Bird Watching Mecca

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on February 3, 2002

Portal, Ariz., is for the birds—and the birders.

This remote hamlet in the extreme southeast corner of Arizona is barely known among residents of the state but is a hot spot among bird watchers from all over the country. Densely wooded mountains, open meadows, and sycamore-lined Cave Creek lure birds from Mexico rarely seen anywhere else in the United States.

Birders, like the feathered creatures they seek, flock to Portal with the hope of adding a few much-sought-after species to their list of sightings. High on those lists are hummingbirds—the desert’s avian jewels. Alert observers might get a glimpse of several types, including the tiniest calliope, the Allen’s, the Anna’s, the rufous, the blue-throated, the black-chinned, and the broad-tailed hummingbird. Whereas most states have no more than 2-4 hummingbird species, Portal has 12 species of hummers in summer, three in winter. Other rare birds include the Aztec thrush, the yellow grosbeak, and the blue mockingbird.

But top billing goes to the elegant trogon, a colorful bird whose name reflects its beauty as well as its standing. Trogon season—from April through September—is the busiest time of year in Portal. After a day or two in town, anyone should be able to identify the exotic bird. Its image is everywhere—on postcards, T-shirts, and paintings.

One longtime resident with an enviable bird list is Sally Spofford. The Cornell University ornithologist’s decision to retire in Portal was a natural one.

“It was because of all the wildlife,” Spofford says, “and the fact that there were eminent scientists here. It also was secluded at the time.”

That was back in 1972. By most people’s standards today, Portal still is secluded. Pavement seems to be optional on the town’s thoroughfares. Some of its 60 residents bemoan the relatively recent appearance of street signs naming dusty lanes.

Besides birds, bears drop in from time to time, one of them regularly raiding Spofford’s bird feeders. The coati, a long-nosed cousin of the raccoon, wanders the area in bands, its long, ringed tail held flagpole straight. And between dusk and dawn, the javelina ambles through on dainty cloven hooves.

The nearest gas station is nearly 10 miles away in Rodeo, N.M. It’s a longer haul for groceries, with the closest supermarket about 60 miles distant in Douglas, Ariz.

Mary Reece at the Portal Store and Café helps keep the town fed between grocery runs. The store carries the basics, and the café serves solid home-style meals for breakfast, lunch, and supper.

“It wasn’t much when we bought it,” says Reece, who moved to Portal 16 years ago. Business is booming now, though. When the birders vacate, hunters fill the gap in between. “We’re busy now all year-round.”

Reece’s business is the heart of the town, such as it is. Ranchers in jeans and cowboy boots mingle with khaki-clad birders with binoculars slung around their necks. The crowd also includes scientists from the American Museum of Natural History’s Southwest Research Station five miles up the road.

Locals are friendly to respectful visitors, and Spofford even opens her yard up to them. She lives next to Cave Creek Ranch—a former hunting lodge in a scenic setting, with comfortable rooms and cottages, that decades ago made the change to the birding clientele. A path meanders between the ranch and Spofford’s place. Spofford sets out chairs and benches amphitheater-style around her feeders, making visitors both welcome and comfortable. Hospitality is not lost in Portal.

“It just seems the nice thing to do,” Spofford says.

Bear, coati, and trogon included.