I opened the curtains to look at the feeders in Richard Fray’s ‘yard’ before 6am on Thursday morning and all the birds flew away. But then they came back and from my bed I saw two lifers – canyon towhee and varied bunting. How great is that?
And there were curve-billed thrashers and jackrabbits and antelope mice thingies. On the hummingbird feeders there was a small hummingbird on one and a large hummingbird on the other. Hummingbirds are pretty difficult to identify until you get used to them – and I am still very much feeling my way.
But without binoculars it was easy to see that one was big and the other was small (well, of course, being hummingbirds they were both tiny but one was a monster hummingbird compared with the other).
I looked at the small one first, maybe because small is beautiful, but also because I am clueless about hummingbirds, and identified it easily – although for the life of me I can’t remember which one it was as we’ve been talking about the other one ever since. Maybe the small one was a black-chinned – I like them a lot.
But the other one was tricky. As you flick through the pages of Sibley it is often the case that none of the birds on the pages seem to resemble the one you have in front of you. This is not to say that David Sibley can’t draw birds, he most certainly can, but it just feels that ‘your bird’ is missing sometimes.
And then you find the bird but it is the wrong size or lives in the wrong place or isn’t quite right. So I went to the loo instead. When I came back the bird had gone. But it came back to the same spot on the same feeder so I had another go. And then it went. It was large, it was in Richard’s garden and it had two very obvious light stripes on its head. The house finches and lesser goldfinches were pretty and I knew what they were.
Pretty soon Richard and I made contact and I told him about the hummer – and he got quite excited. Whichever large species it was it was new for his ‘yard’ and on the basis of what I had said about it and time of year etc then it may have been a plain-capped starthroat which would be a rare bird. But then again it might have been a ‘funny looking’ commoner species so we’ll never know- except I have a feeling Richard will be glancing at the hummingbird feeders even more often for the next few days
We spent some time waiting for the sky to darken with the slow flaps of the wings of giant hummingbirds – but it didn’t happen so we headed off for breakfast and more birds – many of them hummingbirds.
By the side of the road, withing five minutes of breakfast, I had three lifers; tropical kingbird, black-bellied whistling-duck and gray hawk (and another roadrunner soon after).
We saw a whole bunch of birds before parting at lunchtime but three stops (which didn’t involve too many sparrows) were particularly good.
At the Paton House in Patagonia we met Larry Morgan who looks after a huge array of hummingbird feeders, seed feeders, brush piles, fat balls, cut open fruit and water sources. You can go into the yard and watch birds but a donation for sugar is welcome and was readily given by me.
There were birds everywhere, including hummingbirds, but the star was the violet-crowned hummingbird which appeared as soon as we arrived. This is a lovely bird and when it is just a matter of feet away from you it is a special experience. This backgarden is ‘the’ place to see it in the USA.
Actually the star was probably Larry who comes from Mississippi and has a southern drawl. I told him he had a lovely accent and he told me that he had Scots-Irish ancestors and some Welsh too. I think it was south USA rather than South Wales that gave him that voice. He is the ‘Ambassador to the birds’ and a lovely man – looking after a ‘yard’ to die for.
We stopped at a pull-in, or layby, where we added yellow-breasted chat, canyon wren (a bird I missed completely on my last trip and, until I had Richard’s help, on this one too) and thick-billed kingbird. Having seen this undoubted thick-billed kingbird I am 99% sure that I did see one on the scenic drive in the Organpipe Cactus National Monument.
Then off we went to another backyard, that of Mary Jo Ballator at Ash Canyon B&B. Mary Jo is a lovely lady and appeared with an African gray parrot on her shoulder. We talked of birds and gun laws, hummingbirds and the Selfish Gene, fires and feeders with Mary Jo and her son (and her parrots) while we watched Bewick’s wrens, more hummingbirds, ladder-backed woodpeckers and blue grosbeaks.
This is the place to see lucifer hummingbird, and other rarities, but I was very happy just chatting and getting great views of lots of common species. It was a wrench to leave, and if I am ever back that way then I would think of taking B&B there for the conversation and the birds. If you visit, and birders are welcome just to come and look, then please make a donation for the feeder costs.
This was the parting of the ways for Richard and me – I thanked him for providing me with about 45 new species for the trip of which about 25 or more were lifers. If you want to see birds in a foreign land then a guide like Richard is a good investment. I like to find my own birds at home – and by ‘home’ I’d include much of Europe! – but when you are a fish out of water a guide can help you an awful lot. If I were contemplating a week in south east Arizona I think I’d try to find birds on my own for 4-5 days and employ a guide for 2-3 days to get the most out of the visit.
Having said that I had to get on the road, I allowed myself an hour in Tombstone enjoying the Wild West – it was an impulse thing. I didn’t plan to do it, but I did it – and I enjoyed it too.
But the miles don’t drive themselves so it was onto the freeway and heading east. As I entered New Mexico I waved goodbye to Arizona. Each time (twice) I have visited Arizona I have thought that I could live there.
And as I entered New Mexico I gave back an hour of time. And as I drove east along the freeway I passed signs saying ‘Dust-storms may occur’ which seemed very philosophical (or perhaps just vague). But what wasn’t vague was that I saw a South Carolina plate at last!
I may not know my hummingbirds but I am a pretty mean shot at reading state plates.
Richard Fray’s websites: