In Pursuit of the Elegant Trogon

Copyright © 2011 by Richard S. Platz, All rights reserved

(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 it.

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 them.

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 the canyon.

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!"

And 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.

For 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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