Desert on a Wing

The Elegant Trojan
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That the trogon is surpassingly beautiful probably goes without saying. It is, after all, a relative of the quetzal, the bird revered by Mayan priests. The only way to appreciate the trogon's singular allure, though, is to seek one out in one of the desert mountain canyons it returns to annually for nesting. When first seen, generally perched stiff and upright on a sycamore, perhaps, or on some other streamside tree, the trogon seems to be a misplaced visitor from some exotic equatorial jungle, so striking is its coloration. It has a habit of keeping its back to an approaching viewer, revealing only its delicate sheen and the square-tipped, greenish-blue tail."Coppery-tailed trogon," a fair description of the long tail that points straight downward as the bird warily turns its head to one side, is what it was once called. Gray shows on the wing, the head is deep emerald with a red eye ring and a broad, bright yellow bill. Its silence and stillness as it sits alone on its branch can be unnerving, particularly when most birders are accustomed to watching some rarity flit off at the first approach of a human. The trogon sits motionless, as if willing itself not to be noticed.When and if the bird turns around, its colors become even more dramatic. The deep green of its head halts abruptly with a white line across its breast, beneath which lies a bright red lower breast and belly. If a large part of the attraction of birding lies in witnessing the extraordinary colors nature can paint her creatures, the trogon will never disappoint.

While it is common to virtually stumble upon a silent trogon perched midway up a tree, it may be more common to locate it by its call. Actually, call is too kind a word for the trogon's barking croak, a sound that seems to fit the lovely bird about as well as glasses would fit the Mona Lisa. Think of combining the call of a hen turkey with both a pig's grunt and a dog's bark, and you have a fairly good idea of the trogon's decidedly undignified, unmistakable and unforgettable call.

The trogon was almost wiped out by collectors half a century ago, though its numbers seem to be on the rise. As one of the few truly exotic birds that breed north of Mexico, it has always drawn an interest that vastly exceeds its very slight numbers."Where is the trogon?" becomes one of spring's most frequently asked questions in those two or three canyons it most often inhabits. And with a lot of patience and only a bit of luck, it is very likely that an hour or two of tramping though the forest will bring the industrious birder face-to-face with the Southwest's most fabulous bird.


One of the greatest pleasures of searching for the trogon is that it inhabits such beautiful areas the sky islands. While the deserts below are starting to swelter, the forested mountains above are shady and moderately cool and may have running streams. It is this combination of terrain and temperature that also draws the trogon, making it a very exact science to calculate where the bird returns to year after year.

Undoubtedly the single best spot to find the elegant trogon is Cave Creek Canyon. Variously referred to as the loveliest area in southeastern Arizona, the single best birding spot in the Southwest (and perhaps the whole country) and the region with the most richly diverse wildlife in the entire United States, Cave Creek Canyon is one of the few places that lives up to its reputation. Certainly few entrances are as dramatic as the one into the canyon. Set in the heart of the Chiricahua Mountains, the approach to the canyon from the east is unforgettable. Towering, jagged cliffs, seemingly able to capture every hue of gold and red on their sheer faces, are pocked with shadowy caves and cracks. Beneath them, lush green sycamores and oak fill the canyon. No other place in America can match Cave Creek's mix of wildlife, beauty and exotica; and few spots have such a unique blend of habitats: desert grasslands, tropical-like highlands, pine-oak woodlands and high forests of fir and spruce. No wonder the Southwestern Research Station, located on the road that leads up into the high mountains from the canyon, draws researchers from around the world to study the region's wildlife.

To reach Cave Creek Canyon, head south on State Road 80 from the small community of Road Forks, New Mexico (Exit 5 on I-10, just before the interstate crosses into Arizona). Drive on State Road 80 for 26.5 miles through rocky foothills, creosote and yucca, and (2.5 miles before the town of Rodeo) look for the sign for State Road 533, also known as Portal Road. Take this road west a "Cave Creek Canyon" sign is clearly visible and follow it for 7 miles to the town of Portal. The store at Portal, incidentally, is a good source of information about recent sightings in the canyon (they also have plenty of fine books, brochures and fliers), and the feeders in back attract hummingbirds. Continue on State Road 533, and at 0.6 mile beyond the store, stay on the paved road to the left of a fork. There is a sign here, and the rest of the area is equally well signed; you won't get lost. The spectacular view dazzling cliffs with the dark green canyon nestled below is at its best here. A visitor center/ranger station lies 0.8 mile beyond the fork in the road; stop for good information here.

Continuing, you will pass Idlewild and Stewart campgrounds, then come to another fork in the road 1.4 miles beyond the ranger station. The left road the gravel one is known as South Fork; the right, paved for 2 miles, leads up into the mountains to Rustler Park. Most sightings of the elegant trogon are made by walking along the South Fork Road, listening for the bird's call and peeking into the trees for a glimpse of it. If this is unproductive, drive the 1.3-mile gravel road to where it ends at the South Fork Forest Camp Picnic Area. A signed trail leads up the creek from this picnic area, and the first mile or so is also good for finding the trogon.

A trail between Stewart Campground and Sunnyflat Campground (which is 0.2 mile up the fork on the paved road toward Rustler Park) is the third good area to find the trogon. Listen for its weird, croaking call, and don't forget that there are scores of other spectacular birds also to be seen. Look for painted redstarts, Scott's and hooded orioles, Lucy's and Virginia's warblers, Cassin's kingbirds, tanagers, hummingbirds, white-breasted nuthatches, white-winged doves, western wood-peewees, dusky-capped and ash-throated flycatchers and bridled titmouses, with acorn woodpeckers and gray-breasted jays everywhere.

The other good spot for finding the elegant trogon is at Madera Canyon. Though not as accessible or reliable as Cave Creek, Madera Canyon offers a good chance to see a trogon for those willing to hike a bit. Drive to the upper parking area Roundup at the end of the road and take the upper trail the blocked road leading to the Vault Mine Trail. Trogons have nested along the stream about a mile or so from the trailhead. The other trail leading out of the Roundup Trailhead Area is known as the Super Trail; the trogon has nested in this oak and sycamore area about a mile up the trail. Give both a try, and keep your fingers crossed.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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