Birding

How a Small Home in Arizona Became a Global Birding Destination

Once somebody's backyard, Tucson Audubon's Paton Center for Hummingbirds attracts thousands of birders every year.

For birders searching for an abundance of species, large expanses of nature with a variety of habitats are often the best bet—but there are some extraordinary exceptions. The Paton Center for Hummingbirds is one of them. On this 1.4-acre property outside Patagonia, Arizona, visitors have recorded more than 200 bird species, including the dazzling Violet-crowned Hummingbird, within the center’s diverse, native landscape.

"Hummingbirds are so abundant they're flying up your nose," says Jonathan Lutz, executive director of Tucson Audubon and former director of the Paton Center.

The center’s modest origins date back to the mid-20th century, when Marion and Wally Paton moved into a cement block home in the small desert town of Patagonia, which today has a population of 900 residents. Bird lovers themselves, they put out feeders around their house, which became magnets for resident and migratory birds. There were sapsuckers and tanagers, redstarts and jays—and, of course, the main attraction: the Violet-crowned Hummingbird, an uncommon resident in the U.S. Birderwatchers in the area started to notice. “There were people lining up on the street and looking through the fence,” says Linda Stitt, a former friend of Marion’s who now volunteers at the center.

In other parts of the country, it might have been perceived as an invasion of privacy—but not in Patagonia. "There’s this culture of birding hospitality in southeastern Arizona," Lutz says. And so instead of shewing the onlookers away, the Patons erected a sign, which read “birdwatchers are welcome,” and opened their yard to the public. It was inviting: They set out benches, field guides, and a chalkboard where visitors could record their sightings. Sometimes, Marion would even bring out cookies, Linda says. Before long, the Paton’s home became an international birding destination. 

Though Wally died in 2001, and Marion in 2009, their residence, now in the hands of Tucson Audubon as the Paton Center for Hummingbirds,  remains a wildly popular birdwatching hotspot. In 2017 alone, the center welcomed 14,000 visitors from 20 countries and all 50 states. “Since Tucson Audubon took over ownership and management of the property in 2014, it’s worked to really maximize every square foot for the benefit of birds, butterflies, pollinating insects, and, of course, human visitors,” Lutz says. “I’ve tried to be cognizant everyday of the legacy set forth.”

If you want to spot a Violet-crowned Hummingbird in the U.S., Paton is the place. Photo: Jonathan Lutz

Earlier this month, the center’s staff and volunteers completed a wheelchair-accessible backyard viewing pavilion. They’ve also replaced invasive plants with native hummingbird favorites, like cardinal flower and sage; supplanted a livestock pasture with a wildlife-friendly meadow; and built a trail that connects the center to an adjacent nature reserve in the last few years.

All the hard work is paying off. “It is wildly full of hummingbirds—I probably saw 75 or more,” says Liz Fuller, a natural science illustrator who visited the center in 2017. “I can’t believe how much is going on there in such a tiny area.”

According to eBird, 224 bird species have been recorded at the center to date—more than the total number of species seen in the state's 150,000-acre Petrified Forest National Park. And this year alone, Audubon has already recorded 130 species, including the Violet-crowned Hummingbird, which draws scores of birders looking to check the charismatic species off their list. “This is about the only reliable location in the U.S. to see the Violet-crowned Hummingbird,” one visitor wrote on the center’s Facebook page.

There are up to 12 different hummingbird species that visit the center throughout the year, Lutz says, and then there’s a wide variety of other popular birds, from Patagonia residents like the Curve-billed Thrasher and Gambel's Quail to migrants like the bright Yellow Warbler.

What’s the secret? Native plants, Lutz says, along with proximity to the nearby reserve, managed by the Nature Conservancy. According to Lutz, the Paton property demonstrates the efficacy of native landscaping on a residential scale; in fact, he uses the center as a model for Tucson Audubon’s Habitat at Home program. 

For birders chasing diversity, now is the best time to visit, Lutz says. For those after abundance—especially of hummingbirds—late summer is better, when you can see clouds of the petite birds zipping by. And if you can't manage a visit, you can check out Paton’s live hummingbird feeder cam and nest cam, which stream video to the internet around the clock. It's not the same as visiting this birding hotspot, but at least you get to experience some of the magic. 

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