Spring Migration and “The Paton Effect”

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During Spring migration, it’s standing room only at Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center in Patagonia, Arizona.  Birders crowd under and around the beautiful new viewing pavilion much like they did years ago under the old canopy that my parents, Wally and Marion Paton, erected in their yard.  Back then there was an assortment of chairs scattered around- metal folding, plastic lawn, a bench or two and old kitchen chairs. They brought a sense of hominess to the place.

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“Claiming a seat on a metal folding chair at Patons’ back yard is, to birders, akin to grasping the Holy Grail.” (Excerpt from Los Angeles Times, 1998, Julie Cart)

On April 14, 2019, Tucson Audubon reported 40 different species of birds at the Paton Center, as well as 8 different hummingbird species, including the bird that put the place on the map – the Violet-crowned.  This is the draw – the ability to see so many different birds – perhaps a life bird – while sitting in the company of fellow birders sharing stories and recent birding news.

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Violet-crowned Hummingbird at Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center (photo by John Hoffman)

A lot has changed since Tucson Audubon took over what was once known as Paton’s Birder Haven.  Now called the Paton Center for Hummingbirds, there are more feeders, a new Monarch Waystation, a pond and a meadow fill the area that was once our horse paddock, fruit trees have been planted to mirror my Dad’s former orchard.

But one thing has not changed and that is that people still come here by the thousands each year (last year from all 50 United States and 21 countries) not only to see the wide variety of birds, but to experience the intimacy of this rare and special place. I have often described it as the underlying essence of the place – a sense of spirit that is felt here. Recently, Tucson Audubon’s new Paton Center coordinator, Tina Hall, referred to it as “The Paton Effect.”

There are a lot of places to go and bird, but at the Patons’, it’s a real intimate feeling. People who don’t know each other sit down and make friends. We call it “The ‘Paton Effect.’” (Tina Hall, Homestead magazine article – “Sky Island Refuge” – Spring 2019)

An army of volunteers have replaced my parents –  two devoted and generous people who turned their back yard into a birding mecca. Wally & Marion Paton dedicated their later years to serving the birding community – committed to both the birds and the birders. The volunteers carry on their legacy showing up every day to keep the place going – feeding birds, digging trails and ponds, building fences, planting bushes and flowers. Each year during Spring migration I am reminded of all those who make their return journey to this paradise – a journey home of sorts for both the birds and the birders.

There are more improvements in store. Tucson Audubon recently wrapped up a successful fundraising campaign for improvements to the home. There is no doubt that improvements are needed, but it is my sincere hope that the essence of the place – the so called “Paton Effect” will never be lost. It is, I believe,  what keeps Patons on the map.

“For every person who appreciates nature and birds, this yard is a beloved home one visits to renew one’s spirit; to experience the joy of the beauty of a quick flash of metallic colors adorning these jewels of nature, and to hear a sweet courting song, a dazzling display flight, or thrill to the sight of a rare bird.

“Each and every time a birder visits this yard, they also marvel at the generosity and warmth of the lovely couple who opened their yard and welcomed birders to partake in the wonders of nature, and what my be the truly irreplaceable, priceless ingredient in the treasure that is Paton’s Birder Haven.”  – (Darlene Smyth, excerpt from Journey Home: How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy)

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Remembrance of Christmas Past – Baking with Mom

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Matthew Moon checks out an antique Ford pick up

My grandson Matthew wants me to put an antique pickup truck on my Christmas list this year − “preferably red,”  I say. He knows that for a long time I have coveted one these beauties.

I am not sure what I would do with it exactly, but for years I dreamed (or perhaps fantasized) about starting a business baking homemade pies and delivering them door to door in a truck like this one. What the intrigue is about this I don’t know, but every time I see a truck like this, I re-visit that vision.

I certainly don’t envision myself rolling endless rounds of pastry, cutting up apples, baking pumpkin and squash, or sorting through berries. I only envision the truck, piled high with boxes of various sweet, delicious pies, ready for me to jump into and begin my rounds. Perhaps one might see a flaw in my business plan and they would be right. But I will continue to bake pies and hold onto my fantasy of the antique red truck.

I do make a pretty good pie − apple is my specialty. I’ve been told by many that it is the best they have ever tasted. I once went to a pie tasting at our local Michelle Pies − a small business specializing in homemade pies. I tasted their apple − I think mine is better.

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My specialty − Apple Crumb pie

I learned to bake from my mother. People used to say that Marion Paton is always feeding someone and they were right. The kitchen is the place where my mother and I connected best − maybe because that is where you would find her most often. Growing up on a farm with an ample supply of milk, cream and eggs, we ate dessert every night.

“Saturday mornings were designated for baking dessert to last the week − pies, cookies and milk-based desserts: custards, grape nut and Indian puddings, cream puffs filled with custard and a holiday favorite called Lemon Snow Pudding. Our favorite cookies were New England standards: snickerdoodles, chocolate chip, and peanut butter. Snickerdoodles are basically a butter cookie rolled in a mixture of cinnamon and sugar before baking; creating the characteristic cracked top when baked. The origin of snickerdoodles remains a mystery. Some claim that it has German origins; others say it has Dutch origins. I like to believe the theory that they originated in New England and are just nonsense words with no particular meaning, following a local tradition of naming cookies whimsical names like “Cry Babies,” “Jumblies,” and “Plunkets.” Excerpt from Journey Home – How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy by Bonnie Paton Moon

The kitchen was my mother’s and mine alone every Saturday morning − for hours. Sometimes, perhaps when we were getting tired of filling the counter with pies, cakes and cookies, we would  get giddy. I remember one time in particular that the mixer went a little haywire throwing flour and chunks of butter all over the counter − we couldn’t stop laughing. It was really these moments of occasional, shared laughter that I loved most about this time together.

Every year that I have been married (almost 49 years now) I have made my mother’s Lemon Snow Pudding for Christmas. It was a tradition I started to honor my Mom, who used to make it every Christmas, and the special times we shared in the kitchen. It’s a simple recipe of lemon juice, sugar, beaten eggs whites in a gelatin base covered in thick, creamy custard sauce − delicious after a big holiday meal. The fact that the base is white and fluffy, reminiscent of snow, makes it the perfect Christmas treat.

Mom and Bonnie in the kitchen - PBH (2)

Mom and me in the kitchen at Paton’s Birder Haven

This year I have decided to make my Dad’s favorite bar cookies – Date Nut Squares. I will send them to the Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds in honor of the staff and volunteers who continue to keep Wally & Marion Paton’s legacy alive and thriving. They have recently built a small nook in the kitchen, right next to the old kitchen table, where we would sit for hours watching the birds in their now famous backyard. The nook is for the volunteers to help themselves to coffee and perhaps a light refreshment while they carry out the many chores of running a world-renowned birding sanctuary.

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Marion Paton’s Handwritten Recipe for Date Nut Squares −Wally Paton’s favorite

 

“Mom later went on to a career in the food industry, first working at Fay School in the cafeteria, then the local regional high school cafeteria; then as manager of the school lunch program in Patagonia, Arizona, until her retirement in 1990. Someone once remarked ‘Marion is always feeding someone − family, friends, strangers, animals − domestic and wild’” Excerpt from Journey Home – How a Simple Act of Kindness led to the Creation of a Living Legacy.

Journeying Home Again

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I hadn’t journeyed home to Patagonia in awhile, but this trip was a celebration I would not miss – the three-year reunion of Paton supporters who had been instrumental in “saving” Paton’s Birder Haven. The weekend also marked Tucson Audubon’s Capital Campaign Kick-off to fund improvements to the house. While there, I had the great honor of sharing from my book, Journey Home: How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy” — the story about my parents, Wally & Marion Paton and the creation of their world-renowned birdwatching backyard.

Entering the yard, so familiar, yet different now, I was immediately struck by all the improvements completed by Tucson Audubon Society since my last visit two years ago. My first stop – the Paton Legacy Sign erected in the front yard. What a thrill to see my parents honored for creating this birding mecca that still attracts thousands of visitors each year from all parts of the globe. While reading the sign, a couple from British Columbia approached — their first visit to Paton’s. “Where do we pay?” was their first question to me. “There is no entrance fee,” I replied — a tradition my parents established decades ago and continues today. The “sugar fund,” originally an old coffee can hung on the fence,  now a spiffy donation box, remains strictly voluntary.

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Paton Legacy Sign, Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds, April 2017

After three glorious days during which Paton supporters were treated to some fabulous spring migration birding, tours of the property by various Tucson Audubon staff involved in improvement projects, talks by hummingbird expert, Sheri Williamson, of Southern Arizona Birding Observatory (SABO) and Jesus Garcia, Director of the Kino Heritage Fruit Tree Project at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, it was time to say goodbye once again.

As I wandered the property on that last day, I spent a few moments in the yard reflecting at some special spots. My Dad’s pecan tree still thrives in the back yard, bigger and more robust than ever, still producing a good amount of pecans each year. I sat a good while on my parents’ memorial bench and reflected on the beauty and peacefulness of this place — the land they had nurtured for decades, still loved and nurtured. The bench had been positioned near to the site of my Dad’s former orchard in the front yard. Plans to re-establish an orchard here are underway. Jonathan Horst, Restoration Ecologist, is heading up that project.

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Wally Paton’s pecan tree, still thriving

I stopped to remember my Mom’s rose garden in the front yard, ready to pop with bloom — her passion. I sat on a bench in the Richard Grand Memorial Meadow with Carol and Paul Lamberger, long-time Paton supporters. We sat for a good while at this peaceful spot overlooking the newly created pond — all possible because of the kindness and generosity of Marcia Grand and the hard work of Tucson Audubon staff and volunteers.

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Marion Paton’s Rose Garden in the background ready to bloom

Then a very special moment happened. As I was getting in the car to leave,  Carol Lamberger inquired if the rose bushes in the front yard were my mothers. “Yes,” I answered, “she loved roses. We would always gift one or several at Mother’s Day.” Carol smiled and then promised to take special care of them for me. And in that moment I was reminded of the special magic that surrounds Patons — it seems to bring out the very best in people — it always did and continues to do so. It is the underlying essence of the place and that spirit of kindness and generosity that my parents exemplified that will continue in perpetuity. In addition, of course, to remaining one of the top birding sites in the world.

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Sitting in the Richard Grand Memorial Meadow (former Paton horse paddock) with the Lambergers

Watch a short video of how Paton’s began: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5L_dheYoQBQ