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.
Between the Rocky Mountains and Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidentals lie nearly 60 sky islands, an “archipelago of mountains that are steppingstones between two big ranges,” said Peg Abbott, the owner of Naturalist Journeys, a birding and nature tour operator based in the region. Stretched apart some 15 million years ago and isolated by the development of arid grasslands and deserts between them, about 15 sky islands lie in Arizona’s Coronado National Forest; the rest are in Mexico.
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.
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.
But the lack of rainfall hadn’t discouraged the birds, or the birders. On the weaving two-lane road that dead-ends at about 5,400 feet, with footpaths ascending another 4,000 feet to Mount Wrightson, a flock of wild Gould’s turkeys held up traffic. The males, with fully fanned tail feathers, dragged their wings audibly on the pavement. In front of the lodge, more than a dozen feeders were filled with bridled titmouse, cartoonish acorn woodpeckers, thick-billed, black-headed grosbeaks and gregarious pine siskins.
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.
“This year, almost everything’s been late,” said Reed Peters, the owner of the 13-cabin retreat where I joined the tour operator Peg Abbott and her group of about a dozen travelers on a nine-day birding trip in the sky islands. They were paging through a binder of listings, checking off the day’s sightings, including the northern beardless tyrannulet and greater pewee.
“Sky islands are a concept of geography that not a lot of people in the U.S. know,” said Peg, explaining the similarities between the Galápagos Islands and the sky islands to the group over drinks. “Part of diversity is how close are you to the big mama ship that has all the species, and part is being in the path of things that move on currents and wind. The principles of island biogeography play out in these sky islands.”
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.
As we climbed to 8,500 feet, we left grasslands for oak-and-pine forests and Douglas fir stands, catching red-faced and yellow-rumped warblers amid alligator junipers with coarse, block-patterned bark, and olive and Grace’s warblers near a meadow of lupine and iris.
“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).
Like everything in our current world, the road trip, a classic American experience, has changed.
Portal’s roughly third-of-a-mile thoroughfare, South Rock House Road, is unpaved past a sign that reads, “Private Drive Walkers Welcome.” Carrie Miller, a local writer and personal chef, had invited me to her house at the end of the dirt road to see her “exhibitionist screech owl” which nests in the hollow of a sycamore tree in her driveway. At 7 a.m., I found the house by spotting a cluster of birders with a telescope trained on the forthright owl.
“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.
“I never walk without my binoculars,” Carrie told me later that evening as we headed to the motel’s cafe for a beer, spotting a bright yellow warbler working an eye-level canopy of mesquite tree blossoms.
“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.
From a distance, the scrubby slopes of the Huachucas look barren, but harbor astonishingly life-filled, creek-cut folds, including Ramsey Canyon, shaded by towering white-barked sycamores. Following his meditative pace, we watched painted redstarts flitting from tree to tree and spied a velvety red hepatic tanager singing for a mate until Chris, possessed of the bionic ears that distinguish the best birding guides, caught a barking sound.
“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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