Halfway through my first evening at Quailway Cottage, I begin to suspect the place has been misnamed. Located 5 miles from Southeastern Arizona’s Cave Creek area, near Portal, the 600-square-foot cottage was named for the Gambel’s quail that are year-round residents here.
But on this September day, most of the action is at the hummingbird feeders. The air is thick with whirs and squeaks. Making use of the cottage’s birding guides, I pick out scores of broad-tailed and rufous hummingbirds. Even the tiny calliope — the smallest feathered creature in the United States — makes an appearance.
Flipping through the visitors journal, I realize I’m not alone in my fascination with these gem-like creatures. I feel a kinship with the caretaker when I read her opening entry. “Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy and celebration,” she has written. “The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning, and that laughter is one of life’s sweetest creations.”
Hummingbirds inspired even the poet Keats, and it’s easy to see why. Extraordinary fliers, some ruby-throated hummingbirds cross the Gulf of Mexico without rest. Hummingbirds fly at full speed almost from takeoff, and stop as abruptly. They can fly in any direction with ease, hover motionless and fly upside down. Curious, bold and exceptionally brave, hummingbirds seem to live with the intensity of a pure, blue flame. And Southern Arizona is one of the best places to see them.
The caretaker tells me Quailway Cottage is popular with herpetologists and hikers, but birding is the main attraction. The most popular season here is spring, with birders descending for spring migration. I discover on my trip, however, that the reverse migration in fall has its own pleasures. These include apples picked fresh from the trees. There are six types of apple trees here — all organic — including a graft from a tree Johnny Appleseed is said to have planted.
Sitting on the back porch, watching the dozen or so bird feeders, I find more than just hummingbirds, of course. I do spot a covey of the namesake quail, as well as curved-billed thrashers; pyrrhuloxia; acorn, Gila and ladder-backed woodpeckers; Bullock’s orioles; cactus wrens; and mourning, inca and white-winged doves.
I sit, captivated, until distant lightning illuminates a darkening sky and the sound of crickets replaces the chatter of birds. I sit so long, I nearly go hungry.
Quailway Cottage has a full kitchen, but I have not come prepared. So I head into nearby Rodeo, New Mexico. But just past 7 on a Tuesday night, the restaurant, bar and market are dark. The market and restaurant in Portal is also closed by the time I get there, though a kindly store clerk lets me in and allows me to buy a few supplies. I settle for a can of soup and microwave popcorn, and head back to the cottage.
Nothing about the cottage is fancy. But it contains that kitchen, laundry facilities and an amazing backyard, with a watering hole and bird feeders of every type. It’s also private. And quiet — at least until morning, when the air fills again with the chatter of the birds.
152 W. Portal Road