“In most social situations, it would be rude to shout out the arrival of a good bird, but at the Paton Center for Hummingbirds, it would be rude not to interrupt,” said Louie Dombroski one recent afternoon.
Exclaiming “calliope hummingbird!” to groups of birdwatching visitors is just part of the job for Dombroski, the official Resident Birder at the Center since 2020.
Located on the outskirts of Patagonia off Pennsylvania Avenue, Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds is a two-acre preserve providing habitat for birds and plant life in the Sonoita Creek area. Started informally in the 1970s by homeowners Wally and Marion Paton, the Paton Center has been owned and operated since 2014 by Tucson Audubon. Each year it draws visitors from around the world, attracted by both the volume and wide variety of hummingbirds that come to this special place.
Resident Birder Dombroski, who lives in a casita on the property, is on the Center’s grounds from dawn to dusk most days of the week, managing the property, overseeing volunteers, managing hummingbird care, and of course, welcoming and interacting with visitors.
“I really like showing people new birds,” he said, “and when I do, I relive the wonderful experience of seeing that bird for the first time. One of the rare hummingbirds to visit the Paton Center is the violet-crowned. Visitors here learn about the violet-crowned, whether they want to or not.”
Each morning, Dombroski and a dedicated team of volunteers fill the Centers’ 16 hummingbird feeder stations. (On busy days, they have to fill the feeders again in the late afternoon.) Volunteers mix the hummingbird food in the kitchen of the Paton house then go out to the feeder stations to do the refilling. The volunteers are individuals and couples, mostly from Patagonia and Sonoita, but others come from as far away as Sierra Vista, Hereford, Tucson and Marana.
Depending on the season, there are between 20 and 30 volunteers; some work several days a week, some one day a week, some once a month. There are several floaters who fill in as needed. A volunteer scheduler makes sure that all days are covered. Dombroski humbly considers himself one member of the team. “I help with the feeding, but it’s the volunteers who do most of the work,” he emphasized.
Dombroski’s love of birds started at the age of four or five. Since 1983, he has bounced back and forth between Michigan, where he grew up, and Arizona, doing field jobs. A degree in zoology from Michigan State University led him to work at Audubon’s White Fish Point Bird Observatory in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. During the ‘90s he worked for four years at the Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon. He’s also done a spell in the office of a nature travel company, and compiled breeding bird surveys.
Dombroski has birded all over the United States, from Alaska to Florida, and traveled to birding hotspots abroad, including Costa Rica and Colombia. His “life list”—the list of different birds a birder has spotted over one’s lifetime—numbers nearly 700.
Four years ago, the couple who had been resident birders at the Paton Center left for other work. Dombroski applied for the job but didn’t get it. A year later he received an email asking if he would still be interested in what was then a three-month job — he said he was and got the job. When Covid happened, the Center closed for a year, and Tucson Audubon wanted someone on the property for the duration. The job became a ten month-a-year position. Each year since then Dombroski’s contract has been renewed.
He has had a lot of experience with birds, and with birders of all levels.
“I especially enjoy people visiting from the East who have only ever seen a ruby-throated hummingbird,” said Dombroski. ”Every day this summer we had at least five species of hummers to show visitors, and some days as many as eight. And because I bird all over the place in Southeast Arizona, I can refer people seeking a specific bird to a particular location where they can find that bird.” At the Paton Center alone 252 species of birds have been spotted.
Now, later in life, Dombroski has a passion to learn more about butterflies and native plants. His new quest has made him sympathetic to people who start birding later in life.
“I am told I have patience,” he said. “I am good at birds and am now ready to learn more about butterflies and plants.”
Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds is located at 477 Pennsylvania Ave in Patagonia. There is no charge for admission. Donations may be left in the large red metal box near the kiosk at the entrance. More information: tucsonaudubon.org/paton-center