“Have any trogans been sited recently?” we asked when we checked into the Southwestern Research Station in Cave Creek, Arizona.
“We saw three during last week’s bird tour,” the tour leader relayed. “We saw them near the bridge over the road into the South Fork Picnic Area. They were not calling.”
We were hopefully optimistic.
I began hearing about trogans almost as soon as I became an avid birder five years ago. The opportunity to delight in the abundant and varied species of birds in southeast Arizona would be sufficient reward for the visit; however, it was the Elegant Trogan that was the biggest lure.
While the trogan can be seen in several of the pine-oak or sycamore canyons, there are two reliable locations: the south fork of Cave Creek in the Chiricahua Mountains and the Vault Mine Trail in Madera Canyon.
Realistic wooden models of the Chiricahua’s most well known birds perched on faux branches that were attached to the rafters of the dining hall at the Southwestern Research Station. I studied the color and shape of the male and female Elegant Trogans as I ate dinner our first evening.
We looked for the trogan all three days of our visit in the Cave Creek area, checking the sycamore trees where the south fork of Cave Creek flowed under the road near the Sunny Flats Campground and halfway up the South Fork road.
Three pairs of binoculared eyes scanned the sycamore limbs that stretched out over the creek in hopes that an Elegant Trogan might be perched on one. Canyons with water provide the large insects and berries that make up its diet.
“Even though they were not heard calling recently, it is the easiest way to find them,” Gail told us. “Their call sounds like the distant barking of a small dog.”
On our second day we walked along the road and then followed the creek, which snaked back and forth across the trail that led further up the mountains. Alas, we did not see any of the trogans that had been spotted only a few days earlier. Perhaps they had already left to spend the winter in Mexico.
Our final chance was at Madera Canyon. Gail, who had seen the trogan at Cave Creek on a prior trip to Arizona, had to leave to visit her aunt. Donna and I were on our own to find the elusive bird. Melody Kehl, a respected Arizona birding guide had reported on Birding on the Net the five days prior that she had heard trogans call on the Vault Mine trail, but had not seen one.
Donna and I drove to the trailhead parking area.
The air was cooler than in the valley below and the sky was a deep azure blue. The only sounds of birds were an occasional squawk of a Mexican Jay or the chatter of an Acorn Woodpecker. I consoled myself that it was a beautiful day for a hike.
About a quarter of a mile up the trail, Donna spurted out, “I think a Cardinal just flew.” As she focused her binoculars where it landed, I heard her exclaim, “Oh, my god, it’s the trogan.”
I walked carefully to where she was standing.
“Stand right in front of me,” she instructed. I raised my binoculars where she pointed and saw the Elegant Trogan sitting on the branch of a conifer. It was a male. It turned its head slightly and I could see its jaunty green face and neck area and the red chest with a narrow white band above it. The yellow bill gave it a comical look.
And then it was off.
Donna was so excited she almost leapt into a patch of poison ivy as she sought to locate where it flew.
It was the flash of red that helped us locate him. It he had been perched silently, sitting upright on a limb, we never would have spotted him.
We headed down the trail satisfied, knowing we had to return to New Mexico the next day.