Hummingbirds galore

At Shirlene DeSantis's Arizona b&b, there are three categories of guest: laid-back 'porch-potatoes', fanatical birdwatchers - and 14 varieties of hummingbird for them to watch. Rob Nixon on a twitcher's paradise
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHEN Shirlene DeSantis's parents died eight years ago, she inherited a tumbledown mountain house near Arizona's Mexican border. She was in her late forties at the time, living in Alaska, and fed-up with the northern dark. So she traded her job for sunshine and moved into the old family home on the edge of Ramsey Canyon. But work in Southern Arizona is about as plentiful as daylight in Anchorage. The canyon had only one thing going for it, hummingbirds galore. So why not, Shirlene deduced, convert those hummingbirds into cash-cows?

"That," Shirlene explains, "was how the world's first hummingbird b&b got started." She tugs vaguely at her springy red hair, points to the mass of birdlets hovering above her veranda. They tilt in and out the sun, flaring like tiny fireworks. Each weighs less than a penny: they make sparrows look like gulls.

Shirlene's scheme was simple. Entice the "hummers," as she calls them, with vats of sugar water, then let the hummers lure humans to her inn. The birds now crowd her scarlet feeders, while birders fill her rooms and cottages. You can view 14 types of hummer from the patio, breakfast coffee mug in your hand.

Shirlene has tricked out her rooms with quirky collectables - a legacy of the silver and copper boom days. Her establishment has an almost English feel: it's floral, homely, and you can hear, as you drop off to sleep, the tinkle of a nearby brook.

There the hints of England end. Opening a b&b on the Mexican frontier is a different prospect from running one in Bronte or Peter Rabbit Country. The gun-laws for one thing. In the towns here, you are free to tout your weaponry in the stores, so long as it's unloaded. Such conspicuous reverence for firearms, together with the homicide rate, makes most Westerners leery of inviting paying visitors into their homes. So in southern Arizona the b&b concept is even more exotic than the birds.

The breakfast fodder and the company are also decidedly New World. On my first morning I was tucking into blue corn pancakes with walnuts, link sausages, maple syrup, and cream when I heard a bzoom-bzooming in my ear. I assumed some guest had brought his razor to table and was still tidying up his chin.

Then I noticed a party of hummers tanking up on sugar water at the window not four feet from where I was sitting. Bedecked in red, blue and violet sequins, they seemed too bright too early in the day; little Gary Glitters, breakfasting in last night's disco gear. Each morning, the hummingbirds and I gazed at each other as we supped our respective syrups. Shirlene's gourmet cooking is liable to send you into your own turbo-charged sugar shock. Everything is delectable, but some of it lies at the outer limit of what non-Americans can digest on waking - like French toast sandwiches fried with a cream cheese filling, accompanied by spicy sausages and strawberry or apricot syrup.

Collectively, Shirlene's birds slurp up five gallons of syrupy water a day. They are sugar-burning machines living at a furious pace: 300 breaths, 300 wing beats, 1,200 heart beats a minute. To match a Rufous hummingbird's daily calorie intake relative to its weight, a 170lb person would have to wolf 1,000 14-lb burgers.

Late each afternoon, I settle into a patio rocker with a wedge of home- baked blueberry pie balanced on my lap. The hummers come cruising in for their Martinis, that final sugar fix before sundown. They bully each other for position. Buzz, buzz, buzz, jerk, jerk, jerk. They're the only birds equipped with a reverse gear. They don't so much fly as park in the air. There's something soothing about watching someone else's perpetual frenzy, like a Lilliputian re-enactment of the New York I've left behind: sudden swerves, suspended deals, emotional barrel rolls, liquid lunches on the run. Next to these guys, Times Square is languid.

I'm joined by a wiry man with an amply veined neck, now retired from the military. Nearby Sierra Vista, he says proudly, is the Surveillance Capital of America; 30 miles from Mexico, it is bursting with border patrols and spy satellites. The two of us sit for a while talking surveillance and watching a shiny squadron of hummers execute microcomputerised precision manoeuvres.

The major has transferred his technical know-how from missiles to birds. He is full of rapid-fire commentary. A group of Costa's hummingbirds are jostling for a hit: "Yep, those guys sure are gas-guzzlers. Being a hummingbird is like driving an automobile with a one-gallon tank. Life is nothing but tanking up and tanking up. Gotta spend the whole darn day at the bar."

He speaks in a dusty voice that sounds in permanent need of a drink. Hummingbirds, he explains, have no sense of smell. This is an extraordinary evolutionary faux pas. You design a creature to spend its whole life up a flower and then neglect to equip it with smell. But the major is adamant: "Believe you me, sir. That there hummer couldn't tell a hog-nosed skunk from a hibiscus."

The spider mite, he explains, is different. When a hummer beak penetrates a bloom, the mites leap out and lodge themselves in the bird's nostrils. They hitch around that way and refuse to disembark until the beak enters another flower with the perfume of their choice. Insects and hummers, I learn, have divided up their pollination duties. Insects are blind to red and orange and typically neglect those flowers. Hummingbirds pick up the slack: they are crazy for red, scornful of all the rest.

Next day, at the major's insistence, I test his sight-and-smell theory. I put on a fire-engine shirt and take a tour of the grounds. Sure enough, within minutes a magnificent hummingbird starts to probe me for my nectar- bearing capacity.

Visitors to Ramsey Canyon Inn divide into two types. There are the truly idle birdwatchers, porch-potatoes who just happen to prefer birds to TV. Then there are restless frontier-wannabes for whom a bird seen near a house is not a bird at all. They glance at the hummers, then head straight up the canyon trail that snakes from the inn through the Nature Conservancy Preserve.

One morning, along the trail, I come upon a crumbling man-made pond. The guidebook tells me it's a relic from the late 19th century, when Arizona's elite would ride into these mountains - four days from Phoenix on horseback - to escape the summer heat. I notice a thin-haired man kneeling by the pond and scowling at the water. His leather jacket bulges with notebooks. He beckons me over. "Those hummingbirds are nothing. Have you seen the frog?" He has flown from Frankfurt for the frog. Pointing to a dot on the far bank, he raises a finger to his lips: "Now you are one of the only persons in the world to know the Ramsey Canyon Leopard Frog. Nobody see him before 1988. Two thirds of this frog live in this little, little pond."

The Ramsey Canyon Frog's great distinction, I am told, is that it is the only amphibian to whistle underwater. It's a very froggy looking frog. I stare at it, try to feel lucky, then slog on up the trail.

A mile later I reach a steep and sudden overhang. Five turkey vultures - the "buzzards" in John Wayne movies - are cruising the gorge below. I scramble down to the waterfall at the base and discover the cause of their curiosity: a mule deer carcass festering beneath a tarpaulin of yellow butterflies.

By the time I return to the inn, the sun is sinking fast behind the Pinyon oaks and Alligator junipers. The brigadier waves a notebook at me; this morning he startled a bobcat with a squirrel in its mouth. The last of the hummers gather round the bar in a flash of violet sequins, cobalt and emerald and azure. Shirlene appears, to tie up her feeders for the night. She drapes them in plastic packets. "Gotta shut down the bar. Or those darn Mexican long-nosed bats will come over and drink us dry."

! The Ramsey Canyon Inn is at 31 Ramsey Canyon Road, Sierra Vista (001 520 378 3010). Ramsey Canyon Road is off South Highway 92, seven miles south of Sierra Vista, Arizona. The inn is only accessible by car. The guesthouse has six rooms, which are available from $90-$105 (pounds 60-pounds 75) per night. For local tourist information, call the Sierra Vista Visitor Centre on 001 520 458 6940.