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The Lucifer Places

August 30, 2012
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I returned to Arizona two weeks ago for the first time since 1994. As you might have expected, things have changed quite a bit.  Most of the hotspots I had visited as a young Chicicahua camper were still in business, but some have passed into into history.  The Spofford’s, for instance, used to host public hummingbird feeders at the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon, but they passed away, the house was sold, and the new owners were not as amenable to visitors parking themselves around the perimeter of their backyard.  Which is a shame, because back when I was a camper the Spofford’s feeders were the default hangout for all of us in the afternoons.  The birds were epic, and I picked up my life Lucifer Hummingbird, a natty female, there.

But in the nearly 20 years since I last arrived the number of homewners opening their yards to hummingbird enthusiasts has increased dramatically.  Granted, as a 14 year old I was less interested in the stories behind the sites as I was about the birds I was finding so I didn’t really pay attention, but there appear to be infinitely more bed & breakfasts (Beds & breakfast? Beds and breakfasts) catering to nature tourists than their were back then.  This is obviously a good thing for birds and birders.  When the relative pristinity of a place affects the bottom line of a series of businesses, many time the powers that be make an effort to keep that status quo in place.

Except that Ash Canyon B&B, located near the entrance of Miller Canyon near Sierra Vista, is something of an exception.  Just over a year ago the proprietor of the B&B, Mary Jo Ballator, was involved in a contentious dispute with a neighbor over the popularity of her hummingbird feeders (something about a regular Plain-capped Starthroat will do that).  Birders sent in letters in her defense to the board of commissioners.  Our efforts were in vain, as sadly the board ruled against her, but in a bizarre bit of irony the massive fires last year claimed the house of her argumentative neighbor while leaving Ash Canyon B&B untouched.  It was clear, as our group pulled into a completely packed parking lot, that birders have come back to Mary Jo’s place in droves.  And like so many before us, we’d come for the Plain-capped Starthroat.

The feeders, numbered in counter-clockwise fashion around a central grove of shrubby trees, were swamped with hummingbirds of about a half-dozen species.  The Starthroat had been seen early in the morning and then not again since, so the odds were not in our favor.  But we enjoyed the woodpeckers, Wild Turkeys, and Mexican Jays that frequented the seed feeders in the lower part of the yard, figuring that the Starthroat’s arrival would be accompanied by a flood of spontaneous tears and cries of ecstasy.  In short, we’d know it.

But we eventually made our way up to the hummingbirds, because that’s where the action was after all, and we sat and waited with the rest of them.

It wasn’t long before a male Lucifer Hummingbird, one of the specialties of Ash Canyon, came into the feeders.  Followed by another one.  These are great birds, super tiny but with that long tail and curlew bill, set off by the glowing magenta gorget.  Sometimes rare birds fail to live up to their billing in the looks department, but this is definitely not one of those.

The name “Lucifer” is biblical in its derivation. We might recognize it as the name of the fallen angel who established hell itself, but that story didn’t come into regular usage until much later.  It was Dante in his Inferno and Milton in his Paradise Lost that made Lucifer synonymous with Satan.  Prior to that he was called the lightbringer, which in old Hebrew mythology refers to Lucifer’s escort Venus, the morning star.

So while a tiny hummingbird’s disposition might be well described as devilish, it’s that long, shaggy, gorget that brings the light and it’s name.

20 years later, from the Spofford’s to the Ballator’s, the hummingbird comes full circle.

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