For a few days in mid-January the weather was predicted to be clear, so we (Sue
Solomon and I, our dog, Sibley, and Mary Sterrett) packed Mary's 31 foot motor home
and headed south, to find some birds and get away from cold weather. We hit on both
counts. The ultimate destination for our party was trogon country, south east Arizona,
where none of us had ever been, but it was reported to be so cold there that we
headed to the Rio Grande Valley for a while. We had no fixed time to return and
we wanted to find some moderate weather. Not for a minute though did I ever forget
how much Id like to see a trogon, so we began to bird in south Texas, hitting the
Rio Grande at Bentsen Rio Grande State Park, then drifting toward Arizona, crossing
Lets skip to Arizona. (The birding in Texas was wonderful, of course, and it was
fun to cross southern New Mexico, but most important things first. Maybe some other
time I'll write about the rest of the trip.) We had a little help from our friends,
3RBC members Pat and Sherron Lynch, and Dave Wilton, all of whom loaned us maps
and bird-finding books, and lots of advice. So we knew we wanted to get to Patagonia,
AZ, to look for the Elegant Trogon, a brightly colored, red, white, bronze and green
pigeon-sized bird. Most of their range is south of the US border; only the northern
tip of it is in Arizona, so they're rare there and almost never seen elsewhere north
of Mexico. Patagonia State Park was our home base, and we drove in to the campground
around late January.
I yelled as we neared the campground office, a Phainopepla. That's a lifer for us
all. We ground to a halt, spilling out of the vehicle at our respective speeds (I
have two slow and medium) to observe the jet-black male whose name means
black robe, sitting high on a tree top, in the open, looking like the robed high
priest of birds. Only later did Mary, her memory prompting a search, look back in
her log to tell us we had seen one in a 2001 trip to Texas. Oh well, that's the
price Sue and I pay (or our advantage) for not keeping a written life list. There
are quite a few birds that we can't say for sure whether we have seen them. If we
do, well say they're life birds; maybe for the second time.
Another log of sightings, this one at the park visitors center, told us that not
only had an Elegant Trogon been sighted recently, so had a Rufous-backed Robin and
an Aztec Thrush, all lifers for us if we could find them. Real lifers, too. I'd
remember rare birds like that. Much of the park is a big lake, so we headed along
it for the hackberry grove where the trogon and robin were reported. No luck. Each
day we returned, picking up lifers Gray Flycatcher and Bridled Titmouse, fun, but
not our targets, The birding was good, so we renewed our campground permit for 5
Some days wed take a quick look for the rarities, then visit other famous nearby
hot spots like Ramsey Canyon and Madeira Canyon, getting looks at Arizona Woodpecker
and Mexican Jay. Just driving to those places is a thrill. The Arizona landscape
is like no other I've seen. Mountain ranges, rise abruptly out of the hot, dry,
plains, up to wooded, cool canyons, watered by swiftly running streams. Sue and
I misidentified the woodpecker, arguing with each other until we looked in the field
guide. Likewise, our first take on the jays was to call them western Scrub Jays,
but I couldn't rule out Mexican Jay, so another look at the field guide let us know
we had Mexicans.
Still, each day we returned to the hackberry trees, looking for the trogon. The
visitors center log recorded more sightings of it and the robin. Alas, no one else,
including our party, saw the Aztec Thrush. Several birders told us they'd recently
seen a trogon or Rufous-backed Robin nearby, but earlier or later than we were out.
There were lots of birders all over the park, especially where the trogon had been
seen. Cactus Wrens and Canyon Towhees serenaded us each time we walked the trail
to the area where the sightings were reported. Their songs and calls were lovely,
especially the towhee, but I heard a mocking tone as if they were saying Nyah,
Nyah. You can find us common birds, but not rarities.
went by. A man my age (I'm 62) came running into the campground up the steps from
the trail. His binoculars held in one hand to keep them from bouncing on his chest.
I had talked to him over the last few days and we had birded together a bit. He
was really moving. I was sure I had seen the trogon. Trogon. Got'ta get my
wife. There's photographer there, he said as he trotted towards his RV. I called
to Sue and headed down the steps to the trail, walking as briskly as I could. Before
I could get to the dry wash where, I was sure, the sighting took place, he and his
wife passed me. Sue caught up and we headed towards a man with a camera. Fearing,
almost knowing, he would say those words a birder hates: you should have been here
a few minute ago, we slowed our pace, approached and looked. There it was, posing,
an adult male, relatively in the open, about 40 feet away. Yes!
I offered to buy a few shots of the bird, and John Van de Graaff, the photographer,
agreed to email them to me for 20 bucks, so I paid him cash, on the spot and never
even got his address or phone number. Weeks later, there were no photos in my mailbox,
but they finally came and accompany this story. If you're not reading this on our
web site, look at them there. The color makes a difference.
day later, the Rufous-backed Robin showed up for us at nearly the same spot as the
The total trip got us 10 or 15 lifers each, including a Clay-colored Robin in south
Texas, and 202 total species. We've been to South Texas many times before, but this
was our first birding trip to Arizona. We fully agree that it deserves its reputation
as a place birders want to see.
And while this is an Arizona story, I have to add that while in the tiny town of
Salineno, Texas, near Falcon Dam, we finally saw a Clay-colored Robin. We've missed
it, sometimes barely, on Texas trip after Texas trip. It was worth the wait.
By Jack Solomon (Photographs by John Van de Graaff)