In search of the elusive Elegant Trogon – Chiricahua Mountains, AZ
We are dedicating this post to Bob Gauvreau, a dear friend of ours who passed away recently. We’ve enjoyed many good times with Bob and Dee Dee over the past few years. They prompted us to camp at Rusty’s RV Ranch, one of their favorite campgrounds where we stayed during this unexpected search for the elusive Elegant Trogon.
When you’re searching for an elusive bird and not finding it, there can be some frustration. But when you’re in a place that’s known to harbor that bird the anticipation is heightened. And that’s what happened as we checked in at Rusty’s RV Ranch and Rusty handed me a map of things to do and see in the area. My ears really perked up when she said the Elegant Trogon had recently been spotted just down the road at the Chiricahua Mountains!
This campground is in the middle of nowhere (bring your food and drinks with you!), near the Arizona border in the tiny town of Rodeo, NM. Its remoteness in a “dark sky area” makes it a magnet for astronomers, and guests are asked to close their shades and turn off all exterior lights after dark. The Chiricahua Mountain Range also happens to be an excellent area for bird and wildlife watchers. We found the late-night display of stars to be amazing, as we waited for the sun to rise so we could chase down those birdies!
Sites here are long and spacious, with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains. A downside is that the spring winds can carry a lot of dust, which happened during our stay. But we loved the place and would definitely come back for its remoteness and scenery.
Rusty has a collection of exotic birds from all over the world, and two were happily swimming in their man-made pond while the rest were at their mini aviary.
Rusty suggested I check out the Chiricahuan Desert Museum just down the road. It consists of three sections; a botanical garden, a live collection of over thirty-four species of rattlesnakes, and an exhibit dedicated to the famous Apache war chief Geronimo. It’s a well-maintained facility and worth a stop – we even liked several nice (but pricey) items in their gift shop. I thought the real stars here were the handsome lizards, desert tortoise and caged rattlesnakes in the garden area.
We spent several days hiking trails in the Chiricahua Mountains, the largest of Arizona’s Sky Island mountain ranges located in the southeastern corner of the state. On the western side of the range lies Chiricahua National Monument, also known as “The Wonderland of Rocks.” If you’re curious about the name and our excellent hike during a previous stay click here.
As we drove into the mountains and through Cave Creek Canyon, we passed between towering, lichen-covered sculpted rocks. The plants and vegetation changed dramatically as we gained elevation from desert to high country:
Our first hike followed Greenhouse Trail #248, which led to Winn Falls, a 365′ cascade of water falling over a V-shaped lip. It was a fairly strenuous 6.2-mile hike that began at the canyon bottom and took us through over 2,000′ of elevation gain into the Chiricahua high country.
Back in the canyon, we saw a group of people with binoculars and high-powered cameras trained upward. This is a renowned birding area, so we happily joined in looking at a Whiskered Screech Owl napping in the hole of a Sycamore tree:
Next we parked along South Fork Road to begin our search for the Elegant Trogon. A photographer there told us he’d seen one a few hours before, so we searched up and down the road listening for its distinct “barking” call. We soon heard it and Steve spotted a nearby male AND female! Just as I was about to take a picture, disaster struck – my battery died! As I ran to the car for another battery (and I don’t run very often), Steve remained in place to watch the birdies. Fortunately, Trogons are not skittish birds and they stayed where they were until I got back to capture their beauty:
The following day we hiked South Fork Trail, the most popular one in the range (and in the U.S.) for birders to spot the canyon-dwelling Elegant Trogon:
Besides Trogons, there were some other spectacular birds moving through the area. On this trail we spotted a few of them, but they were too far away for me to get a good shot:
We agreed to hike first and search for the Elegant Trogon later, if we didn’t see one during our trek. But halfway through the hike, we heard the unmistakable odd croaking call from high in the trees. Thankfully these birds tend to perch on the same branch for quite a while, maybe to be seen and heard for all of their beauty? We were able to watch him for several minutes as I clicked away.
You can see why this bird is on the “most wanted” list of many birders. In addition to being handsome and extraordinary, its range is restricted and difficult to find. Of the 39 species of Trogons in existence, only 1 species is found in the U.S. More specifically, it’s likely found in only a handful of locations in southeast Arizona, including here at Cave Creek Canyon. I first sighted this beauty years ago when we camped at Patagonia State Park, and now that Steve has seen them he’s even blown away!
This was definitely a memorable stop. We got to see Rusty’s collection of exotic and colorful birds within the RV park, and spotting the Elegant Trogons was the capper!