As I drove south and mostly east on Interstate 10 I repeated a thought that I often have on bird chases that things rarely go exactly as planned. The original thinking had been that I would arrive at the Northern Jacana stakeout spot at around 9:00 a.m. and that it might take an hour or so for the Northern Jacana to make an appearance and to get first a view and then a photo. Then I had allowed another half hour to get to Himmel Park where I had allocated another hour to find and photograph the Ruddy Ground Dove. So with luck I would be on the road to Cave Creek Canyon before noon arriving there around 3:00 p.m.
Perhaps I had not paid sufficient attention to the many reports of the Eared Quetzal observations but it was my sense that the best chance to find the birds (there were two) was early in the morning. So I figured I would get to Portal Peak Lodge around 2:30 p.m., check in, get some food to eat later at the accompanying “store” and then scope out the area planning for the Quetzal search the next morning. The plan and the reality looked almost nothing alike. I had arrived at the Jacana bridge before 7:00 a.m. and had seen and photographed the Jacana within seconds. Even with a 20 minute stay hoping for better photos I was WAY ahead of schedule. As I drove to Himmel Park, I thought I might find the Ruddy Ground Dove as quickly and be able to get to Cave Creek in time to look for and maybe even find the Quetzals that day. As written in my previous blogs, those Ruddy Ground Doves did not cooperate and I spent about 3 hours traveling to and between three parks that failed to produce a single Ground Dove – Ruddy or not. Oh well, I still had the next day for the Quetzals and the following day to try again for the Ruddy Ground Doves.
One step forward, one step back and then another step forward. It being Sunday, traffic was very light heading south on I-10. The speed limit was generally 75 mph and what traffic there was seemed to be traveling at least 7 mph faster. That was fine by me. I had plotted out the route from Tucson to Portal as part of my pre-trip planning. I was to take I-10 for about 120 miles and then take exit 382 onto Noland Road. I had my Garmin GPS with me and as I approached exit 382, it called for a different route. Sometimes Garmin gets out of whack, so I opted to go where Google Maps told me and turned onto Noland road as suggested. The route was a surprise as soon I was on a dirt and gravel road. It was in good condition but not what I had expected and this continued for at least 25 miles. Still, I made good time and arrived at my lodging for the night by 1:30 p.m. What the heck maybe I would have time to find the Quetzals.
Cave Creek Canyon is in the Chiricahua Mountains which is the largest of the so-called Sky Mountains in Arizona. The elevation ranges from 4500 feet to just ender 10,000 feet. I first visited the area in June 1977 early in my birding career. Among the attractions then was the Elegant Trogon (sometimes called an Elegant Quetzal), a bird I photographed there on my only other visit in August 2017. The scenery is spectacular with cliffs visible behind and above the trees around every turn. There are lots of great birds in the Chiricahuas with the Trogon always being a prize and the many hummingbird species a major attraction.
I arrived at the Portal Peak Lodge around 1:30 p.m. This was the same place I had styed for a couple of nights with a WINGS tour in August 2017. The Lodge rooms are “ok”. The store is “minimal” and the accompanying restaurant is “limited” but welcomed. The price and location are just right for my purposes. I checked in and then headed to Forest Road 42 to start my search at Sunny Flats Campground. The Eared Quetzals had mostly been seen feeding on hackberries in the area between the Campground and a private residence aptly named Trogon Roost. Parking was said to be limited.
My hope was to get to the area, do an exploratory test drive and hopefully find some birders with binoculars or cameras trained on a Quetzal. I found the campground, found Trogon Roost, but did not find a single birder and not a parking place that I was certain was legal. I elected to drive back to the campground, which was closed, park on the entrance road and then hike the area looking for a large green and red bird with a long tail. I quickly found some Acorn Woodpeckers and Mexican Jays and a single Arizona Woodpecker. The latter two are predominantly Mexican species that in the U.S. are found exclusively in Southeast Arizona and a small area in New Mexico (and in Big Bend in Texas for the Jay). I am not paying much attention to ABA listing during this travel restricted year but they are good birds any time.
Just after getting a picture of the Arizona Woodpecker, a car approached. Odds are good that any car at this spot has a birder and possibly one looking for Eared Quetzals. This proved true on both accounts. It was Peg Abbott whose recent Ebird report of her observations of the Quetzals had been my best guide for my search. She told me that the Quetzals had moved and were more likely to be seen much farther up the road past Trogon Roost and close to the bridge. She offered me a ride rather than me going back to my car and then adding another car to the limited area for parking up ahead.
As we approached the bridge, we saw three birders with cameras and binoculars trained on something. Odds were good that it was the Quetzals. I got out while Peg parked further up. Adrenalin kicked in. Birders are almost always glad to share their sightings and as I approached they confirmed that they were seeing a Quetzal and pointed me in the right direction. Adrenalin increased. The Quetzal was buried in the brush something less than 100 feet off the road but I got a quick look and a miserable photo. Then it moved closer and somewhat into the clear for a few seconds. A little better but not a good photo but I was thrilled to see this very rare bird that had been attracting birders from all over the United States for two months now. It was the major motivation for this trip.
Over the next 30+ minutes we were treated to a number of vocalizations, the appearance of a second Quetzal and sporadic great views much closer to us. I took many photos and was very pleased. My only regret was that I could not get a clearly focused one of it in flight with its tail splayed showing large white spots. It was a wonderful experience.
Not expecting to stray far from where I had parked, I had left my backpack in the car. That unfortunately was where my spare camera batteries were located and sure enough I had taken so many photos that day that my battery was on its last gasp. It was about a mile back to my car. I was pleased with the photos I had and really enjoyed hearing and seeing these very rare birds. I decided to walk back to the car and then decide whether to return for more photos with the new battery in place. On the way back, a flock of Wild Turkeys crossed the road in front of me. I took pictures with my phone.
Since it was Sunday, the Portal store and restaurant would be closing at 5:00 pm. It was after 3:30 pm when I got to the car and decided that it would be best to get back to the Lodge, unload my stuff and get some food for later. Seeing the Eared Quetzals was a great ending for the day and I was more than happy. I ordered a taco salad to go for dinner. It was excellent.
I believe these Eared Quetzals may be the first seen in the U.S. in 11 years. Prior to that these there were a few sightings in 2009 and some sporadic reports from the 1990’s. After the birds were found in the Chiricahuas in August this year, a pair was also found in New Mexico. Well more than 100 ABA listers have come from all over the U.S. to see this mega rarity in the past 3 months. Trogons/Quetzals are residents of tropical forests worldwide. The greatest diversity is in the Neotropics with 25 species. There are 3 species in Africa and another 12 species are found in southeast Asia. The Eared Quetzal and the Elegant Trogon are the only ones that have been recorded in the U.S. The Eared Quetzal was the 16th trogon/quetzal species that I have seen. All have been in the New World including ones in Peru, Brazil, Trinidad, Belize and Costa Rica. All of these birds are quite spectacular and colorful. Below is my photo of the Elegant Trogon from Cave Creek three years ago.
Yes, things do not always go according to plans and on trips like this there are usually highs and lows. A big high finding the Northern Jacana and then a big low missing the Ruddy Ground Dove. Then a really big high seeing the Eared Quetzals. Not too shabby for one day. I returned to the lodge and hoped for a good night sleep. I wasn’t sure what the next day would hold. I did not have a room reservation anywhere and there were many options. As it turned out I did not sleep all that well and was up very early. But that is a story for another day and another blog post.