A male Montezuma quail. (Courier file)

This past week, I took advantage of the long holiday weekend to make a trip down to Sierra Vista to deliver six donated pairs of Vortex binoculars to the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary. This property was formerly known as the Ash Canyon Bed & Breakfast. The property is no longer a B&B, but is still what is known as a “pay yard.” Individuals can go birding on the property for a small fee. 

The concept of pay yards is not new. Back in 2008, I visited a pay yard in the Rio Grande Valley when I went birding there. I added three species to my life list in that yard — common pauraque, black-throated green warbler and painted bunting. I was so excited to see each of these species — species I had longed to see for years and years.

In prime bird watching areas, such as southeastern Arizona, this is a way for private home owners to create revenue by opening up their yards to birders for a small fee. Interestingly, most pay yards have a “signature” bird that makes their property very desirable for birders to visit.

For example, the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary is famous for being a reliable place to see a rare Mexican species of hummingbird called a Lucifer’s hummingbird. Bird watchers literally come from all over the United States to visit the sanctuary just for the purpose of seeing that one species, so they can add it to their life list.

Another pay yard in the Sierra Vista area is property owned by the Beatty family, in Miller Canyon. The signature bird at that location is the white-eared hummingbird. Again, individuals come to Arizona to specifically visit their property, just to see that one species and add it to their life list.

While in Sierra Vista this past weekend, my wife and I stayed at the Battiste Bed, Breakfast and Birds property. In addition to being a B&B, it is also a pay yard. Their signature bird species is the smallest species of owl in the world — the elf owl. Elf owls have nested in their backyard every year since at least 2004.  Individuals simply drive up to their yard, pay the token fee, walk into the backyard, take a seat, and enjoy seeing elf owls. 

While the concept of visiting pay yards may be new to you, it is an incredibly efficient way to see rare birds that you would have a very, very difficult time finding on your own out in nature. Here is a case in point — while in Sierra Vista this past weekend, site stewards at the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary told me that Montezuma quail come into the yard each evening around 5 p.m.

Finding a Montezuma quail out in nature is not an easy task, so I went back that evening, joining several other birders at the property. License plates included Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.  We got situated in comfortable chairs and waited for the birds to come into the yard. Sure enough, a pair of striking Montezuma quail showed up and fed for 15 to 20 minutes, affording all of us great looks at this elusive bird species.

This past weekend I added a new life bird — a flame tanager — to my North American life list by visiting a pay yard. The tanager has been hanging out just above the Beatty’s property in Miller Canyon. I paid my five dollars, and after about two hours of birding, I finally got a couple of good looks at this rare bird.

The next time you go birding you might consider visiting a pay yard. Until next week, Happy Birding, and be well!

Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn, with two locations in northern Arizona—Prescott and Flagstaff.  Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years.  If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at eric@jaysbirdbarn.com.