September 30, 2009
Elegant Trogon male
Elegant Trogon male
In my March, 2008 book, Jim Burns' Arizona Birds:  From The Backyard To The Backwoods, I subtitled the chapter on Elegant Trogon "The Holy Grail."  If there is a single bird among the roughly six dozen Arizona special species that fills the dreams of out-of-state birders planning their first trip to the Southwest, it most assuredly must be Elegant Trogon.

This is a foot long bird, parrot-sized and reminiscent of a parrot at first glance, whose iridescent green back over bright crimson belly simply stuns a first time viewer and puts to shame even the palette of colors seen on Arizona's famous hummingbirds.  Though trogons can be quite "confiding" (birders' code for an individual bird that, contrary to its species' reputation, is approachable and unwary), there are only fifty pair, give or take, in southern Arizona in any one breeding season, and they inhabit relatively remote and shadowy canyons in the sky islands where they can be devilishly hard to find and see well.

Rick Taylor, who has done trogon surveys in the border mountain ranges for over thirty years and wrote the first book on U.S. trogons, Trogons of the Arizona Borderlands, calls them "arguably the most beautiful birds in the United States."  Personally I'd drop "arguably" from that description as I think anyone would who has experienced the male of this species in real life.  The very first written description of a U.S. Elegant Trogon spoke of "a kind of bird of paradise."

I recently received a flyer from Princeton University Press publicizing Trogons, a definitive study of the trogon family worldwide, which they are publishing in September.  Joseph Forshaw, an Australian and the foremost authority on trogons of the world is the author, and Albert Gilbert, an American bird painter, is the illustrator.  His painting for the Elegant Trogon chapter depicts a mated pair perched high in a pine tree against a canyon wall.  It is perfect except its colors can't do justice to the trogon's true brilliance.  I spoke with Al about the book and his excitement at memories of his first trogon sighting in Arizona was palpable through the phone lines from the East Coast.

The price tag on this book is $150.  It is a "collector's  item," and anyone who wants to know everything there is to know about the trogon family will certainly prize possessing it.  Birders, especially those who keep lists, are collectors after all.  To collect your own trogon memories in living color, take a trip to southern Arizona.  A month ago Rick Taylor completed the 30th anniversary Elegant Trogon census in Cave Creek Canyon on the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains.  Fifteen trogons were found in four miles of riparian habitat along the South Fork of the creek.  This is the most reliable site to see Arizona's quintessential bird, but closer to home you could try Madera Canyon in the Santa Ritas or Ramsey Canyon in the Huachucas.  Or you could book a tour with Rick Taylor himself who runs Borderland Tours and has seen more Elegant Trogons than any human being dead or alive.

Elegant Trogon is a mythical bird revered by the ancient Aztecs as a reincarnation of their fallen warriors.  For the unlucky modern birder who has searched and missed, it remains mythical.  For those birders who have found their Holy Grail in the sun dappled canyons of Arizona's borderlands, the Elegant Trogon remains mythical if "myth" be something so awesome and evocative that it lives on forever in the imagination.