of the Elegant Trogon
Copyright © 2011
by Richard S. Platz, All
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Madera Canyon, Arizona, March 29, 2009
Photos by the Author and Barbara
Lane Except Where Noted
My brother, George my only brother
wanted to see an Elegant Trogon. He didn't say why. George
occasionally gets it into his head that seeing a particular
bird is important. Even urgent. He can get a tad obsessive about
George has had his successes. For example, years
ago he cajoled Barbara and me into meeting him and his wife,
Andrea, and daughter Susan in Aransas, Texas, to see the last
of the Whooping Cranes. A splendid species on the brink of extinction,
the Whooping Crane idles its winters in the lagoons and coastal
grasslands of the Gulf Coast, apparently waiting to die off.
George paid for our guided boat tour. Captain Ted offered a
money-back guarantee that we would see Whooping Cranes. We saw
On another occasion, George led us to the Willcox
Playa in Southeast Arizona, where one morning we watched thousands
of yodeling Sand Hill Cranes swarm in from Mexico and swirl
down in a feathered cyclone to the dry alkali sink. It was spectacular.
Once on the ground, however, these magnificent aviators had
all the charm of feedlot turkeys.
But the Elegant Trogon was something else altogether.
There were no money-back guarantees. We would be searching for
a solitary male hiding in the mesquite and the sycamores and
cottonwoods at the bottom of a canyon. A long shot at best.
The Elegant Trogon is a big, brightly-colored,
parrot-like bird, common as dirt in mainland Mexico. Only a
few wayward birds make their way into the canyons of Southeast
Arizona each Spring, seeking mates, and that was where George
insisted on seeing his Elegant Trogon. He refused to pay plane
fare to Mexico. That, he insisted, would be cheating.
Our first fruitless search was in early March
of 2008. We spent a night at the rustic Portal Peak Lodge in
the town of Portal on the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains.
In the morning we entered the wilderness and strolled up Cave
Creek Canyon watching and listening for the elusive Trogon.
The usual birds were there. Acorn woodpeckers. Mexican jays.
A bridled titmouse. But no Trogon. Not a caw. Nothing.
A year later the Internet birding sites were
abuzz with news of an Elegant Trogon spotted in Madera Canyon
in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. So
we reserved casitas at the Santa Rita Lodge, right on the creek.
At the hub of the sightings. Each of our rooms had a big picture
window that opened out on the wooded canyon below.
The place was a Mecca for birders. Someone reported
seeing a Trogon early that morning on the pyracantha bush just
down the road by a grassy meadow. The news excited my brother.
"Wouldn't it be something," he chortled, "if
a Trogon landed on a branch right outside our windows."
"For that to happen," I speculated,
"God would have to love you very much."
We tried the pyracantha bush that evening, and
again early the following morning, but our destiny seemed not
to involve Elegant Trogons. None appeared. So we drove to several
birding hot spots and hiked down into the canyon. A path led
along the trickling stream among the rocks and trees. It was
a pleasant enough place to visit, even without a Trogon, and
well worth the trip. We saw some colorful birds. A vermillion
fly-catcher. Painted redstarts. Spotted towhees. An hepatic
tanager. And more species of hummingbird than I considered decent.
But no Trogon.
When we returned to the lodge for lunch, rumors
were flying faster than prairie falcons. Someone had seen the
Elegant Trogon far up the canyon. Someone else had seen it down-canyon
in the woods. Suddenly a new report electrified the small clusters
of birders: a Trogon had been seen moving south down the canyon
toward the lodge! I suggested we loop down into the canyon from
the north and meet it.
We rushed to our rooms to pee and gather binoculars
and cameras and granola bars for the hike. Suddenly Barbara
and I were startled by a pounding on our door. It was George.
"I just saw it out my window!" he yelped.
"On a branch. Right out the window. Not ten feet away!"
We rushed to our own window. Saw nothing. Then
hurried down to his room. He pointed to a dead branch just outside
the glass. The bird had flown off.
Out in the parking lot George told a knot of
birders. Reverently they fanned out, working their binocular
straps like rosaries. "There he is!" someone shouted
from the roadway. Everyone rushed over to peer into the wooded
thicket below the lodge. "I think he flew off."
"Butch's got him," called a woman.
Beside her, Butch was tweaking the focus of his spotting scope.
"Down there," he said without looking up. "On
that curved branch. Above the dead log."
I raised my binoculars and thought I caught a
flash of red flying away.
"He's moving again!"
"I've got him," someone called. Everyone
shifted position and gazed down into the chaos of the thicket.
Finally I saw him, or thought I did. A tiny distant
speck of color on a stubby branch. We all got a brief look before
he flew back up the creek. The birders followed him south along
the canyon rim. But we hurried north, away from the crowd. In
less than a quarter mile we climbed down a steep trail into
George and Barbara hiked south along the trail,
which was out of the flood plain, maybe fifty feet above the
creek. I chose to pick my way through the rocks and fallen branches
along the stream bank as stealthily as I could. No one said
a word as we crept along, scanning the canopy for our bird.
Suddenly we heard a loud hoarse croaking. Barbara
and my brother were both waving at me and pointing, trying to
silently communicate something urgent. I thought they were pointing
past me, so I turned to scour the far bank for sign of the Trogon.
Seeing nothing, I turned back. My hiking partners had grown
more agitated, pointing right at me.
"Right there!" came a loud whisper.
I searched the ground around me. Nothing.
"Up! Look up!"
there he was, a few feet from my face, perched on a branch right
above me. The Elegant Trogon. Bright red belly. White breast
band. Dark green head. Yellow beak. Long, blunt tail. With bold
curiosity he had been observing our ridiculous pantomime.
a long time he sat in amused silence trying to discover what
these featherless bipeds were that had entered his territory.
And what they would do. I had time to click a couple of quick
photos of the backlit bird before the Trogon flew straight at
Barbara and George and landed on a branch just above my brother's
head. The Trogon was checking him out. Communicating. Enjoying
a game of mutual discovery.
George fumbled for his video camera and began
shooting. Straight up, ten feet. Unfortunately he had not had
time to fine tune the exposure and focus. The results would
be a blur.
The Trogon watched him filming, in no hurry to
move on. Curious creatures, these humans. In time he had seen
enough and winged back up the canyon to continue the serious
business of finding food, a suitable nesting cavity, and a mate.
And probably adding us to his lifetime human list.
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