Friday, December 28, 2012

How We Found the Elegant Trogon

My wife, Mary, and I have been wanting to put this rare, hard-to-find bird into our "Life List" for more than a decade. We've been "Birding" since 1978, when I took my first Ornithology class from Kerri Fitzharris, at Grand Valley State University (GVSU).

Over the winter of 2008-09, we were blessed to spend four months in southern Arizona. We eventually found some outdoor people who knew this part of the state. After asking lots of questions of Birders in the know, we narrowed our search down to four locations.

"Your best chance to spot the Elegant Trogon is at Madera Canyon."

 So, one weekend we drove through Tucson, south to Green Valley, and SE into the Santa Rita Mountains. We hiked into the Mount Wright Wilderness for several hours, eager, anxious, binoculars ready; came back down, searched around the Sycamore canyons ---  no Trogons.

We talked to a few other Birders. "They were here the day before yesterday."


 "Maybe you could try Ramsey Canyon. I heard there were some sightings there recently." 

A few weekends later we drove through Tucson, south through Sierra Vista, and into the Huachuca Mountains. We entered the world famous Ramsey Canyon.

We began hiking. Eager. Anxious... binoculars ready. A couple of hours of hiking, produced some good birds, but not His Elegance.

To people on the trail: "Has anyone here seen the Elegant Trogon lately?"

"No, not here, but I hear reports of them around Cave Creek Ranch, near Portal." This was "Ozzie", from England, currently living in Montreal.

"Where's Portal?"

"Way to the east, near the border of New Mexico."

"Thanks Ozzie, we'll have to try it."

A few weekends later, we drove through Tucson, then way, way SE through Tombstone, down to Douglas, and back NE to Portal. Here, in the Coronado National Forest, we hiked around, and explored; eager, anxious, binoculars ready. We asked several binoculared people, "Any Elegant Trogons lately?"

"Shoulda' been here last week. A pair of Trogons was hanging out right in these woods.."


A month passed. We added several new species to our "Life List". These are first-time-in-our-life birds. In our many visits to numerous locations around southern Arizona, including Madera, Ramsey, Cave Creek, and other places. Here are just the January through mid-March, 2009 birds that we "GOT" on our "Life List" :

Painted Redstart
Mexican Jay
Vermillion Flycatcher
Orange-crowned Warbler
Hutton's Vireo
Lazuli Bunting
Dusky Flycatcher
Bell's Vireo
Magnificent Hummingbird
Canyon Towhee
Lucy's Warbler
Cassin's Vireo
American Pipit
Common Bushtit
Chihuahuan Raven
Plumbeous Vireo
Townsend's Warbler
Albert's Towhee
Black Vulture
Zone-tailed Hawk
Hepatic Tanager
Red-naped Woodpecker
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Northern Beardless Tyrannulet
Acorn Woodpecker
Nutmeg Mannikin  *(extremely rare, exotic, finch)*

But the elusive, Elegant Trogon still eluded us.

In March, 2009, we once again headed south through Tucson, SE on I-10, south on 83 to Sonoita, SW on 82 to Patagonia, and SW some more, almost to the Mexico border. We found a nice campground for our RV at Patagonia Lake State Park.

We all know how rare lakes are in Arizona. Patagonia Lake, a reservoir really, is very small, by Michigan standards, but a nice little body of water. And water attracts people and birds. The place was crawling with Birders. A good sign.

Perhaps we'll see something elegant here.

Mary and I usually prefer birding alone, just the two of us. I'm the better spotter; she's better at discerning calls. We make a great team. But since this is a known hot spot, with many species we may not know, and a good, varied habitat, we signed up for a guided Birding Hike. There were 15  others on this walk. About five had extensive experience, and were wealthy with bird knowledge.

I felt Mary and I were in the top third of the class as we walked; eager, anxious, binoculars ready. It was a good, productive hike. We saw and learned some flycatchers we had never heard of. Good waterfowl, a variety of woodpeckers, remarkable warblers. As a group, we compiled a decent list during the three and a half hour hike.

Trogon? Nope.

I was getting hungry (again), so we picked up our pace considerably, and started heading back to camp for a late lunch. We came upon three Birders, eyes fixed on a target about 20 yards into the thick brush. They kindly described the position of the bird. Birders are always cooperative, generous, and want to share the prize they spy with their eyes.

There it was! The elusive ELEGANT TROGON !!!

With our own eyes. Thank you God!

We studied him for several minutes. He seemed to be relatively stationary. So Mary offered to keep a tight track of the Trogon if I wanted to fetch my camera bag and lenses back in the pickup.

I ran, not jogged, the half mile back to the campground, grabbed my equipment, slugged some water, and started running, not jogging, the 1/2 mile back. It's tough to run with heavy lenses hanging from your shoulders and neck, but this was the Elegant Trogon! We had waited years for this opportunity. Seeing him was fantastic, but capturing him with my Canon would be a dream come true. I was praying it would still be there.

I spotted Mary, deep in the Mesquite bosque. I circled wide and came up slowly behind her. The brush was thick. The Trogon had moved a few times, but Mary was on it. Heavy branches dense with twigs obscured my view for a clean shot, so I maneuvered slowly, gradually, and discovered a small opening.

Click.   Click, click.

The Trogon moved. More slow, cautious stalking. Click, click. I was able to get a few more shots before it flew off, far off, and out of sight.

YES ! Thank you God!

We GOT our bird. The ELEGANT TROGON.

Back at the RV, we were more than happy campers. We were elated Birders.

Here, finally, is his elegance, perched on his throne:


Length: 12.5 " (32cm)

Wingspan: 16" (40cm)

Weight: 2.5 oz. (70g)

Description (Sibley) :

Stout bill with long, square-tipped tail, and unusual wing shape.
Bright red lower breast and belly, white band on breast.
Gray upper wing coverts
Luminescent green.

Description (Peterson) :

Solitary, brightly colored forest and woodland bird with short neck,
stubby bill, long tail, and very small feet.
Erect when perched. May remain motionless for long periods.
Flutters when picking berries.

Note: geranium red belly, white breast band, yellow bill, and finely barred underside of tail (coppery above).

I love all these delicious colors of course, but personally, I'm most attracted to his spectacular orange eye ring.

Food:  Small fruit and insects. 

Habitat: Mountain forests, pine-oak and sycamore canyons.

Voice: (Peterson)

Series of low, coarse notes, suggesting a hen turkey:

kowm kowm kowm kowm kowm kowm, or koa koa koa koa koa koa.

A monotonous, croaking "co-ah"

Voice: (Sibley)

A soft, hoarse, croaking,  bwarr bwarr bwarr

Sometimes a hoarse, spitting,  weck weck weck, all in a series of 5-15 notes.

Alarm call is a rapid, hoarse, bekekekekekek.

Also gives low, soft hooting or clucking notes.


Pink = Summer Range       Purple = Year round Range

"Where have you been Rich and Mary?   I've been looking for you everywhere!"

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Photo Location:   Patagonia State Park,  (Patagonia)   Santa Cruz,   Arizona  (Arizona)


Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America  Roger Tory Peterson  (Peterson)  c 2009

Sibley Guide to Birds   David Allen Sibley  (Sibley)

Elegant Trogon:  Trogon elegans