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.
“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 stores and recent birding news.
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)