In search of the elusive Elegant Trogon – Chiricahua Mountains, AZ

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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.

The Peloncillo Mountains behind Betsy

The ranch-like setting here was very quiet and relaxing

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.

Alpenglow of the Chiricahuas greeted us each morning

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:

The numerous caves that gave the canyon its name punched holes in the mountainside

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.

Winn Falls is high in the interior of the Chiricahua Mountains and seldom visited

The views in all directions were gorgeous

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:

We tried not to disturb the afternoon nap

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:

Male Elegant Trogon fluffing up

A demure female Elegant Trogon

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:

Tall high cliffs reminded us of Zion NP

Early morning sunlight striking the rock outcroppings brightened and intensified the pink, yellow and orange cliff faces.  This is one of the most beautiful formations we’ve ever seen

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:

The Sycamore trees lent contrast to pines and oaks

We enjoyed walking and lunching along the softly running Cave Creek

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.

“Elegant” describes their emerald-green back, poppy-red chest and white tail feathers marked with scrimshaw-like designs.  Simply eye-catching!

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!

Ain’t that a beauty!

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!

 

Next up:  The incredible Sonoran Desert in bloom



 

28 thoughts on “In search of the elusive Elegant Trogon – Chiricahua Mountains, AZ

  1. I have never heard of this area. I love the looks of park and the solitude with awesome hiking. While I am not a birder, I do enjoy the very colorful birds. Seeing this beautiful Trogon would be a treat for sure. The napping owl is adorable! The Chiricahua NM was a favorite for us. Thanks for taking us someplace new.

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    • This is on the other side of the Chiricahua National Monument and if you need good hiking trails, this place should be on your list 🙂

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    • I would recommend this RV park for you, Gay for the birding is great at the Chiricahua wilderness.

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  2. Wonderful post. The Elegant Trogon is a beautiful bird and your photos make me want to head that way soon. Thanks for sharing.

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    • If you are into birds, this is a great birding spot. Even Steve was impressed with birds bright colors.

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  3. How exciting to see the Elegant Trogon! We looked for it at Ramsey Canyon in March, and even though others had seen one there a few days prior, sadly we did not. We did also see a Painted Redstart just the other day but did not get great photos like you. Can’t wait to see the desert bloom through your lens!

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    • This was indeed a pleasant surprise to spot the Elegant Trogon considering that we had no idea it lived there. I would have been frustrated if the main goal for our stop here was to spot it, thankfully they seemed to be waiting for my camera.

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  4. Wow, between the waterfall and the birding that place looks awesome, thanks for sharing!

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  5. Rusty’s is a place we have on our list, especially after reading your blog. I love the solitude of it all. I always enjoy your bird pictures, the snake one not so much. Although at least you didn’t get that close to a rattler in the wild! The lichen covered rocks are beautiful… And the Trogan – what can one say about that magnificent creature…..

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    • In my opinion, this is the better place to spot the Elegant Trogon than in Madera. Less people and more Elegant Trogons to search for. Except for the wind and the dust, we really like this remote RV ranch.

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  6. Oh, how wonderful! Finding the Elegant Trogon is always such a treat—as you said, they’re in no hurry to get away. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to find! I especially love your last photo that shows the vibrant colors and the beautiful tail. How cool that you found a Whiskered Screech Owl, too! That little thing is adorable. That would be a first for us.

    We haven’t been to Rusty’s in many years, but we’re thinking to revisit next spring. We really enjoyed our time there, but I also remember the wind and the crazy dust storms…but hey, we’ll brave just about anything to find the birdies, right? 🙂

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    • We actually cancelled our Rockhound SP stop and we rerouted our plans here, thanks to Bob. And because of his strong recommendation we came and glad we did. I believe this area is a better birding spot than Madera Canyon because of its remoteness only a few people come here to bird.

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  7. AMAZING !!!! Thanks for sharing this area (unknown to me), the hiking possibilities and especially the beautiful Trogon. So happy you were able to get such great photos.

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    • Hey, the Chiricahuas has lots of hiking and birding possibilities. Glad you enjoyed the brilliance of the Elegant Trogon, they are so beautiful!

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  8. It’s as if the Trogon rolled in melted Crayons. Oh, we tried to find one in the Ramsey Canyon Preserve in early March, but no dice. Time to start saving for the 100-400 lens? That’ll blow the budget!

    What a great visit you had there. You’re not helping my weakness of photo/RV/hiking envy btw. Thoughts of breaking camp here to drive over there are hard to get out of my head.

    Bravo ML (and Steve).

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    • Thanks to my 100-400 lens I got decent shots of the bird for they were perching high up on the trees. Perhaps you time your visit here around April and May, you might spot some baby Elegant Trogons by then. This is the best place to see them and other birds, that is if you are into birds, too.

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  9. While I love your bird photos, that photo of the rattlesnake is a jaw-dropper too! Such great captures… and you get extra credit for having to run back to your car to get an extra battery. That is some serious artistic commitment right there! I’m happy for you guys that you got to see not one, but multiple of these rare birds! Definitely makes the trip worth it!

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    • Thank you Laura, when it is about capturing a most sought after bird, you bet I will run back to the car and get batteries. I was glad they are not skittish and was simply waiting for me to compose and take a good shot of what I believe is a vain bird. They know they are beautiful so they show it off,

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  10. What a beauty, MonaLiza! Looks a bit like a bluebird, yet many more colors. Glad you were able to find them!

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    • Steve thought it is a large version of the Painted Bunting. Spotting them was an exhilarating and exciting experience.

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  11. Looks like the east side of the Chiricahua’s is very much worth a stop! That RV park looks nice and the hiking too. I sure would like to see an Elegant Trogan in the wild!

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