-acre property in the remote San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area.

They come for the hummingbirds. Southeastern Arizona has long been known as a rewarding birding area, but the Patons' backyard is a rare nexus of flight paths and habitat that attracts a stunning number and variety of hummingbirds. The couple's care and feeding of the birds ensures that they keep coming back every year. In addition to the hummingbirds native to the United States, the Patons have migratory hummers from Mexico and rarely seen "strays" that birders cherish.

Their backyard is, for months of the year, filled with hushed crowds. It may never have reached this point without a visit from what Marion calls her "money bird," the violet-crowned hummingbird. A summer visitor from Mexico, the brilliantly colored bird is rarely seen in the United States. It likes the Patons' backyard.

For intrepid birders the Patons' home is a mecca. Their address is in guidebooks, listed on the Internet and a regular stop on professionally guided tours.

That's not all. The only certified sighting of the cinnamon hummingbird in the United States was at the Patons' in 1992. Marion is proud of this but dryly notes that the woman who photographed the rare bird failed to send her a copy as promised.

When the couple moved to this remote area 24 years ago from Massachusetts, they were not bird-watchers. They were not even bird-aware at first. Not long after they arrived, Marion began to plant a flower garden. That, she noticed, attracted birds and hummingbirds. She planted more. Birders began to quietly gather on the other side of the backyard fence, which adjoins a nature preserve.

"Then I began to read about hummingbirds and what to feed them," said Marion, a whip-smart, energetic grandmother. "Then they really began to come."

The reference is to both the remarkable numbers of hummingbirds and those who would observe them. Rather than fight the crowds, the Patons happily gave over their property to bird-watchers.

A guest book testifies to the breadth of visitors who find the Patons' home along a dirt road. Alongside tourists from Europe, Japan and South America flutter the daily cast of broad-billed, black-chinned, Anna's, Costa's, Rufous' and Allen's hummingbirds.

The Patons' narrow backyard offers more comfort than birders have a right to expect or seldom, in fact, come across.

Claiming a seat on a metal folding chair in the Patons' backyard is, to birders, akin to grasping the Holy Grail. Birders are welcome to sit for hours watching the comings and goings of thirsty hummingbirds.

By now, Marion's ritual has shifted into its winter mode. The 76-year-old drags in the metal chairs and repaints them. She replaces the awning set out to offer shade to birders. She repairs the benches. She brings in her potted plants.

The crowds are not the problem they could be. Birders are notorious for their good manners. Few would think of trespassing, trampling or even speaking loudly while viewing birds in the wild. They appear to cherish the Patons.

The Patons feed the hummers by mixing as many as 12 quarts of sugar water a day and pouring it into as many as eight feeders. They used to buy sugar in 20-pound bags, but now Wally, who has emphysema, can't manage the heavy sacks.

A small coffee can labeled Sugar Fund is affixed to the back gate. Birders leave small donations and, often, offers to buy the property.

"One man, a doctor, left a note, 'Name your price,' " said Wally, 75, smiling. "Nope. Won't sell."

Money is not an issue with the Patons, who say they've never bothered to figure how much they spend to support their hummingbirds. They promptly nixed their children's idea to set up a gift shop. "Too tacky," Marion sniffed.

Marion calls birders "the darlingest people" and has made friends with hard-core watchers who return yearly with updated news of the comings and goings of children and grandchildren.

Even with the most discreet birders in their backyard, the fact remains that the Patons live with strangers aiming high-powered binoculars at the back windows of their home. Marion admits to being spied washing her hair in the kitchen sink with her blouse draped over a chair. She now washes her hair in the shower.

"People say, 'How can you live like that, with no privacy?' " Marion said, marveling. "It doesn't seem odd to me. It's wonderful to have the birds, and the people. It's all so wonderful."

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