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Destination: Arizona : The Rare Elegant Trogon Is the Prize That Draws Thousands to These Wildlife-Rich Canyonlands Just North of the Border

<i> Negri is a Tucson-based free-lance writer. </i>

Everyone had news about the trogons.

“About 200 yards up the trail there are five or six of them, practically at eye level,” a hiker coming down the south fork of Cave Creek Canyon said.

Encouraged by the news, Rick Taylor and the dozen bird-watchers on his tour, including me, accelerated our pace up the shady canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona. Burnt orange cliffs of rhyolite towered above us; tiny rainbow trout skittered in the clear creek adjacent to their trail.

A few hundred feet up the canyon, Taylor stopped, cupped his hands to his mouth and let out a singularly unappealing call that sounded like someone tearing a thick piece of cardboard. Somewhere above, in the dense stands of velvet ash, sycamore, oak, pine and spruce trees, the bird known as the elegant trogon returned the call.

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For the birders on our tour, the call was enough to get the juices rolling. We had hiked about a mile up the narrow canyon on an undulating trail and several times had to cross the creek with puddle-jumping leaps. It seemed to me that some of the participants had done most of their hiking vicariously in the pages of an L. L. Bean catalogue, but age and a lack of flexibility were not going to stand between a birder and the sought-after bird, especially when it was calling so close by.

So we stumbled--I a bit more than the others because it was just after dawn, a time of day I hadn’t seen in years. So be forewarned: If you take an eight-day, trogon trip with Richard “Rick” Taylor, you will rise when the birds rise. You will sleep in an area where luxury hotels are nonexistent. (Most of our group stayed in Spartan but comfortable dormitory-style rooms at the southwest Research Station at Portal, a facility owned by the American Museum of Natural History.) And you will spend a few hours of each day walking, a few more waiting and looking and a bit of time in a van being carried from one site to another.

But for most birders--who don’t seem to mind spending money on expensive binoculars and practical shoes and khaki vests with a million zippered pockets--rising at the crack of dawn and eating over-cooked spaghetti and limp vegetables is perfectly acceptable, if it means getting to see a few birds they can’t see at home.

One participant who travels a lot in his business said he always gets a field guide for the part of the country he’s visiting before he leaves the East Coast. He then integrates some bird-watching into his business trip the same way swimmers and joggers incorporate exercise into theirs. You see the point: Most people on birding tours are mainliners. If you sneeze and scare off a bird, you might get hit.

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So there we were, one groggy journalist and a bunch of Elderhostel types who were bright and chipper and not the least bit concerned with the hour of day or the threat of bark scorpions that might be lurking under the rocks we used as paving stones to cross the creek, when suddenly Taylor came to a tense halt, his eyes scanned the tree-tops.

“They’re out there,” Taylor said, “above the canopy.”

Another couple came down the canyon with more information:

“There are two or three of them just above the next creek crossing. They’re high up, but you can hear them calling.”

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No one asked whether Taylor and his birding group--easily identified by the binoculars and cloth hats decorated with campaign pins from bird counts in other parts of the country--were looking for trogons. The trogons of the South Fork area are so well known to birders of the world that they serve as the area’s economic base.

A rare and beautiful bird that’s sometimes called the coppery-tailed trogon, the elegant trogon is nearly a foot long and vaguely resembles a parrot. Before 1886, there were no first-hand reports of trogons north of Mexico. The first positive identification of a trogon in the United States was made that year by Lt. H.C. Benson, an off-duty Army officer stationed west of the Chiricahuas at Ft. Huachuca, a military base on the fringe of what is now the town of Sierra Vista.

Today there are fewer than 50 pairs of these birds in the United States, all concentrated in four mountain ranges in southern Arizona. By far the easiest place to see them is in the Cave Creek drainage of the Chiricahua Mountains--about 160 miles southeast of Tucson--where their nests are scattered at half mile intervals along Cave Creek stream. Around South Fork, at least one nest can usually be found within a quarter-mile of the parking lot at the road’s end, about five minutes’ drive from the tiny community of Portal near the Arizona-New Mexico border.

By far the easiest way to see them in this remote area is to get on one of Taylor’s tours. Taylor, who started doing research on the trogons in 1976, estimates that a minimum of 50,000 visitors per year go to Portal primarily to see the elegant trogons that come up from Mexico each April to summer along the south fork of Cave Creek.

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“It’s one of the three most sought-after non-game birds in the United States,” he said. That list until recently included the whooping crane and the California condor. But since Taylor made that statement, all California condors have been taken out of the wild for a captive breeding program. “The trogons are as rare as the whooping cranes in the United States.”

Trogon experts may be rarer than both. Taylor, author of a book, “Trogons of the Arizona Borderlands,” (Treasure Chest Publications, Tucson; $10.95) began studying the birds long before the term eco-tourism entered the travelers’ lexicon, and years before he ever envisioned supporting himself by leading visitors on natural history and birding tours throughout the world.

At the time, he was living about 14 miles north of South Fork in Whitetail Canyon (now his part-time home). He had just finished writing a guidebook, “Hiking Trails and Wilderness Routes of the Chiricahua Mountains,” and employment opportunities being few in that remote corner of Arizona, he launched what he thought would be “a fast and easy project,” a short fact-filled book on the elegant trogon. The book would be based on research funded by several Arizona chapters of the Audubon Society. The commercial value of a work so narrowly focused was minimal, but Taylor didn’t care. It was the mission that was most important to him.

After all, trogons are extraordinarily attractive birds. The male has a scarlet breast, smoke-gray wings, an emerald green body, a yellow bill and an orange eye ring circling a large dark pupil. Females are dove-gray with coppery tails and a white eye ring with an inner pencil line of orange. In short, Taylor says, “This bird happens to be glamorous.”

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Furthermore, trogons are fussy about where they live. “So limited are they in their choice of habitat that the knowledgeable can predict, almost to the acre, where trogons are likely to summer,” he says. The majority of trogons that come across the Mexican border end up in four major canyons in the Chiricahua, Santa Rita, Huachuca and Atascosa Mountains, spanning about 125 miles of the Arizona-Sonora border.

Within these mountains, the trogons occupy approximately 1,000 acres where they live on insects and the fruit of the canyon grape vine and southwestern chokecherry tree, among other plants. Taylor knows these things because for nearly a decade he hiked more than 500 miles a year in search of trogon nests. (Ironically, in 1993, after spending 16 years on bad roads and finicky trails looking for these birds, a pair of trogons built a nest a few feet from his home in the Chiricahuas.)

“South Fork” Taylor says, “represents the best, and perhaps the only, undisturbed example of a canyon system spanning all the life zones, from ocotillo to spruce highland, in the Coronado National Forest . . . more rare and unusual plants and animals are found in South Fork than any other canyon in the Southwest.” Because of that accident of nature, more trogons nest in South Fork than any other canyon in the United States, a fact that has not escaped the attention of avid bird-watchers throughout the country.

*

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In 1980, a year after Audubon Magazine crowned him “Arizona’s resident trogon expert,” Taylor started Borderland Tours to merge his interest in birds and natural history with his need to make a living. He didn’t realize at the time that he had entered the ground floor of a new industry called eco-tourism. It simply happened, and it snowballed to the point that Taylor now leads ecologically oriented trips throughout the world. His reputation as a knowledgeable and affable guide usually precedes him, which is why, about this time last year, I joined a dozen bird-watchers from Southern California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, in swooping into southern Arizona for one of his weeklong Owls and Trogons tours. Our group was one of several he takes out each spring, when the trogons show up for nesting. Almost everyone on the trip was, as Connecticut resident Betty Kleiner put it, “a hard-core birder.” And most, like Tony Buonocore, were there for the trogons.

“The main appeal of this trip is definitely the trogons, and especially the possibility of seeing an eared trogon,” said Buonocore, a management consultant from Mendham, N.J. (In 1977 Taylor reported the first sighting of the eared trogon in the United States.)

Before the week was out, we would see at least a dozen trogons and nine species of owls.

“I was right behind Gil Kleiner when he saw the male trogon,” said Julia Marsden of Burnet, Tex., “and I’ll tell you, I was three feet off the ground because I’ve never seen one before.”

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Fortunately, there was no shortage of other birds. There were so many, in fact, that as Taylor scanned the treetops along the trail, he sounded like a sports announcer at a fast-paced game:

“Black-throated gray warbler in the sycamore dead ahead, two thirds up the main trunk. Painted redstart just off the trail on the left, maybe 30 feet ahead. Listen, there’s a musical hermit thrush. Studies say its call is the closest to the harmonics of a clarinet of any bird song. Acorn woodpecker in the silver leaf oak just this side of the creek, about eye level. Brown-crested flycatcher in the Apache pine. Hey, listen, that’s Scott’s oriole singing so beautifully out there!”

There are more than 350 species of birds in the Chiricahua Mountains, and many of them can be seen at South Fork, where the diversity of plants also sustains some of the 74 species of mammals, at least 31 kinds of snakes, 24 lizards, four turtles and 13 frogs and toads that call the Chiricahuas home.

However, the main lure of the area remains the trogons, a bird Taylor speaks of with hyperbolic intensity. He is their advocate, protector, a sort of bragging grandfather.

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He recently launched a campaign to get the elegant trogon added to the federal list of threatened and endangered species. He swivels away from his computer and tugs on the strands of a mustache that refuses to grow in evenly, and he is off and running:

“Listen, the elegant trogon should be on that list. I hate to say it, but most birds on the endangered list are small, ugly or secretive and don’t have a big impact on things like motels, restaurants, car rentals and airline ticket sales. This bird happens to be charismatic. A hundred trogons are probably bringing 50,000 tourists a year to southern Arizona. These birds--with no exaggeration--are worth a million dollars each to the economy of southern Arizona.”

GUIDEBOOK

Birding in Southern Arizona

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Getting There: The Chiricahua Mountains are in the southeastern corner of Arizona. You can fly either to Phoenix or Tucson and rent a car. It’s a shorter drive from Tucson. Delta, America West and Southwest provide regular service between Los Angeles and Phoenix with round-trip fare starting at about $90. Delta and America West also provide regular flights between LAX and Tucson with round-trip fares beginning at about $100. Flying time is approximately one hour. Portal, Ariz., is a 150-mile one-way drive from Tucson; if you’re driving from Phoenix tack on another 125 miles each way. From either city, take Interstate 10 east to the Portal Road exit at San Simon and follow the signs.

Where to stay: Accommodations are limited in Portal. The best rooms are at the Portal Peak Lodge (P.O. Box 364, Portal, Ariz. 85632; tel. 602-558-2223). There are 16 rooms at $65 per night.

The American Museum of Natural History has a research station at Portal. When the place isn’t filled with visiting scientists, dormitory-style rooms are available at $50 per person per night; tel. (602) 558-2396. The station’s rooms are closed to the general public between May 15 and Aug. 31.

Seeing the birds: Borderland Tours, $995 for eight days, food, lodging, airport pickup and local transportation provided; (602) 882-7650.

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For those wanting to go it alone, rent a car in Tucson or Phoenix and allow three hours to drive to Portal and Cave Creek. Look for trogons in the canopy over Cave Creek, about a quarter-mile from the parking area.


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