at it already.
For years now, my Pops and I would make trips down to southeastern Arizona, always enjoying the beautiful birds and scenery, but also leaving a bit unfulfilled. We weren't always there at the right time of year, and we didn't always try really hard, but the fact remained that despite a long residence in Arizona and not-infrequent trips down south, we never saw an Elegant Trogon. At first it was a palatable failure. We weren't too serious and Trogons are not common birds. But over time, we began to sense a great emptiness in our lives, a void in our existence that could only be filled by avian elegance, and so the need to view the Trogon grew and grew.
The frustrations and failures continued over the years, with the taunting of this psychedelic bird eliciting outbreaks of psychosis every summer. The Trogon changed from just an avian jewel to a full-blown nemesis, a very stylish nemesis, which is the most dangerous nemesis of all. Instances of missing the birds in Madera Canyon or the Chiricahua Mountains by a day or even hours turned the pursuit into something more than just a leisurely birding expedition. It became an existential imperative that we see the Trogon. It became...mortal combat!!!
The intensity and passion is always palpable when birders squeeze into a small sedan and head off into the mountains, and on July 19th the little red corolla must've been glowing as the Butlers Birds Team embarked on an epic quest down to the Santa Ritas once more. As per the usual, our main goal was to see a Trogon. But this time things were different. This time the phrase, "or die trying" was thrown around a lot. This time we had all the necessary ninja gear. This time we were ready.
We didn't get up into Madera Canyon until the afternoon, having first made some great stops at Montosa Canyon and the Kent Springs Trail for Plain-capped Starthroat, Scarlet Tanager, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. Seeing these other birds was awesome, and it was all part of a perfect and ridiculously circuitous plan. By going after other specialties and rare birds first, the Trogons would not be suspicious that we were coming for them.
Loud and flashy, the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher is a great decoy when one is going after a nemesis.
We ran into some other birders on the Kent Springs trail who were seeking the Scarlet Tanager (a rare bird for Arizona), and they informed us that they had heard some Trogons calling on the Madera Canyon Super Trail earlier that day. We made a mental note and then continued to search out this enigmatic Tanager. We eventually located the ruby-red bird and helped our earlier helpers to some great views as well, before heading over towards the Super Trail, an appropriately hyperbolic name for a nemesis showdown.
Heading down Kent Springs and then further up the canyon was grueling. The heat was hot, as heat is known to be, and the humidity kept things humid, as humidity is wont to do. But no amount of adverse meteorology, not even meteors, could deter our meeting with the Trogons. Even when an adorable bricolage of bubbly birds--Bushtits and Bridled Titmouse and Bell's Vireos--came bumbling through, we stopped only for a minute. House Wrens and Canyon Wrens called to us as we hiked up the Super Trail wash, "Go back! It's too dangerous!" but soon they sat quietly on the sidelines, eager to see how it all would go down.
The Wrens were not the only bystanders; other Madera residents, like this Yarrow's Spiny-tailed Lizard, peeked up to witness the reckoning.
After hiking maybe a half-mile up the Super Trail, we began to hear the famous croaking calls of the Elegant Trogon. In fact, it seemed like there were two birds talking to each other. We scoured the trees for their bulky, long-tailed silhouettes. Beads of sweat began to form and run for the ground while the air held still, broken only occasionally by the koa koa koa that faintly echoed around us. After an eternal-seeming fifteen minutes, the calls came discernibly closer. I turned to face Pops and just as I did, a whooosing sound shot past my head. Reacting just on instinct and training, I tucked into a somersault, rolled forward in an action-hero kinda way (not really), and drew my Sony Sharpshooter. I looked up to see Pops' gaze transfixed ahead of me. There perched our elegant nemesis, resplendent and radiating with a show-stopping beauty nearly unparalleled in North America. Rather appropriately, the light was behind him, shining down in regal fashion.
The Elegant Trogon did not stay for very long, but even this brief sighting was enough to appease the aggravation of those fruitless years. The bird was incredible in the literal sense of the word; I couldn't believe I was looking at it then and there. The Trogon didn't exactly seem to fit in that sycamore and scrub-oak canyon. It didn't seem like his natural environment. Nonetheless, every year these tropical visitors bring the hard-earned reward of jaw-dropping beauty to the southeast Arizona birders, and this year we were finally among the lucky number.
Seeing an Elegant Trogon was top priority this summer, and it came as one of our last sightings on the last real birding adventure of the summer. By golly, these birds know showmanship! And so, a tale of nemeses and hardship ends in happiness. So far, we've all lived happily ever after.
Posted by Laurence Butler
Clip Art courtesy of Maria Butler