The elegant trogon, befitting its name, is clever. One can perch in a tree 10 feet overhead and draw little attention, though it’s come dressed for it, with a striking yellow beak, blush red breast topped with a white collar and metallic green back tapering, like tuxedo tails, to finely barred tail feathers.
As a birding fan, I’d made its acquaintance on trips to Mexico. But during the pandemic, in my desire to find unexpected, wondrous and uncrowded places in the United States, I learned that the trogon comes north, often visiting a section of southeast Arizona that looks, from a bird’s point of view, a lot like the highlands of Mexico.
These are “sky islands,” isolated mountain formations separated by seas of desert that are uniquely biodiverse, offering habitats from scrub and grasslands to pine and fir forests as they rise.
I met Peg on a five-day trip in May to three of Arizona’s sky island ranges — the Santa Rita, Chiricahua and Huachuca mountains — on my first post-vaccination trip, designed to safely spend time hiking outdoors, but squarely in the path of potential encounters with Crayola-colored warblers, up to 15 species of hummingbirds and seasonal guests like the elegant trogon.
Credit: John Burcham for The New York Times)
Flocking birders and barking owls
From Tucson, I drove roughly 30 miles south to Green Valley and turned southeast for Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains where more than 250 bird species have been documented. The road ascended from cactus flats to grass and oak savannas into a narrowing canyon, a crease of shady oak and sycamore forest flanking a seasonal stream, bone dry in present drought conditions. At the Santa Rita Lodge in the largely undeveloped canyon, I checked into a creekside casita ($160) and was asked to keep my showers short because of the drought.
Hummingbird feeders, filled with sweetened water, were staked closer to the benches facing this bird theater, allowing one woman to train her binoculars on a broad-billed hummingbird just two feet away for a microscopic view of its red beak and darting tongue.
The staffer checking me in said that trogons hadn’t been seen yet this year, but directed me to the Carrie Nation Trail in the morning to look. Meanwhile, she suggested I head across the street at sunset to see the elf owl that burrows in a utility pole there.
“It’s like the littlest dog that has the biggest bark,” said Steve Holt, the lodge owner, speaking of the tiny elf owl that I and a dozen guests gathered to see, settling ultimately for the chirping, whistling and trilling that indicated it was nearby. As they left, one couple asked where they might listen for whiskered screech owls, and motored up the canyon for more night birding.
In the morning cool, the deserted mountain trails were alive with bird song and the brash antics of spotted towhees and yellow-eyed juncos, but no trogon — perhaps, said fellow birders, because of the dry creek.
In Arizona, breeding trogons tend to nest in the cavities of big trees like sycamores that grow in riparian zones, which have streams or rivers. Fortunately, the next day, the water was flowing in Cave Creek Canyon, just a few miles beyond the ranch where I joined a loose confederation of birders on a three-hour trek along the road and the South Fork Trail that continues along the creek. Ears trained for the trogon, we delighted in flamboyant warblers and a family of grosbeaks bathing in a rock pool. At an inviting swimming hole known as “The Bathtub,” I heard something between a bark, a gobble and a chortle, possibly a trogon, but I never saw it.
“He likes to hang out there,” confirmed Peg that afternoon as she drove me to the top of the Chiricahuas on a tour that took in campgrounds where visitors erected their own hummingbird feeders, and the Southwestern Research Station, a wilderness campus managed by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where scientists have conducted long-term studies on Mexican jay breeding, hummingbird physiology and the social behavior of ants.
“They say it’s like driving from Mexico to Canada in an hour,” Peg said.
Main Street birding
Because Cave Creek Ranch was sold out, I stayed at Portal Peak Lodge, a weathered motel with an indifferent staff that nevertheless remains the social center of the canyon’s gateway town of Portal, given its restaurant and outdoor patio with a stage for live music (from $85).
“This road has some of the best birding in Portal because of the creek on one side and desert on the other,” Carrie said over pour-overs and chewy homemade bagels as we watched delicate juniper titmouse, brilliant summer tanagers, dramatic hooded orioles and large Rivoli’s hummingbirds, formerly and aptly known as magnificent hummingbirds, work her numerous feeders.
Many town residents invite visitors to watch the activity at their feeders, usually soliciting donations to subsidize the feed. At their visitor information stand in the canyon, the nonprofit Friends of Cave Creek Canyon distributes free maps to these yards.
Credit: John Burcham for The New York Times)
“Hiking and birding are incompatible”
Birding is a patient practice. You can put yourself in the path of migration, and still miss sightings through inattention or impatience or, in my case, a fitness-fanatic’s stride. As a Cave Creek birder from Austin, Texas, put it, “Hiking and birding are incompatible. Birders are always stopping.”
What I needed was a guide to set the appropriate pace, which I found in Chris Harbard. A native of England, Chris worked for 24 years for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds before moving to the United States and settling, in 2016, in the Huachuca Mountains, roughly between the Santa Ritas and Chiricahuas, where he writes about birds between lecturing gigs on expedition cruise ships.
He and his wife, Mari Cea, run the Southwest Wings birding festival, which takes place in May and August — the latter is high season for hummingbirds — with lectures and tours. They also rent a spacious Airbnb casita behind their home in Hereford in a very birdy yard; Chris’ list of yard sightings is over 150 species. Proving the thrill never fades, we all got quiet when the elusive Montezuma quail, a rotund, charismatic bird with facial racing stripes and polka-dot sides, emerged from the tall grass just before sunset.
The next morning, I followed Chris to Ramsey Canyon Preserve, a site managed by the Nature Conservancy ($8), and my last hope for a trogon.
“Trogon,” he whispered, pointing down the creek.
Just a few minutes after backtracking and intensely scanning the canopy, we found him, just 10 feet above, his red breast, white collar and striped tail feather impeccable, teaching me the difference between bird watching and simply looking.
“If you look closely,” said Chris, “he has incredibly long eyelashes.”
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