Article By Jon Friedman
(This is an enlarged and updated version of an article with the same title that was first published in the July, 1997 issue of the Wild Bird Store newsletter.)
photo by Skye Bloodgood Photography
Many thousands of resident and visiting birders travel to rural and remote areas along the Arizona/Mexico border each year, where they hope to sight several of the neo-tropical birds known to migrate here to breed or forage. Among those rare and exotic specialties, sought after by “listers” and more casual birders, are the Aztec Thrush, Zone-tailed Hawk, Whiskered Screech Owl, Sulphur-bellied and Buff-breasted Flycatchers, Gray-breasted Jay, Montezuma Quail, Arizona Woodpecker (formerly known as Strickland’s and/or Brown-backed Woodpecker), Mexican Chickadee, Painted Redstart, Magnificent and Blue-throated Hummingbirds, among others. However, the species most often sought out is the Elegant Trogon, which is often called the most beautiful bird in all of North America. While other rare exotics may be locally common in certain habitats and locations in Southern Arizona, it is the thrill of seeing and hearing the Trogons which birders will remember and tell others about for years to come. Experienced birders will listen for Canyon Wrens and Hermit Thrushes in their search for trogons, as these birds are often found occupying the same habitat as the trogons.
There are about 40 species of trogons distributed throughout the tropic and neo-tropic regions of the world. Twenty-three species live in the forests of Mexico, the West Indies, Central and South America. Three species are found in Africa and eleven in Asia. Kingfishers are thought to be their closest relatives in the avian world. In the United States, the only region where trogons are known to occupy and continue to be reported on is from Southern Arizona. Two species have been known to breed in the mountain canyon habitats of Southeastern Arizona, the Elegant and Eared Trogons. Prior to 1983, the subspecies of the Elegant Trogon found in Arizona was known as the Coppery-tailed Trogon. It has been suspected that a third species, the Mountain Trogon, may possibly breed in the southern mountains of the state. Their range has slowly been expanding northward in recent years. I have seen Mountain Trogons in the Sierra Tobacco Mountains, about 60 miles south of Douglas and in the Barranca Sinforosa area of the Sierra Madre range, just north of where Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango meet.
Eared Trogons are far rarer than Elegant Trogons in Arizona. In fact, to my knowledge, there are periods of years between verified sightings. While there may be as many as fifty pairs of breeding Elegant Trogons any given year in Arizona, it is doubtful that there are more than four to six breeding pairs of Eared Trogons.
Eared Trogons were first discovered in Southern Arizona by Richard (Rick) Taylor (a well-known and respected local author and bird guide). His report documented the first observation of this extremely rare species in the United States on October 23, 1977 in the South Fork area of Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains. Sherri Williamson, co-founder of the Southern Arizona Bird Observatory in Bisbee, discovered the first Eared Trogon nest. Taylor, a Tucson resident, is considered by many to be the foremost expert on trogons in Arizona. His Trogons of the Arizona Borderlands is the best reference yet published. For those who want more detailed information about all known aspects of trogon life, it is essential reading. It includes chapters on population distribution, locating trogons, physical characteristics, intelligence and communication, species history in Arizona, and much more.
The first recorded sightings in Arizona, of the then-called Coppery-tailed Trogon, were from 1884 in the Santa Catalina Mountains, just north of the city of Tucson, and in 1885 in the Huachuca Mountains, hugging the Mexican border between Nogales and Douglas. While the vast majority of modern sightings occur in several mountain ranges along and north of the Mexican border, verified sightings have occurred in mountain canyons outside of Phoenix in 1996.
Southern Arizona is the northernmost limit of their range and in breeding season, they occupy territories in riparian canyons in several of the mountain ranges along and north of the Mexican border. Primary among these locations are Sycamore Canyon in the Atascosa Mountains; Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains; and Cave Creek and South Fork in the Chiricahua Mountains; Sunnyside, Scotia, Garden, Ramsey and Huachuca Canyons in the Huachuca Mountains.
Photo by James Poling Photography
Trogons reside and breed in mountain canyons where streams are present and the habitat is composed of mostly sycamores, oaks and pines. Nests are usually found twelve to forty feet above ground level in woodpecker or flicker-excavated cavities, most often in the softwood sycamores but in other riparian trees that sometimes contain woodpecker cavities. Nests are composed of grasses, hay, straw, mosses, wool and other animal furs, feathers, thistledown and other plant downs. Nesting season begins in March and eggs continue to be laid into June. Usually three to four all-white eggs are in their cavity nests. Their diet consists entirely of a variety of larger insects, fruits and berries. They will fly off their perch, nearly hovering, and pick off insects and bugs from leaves and branches. They use their bills to capture their prey, not their feet. Insects are generally consumed more than fruits, and grasshoppers, mantids, bugs of various sorts, leaf beetles, caterpillars and moths, and sawfly larvae seem to be favored. Wild grapes, cherries, and a wide variety of berries are regularly taken when available.
Elegant Trogon feasting on a grub
Photo by Wayne Battersby Photography
Males and females are similar in appearance, but the males have the bolder colors while the females appear browner in coloration and have a small white patch behind each eye. Both sexes are about eleven to twelve inches long. Males have dark green or golden bronze heads, upper breasts and backs. Underparts are bright rose-red, with a white band across the breast. While Eared Trogons are relatively similar in appearance, they lack the white band across the chest. Elegant Trogons have short, but thick, yellow bills, and long tails with complex gray patterning on the underside, ending with a black terminal band. Females are similarly colored but not as brightly, with more brown in the head and underparts, and less, or paler, red.
Many birders, in search of trogons, know to listen as well as watch for them. They have a very unusual, un-bird-like call, which many describe as more like a bark from a seal or canine pup. Their call is usually repeated three or four times in a row, followed by a silent period, then repeated. Trogons are more often first identified in the field by their vocalizations, and then visually identified by birders who follow their calls. However, this is not always as easy as it sounds, because trogons have the ability to “throw” their calls, much like a ventriloquist can throw their voice. Therefore, sometimes when you hear a trogon call from the left, it is actually calling from the right. Their calling is loudest and most often heard at the beginning of the breeding season when they are advertising for mates and defending their territories.
The bird’s name in Mexico is coa, based on its unusual and distinctive call. When performing its rather loud call, it will usually throw its head back with the bill pointing upward. While perched, the tail usually points straight down and, from certain angels, it appears the bird has a hunch in its back. Trogon flight is usually relatively slow and undulating. While foraging, it sometimes seems to momentarily hover while grabbing its prey.
The photographs that accompany this article were recently taken in March of 2018 by local photographers James Poling, Paula Redinger and Wayne Battersby. They captured images of the same adult male in lower Madera Canyon. The birding world was abuzz about this bird, as it was present in the same location for several weeks and, unlike its trogon reputation, didn’t seem rattled or disturbed by bands of humans tracking its moves throughout its territory. My fiancée Marilyn and I decided to go see this bird, too. We drove to Madera Canyon, and after about 30 to 40 minutes of hiking upstream, we found a group of birders assembled at a reasonable distance from the bird, and we, too, were treated to a fantastic show. He was perched in the mixed oaks and pines, not far from the sycamores lining the stream, on a branch about 15 to 20 feet above ground. He alternately preened and hunted, landing on the same branch several times before choosing a different, but nearby, branch. His preening was wonderful as he turned 180 degrees several times, giving the viewers different angles to observe him. Occasionally, he would fly up to a higher branch or to a neighboring branch on a nearby tree to snag a tasty morsel. Although not known to hawk insects from mid-air, like flycatchers do, it appeared to be what he was doing, a time or two. We watched, with great awe, when he flew to a nearby branch and snagged what looked like a large green caterpillar. The prey appeared too large to consume whole, so the trogon banged the insect on its perching branch, first to the right, then to left, causing the insect to break apart into a few pieces and, very adroitly, captured each piece in its bill before swallowing. Trogons have some serrations on their bills, which act like teeth to assist eating some larger, firmer or harder prey items. When we first encountered this trogon, he already had a following of about a dozen birders gathered nearby, watching his every movement with uninterrupted attention.
Trogon in flight
Photo by Waynes Battersby Photography
Occasionally, birders had to rest their arms after prolonged viewing with their binoculars. A few birders had very professional cameras and lenses set up on tripods. James Poling, Wayne Battersby, Skye Bloodgood and Paula Redinger were kind enough to share their Elegant Trogon portraits with us so they could be used to illustrate this article. Thanks, fellow birders! Paula and Wayne both have images of the trogon calling - rather exceptional! In all my years of birding and seeing photographs of birds, I cannot recall seeing a trogon calling with its head back and bill wide open. I have seen trogons with insects in their mouths, but never calling or singing! So, I especially enjoy seeing this particular photo for just that reason.
Photo by Paula Redinger
Many birders, both resident and visiting, will endeavor to add a trogon to their life lists. Because human presence and accompanying sounds generated by humans are disturbing to trogons, ALL EFFORTS MUST BE MADE BY RESPONSIBLE BIRDERS TO MINIMIZE THE BIRD’S ANXIETY DURING THE BREEDING SEASON! If disturbed too much, they are known to abandon their nests and often this results in a failed opportunity to breed. If we hope to enjoy trogons in such popular and accessible locations as Ramsey and Madera Canyons in the future, much effort is required now to insure their nesting success for future generations. It is critically important for birders to practice good birding ethics for this reason.
I end wishing all birders their greatest birding experiences this breeding season.