Arizona 2015: The Return to Madera Canyon — Elegant Trogon or Bust!

Getting back to my hotel in Green Valley that afternoon on the 31st after lifering hard at Mt. Lemmon, Florida Canyon, and Madera Canyon, I couldn’t take any more birding, mostly because my stomach bug was still raging hard. I got about an hour’s rest before Evan made a big birding discovery at the hotel that forced me into full-on birding mode again.  This discovery will be the focus of the next blog post. Once that excitement settled down, I finally collected my thoughts enough to remember that Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre were counting on me to check the internet for Trogon reports to decide what we should do in the morning.  According to eBird, no Trogons had been seen for over a week at Patagonia Lake State Park.  On the other hand, just the day before, Eric Ripma had eBirded two male Elegant Trogons 1/4 mile up the Super Trail at Madera Canyon.  The choice was now clear, especially since Madera was a short 15 minute drive away where Patagonia was closer to an hour.  I texted Gordon and we all mutually agreed that Madera it was.

After telling Evan about the cool birds I saw and after he had some good sightings at the hotel, he was in a birding mood and wanted to go on the Trogon hunt the next morning.  I felt our chances were decent after that eBird report, so I was glad he made that decision.  Adding to the excitement was that my health was back to 100% on April Fools morning.  It was feeling like a GREAT day to lifer on my grail bird.


Tommy and Gordon picked us up at the hotel at 6:00 to bring us back to the mountain.  As we drove to the Super Trail parking lot, Evan lifered on Mexican Jay out the car window near the Santa Rita Lodge.  We weren’t stopping for those secondary lifers, though.  We were on a mission, and our crew-leader Tommy was shouldering all the weight and anxiety of the Trogon hunt.  Like Kirby Puckett in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, Tommy was putting the team on his back and was determined to bring us all to glory.  Before we got to hiking that morning, Tommy spoke to me in a hushed tone, “Now, I don’t want you to get your hopes up, but Gordon and I scouted the Super Trail last night and we…heard a Trogon.”

“Yeah, I won’t get my hopes up,” I lied between pounding heartbeats.

Almost immediately after we got on the Super Trail, Evan had his Painted Redstart lifer.  I was happy for him because I knew he also really wanted to see this bird too even though he didn’t go with me to Mt. Lemmon the day before. Gordon pointed out a Bushtit at one point which didn’t get me too excited since I had seen them and crushed them in Colorado.  Evan chimed in, though, and reminded me that that was a life bird for him! Oops.

Not long after that I spotted a crazy-looking creature barreling down the path toward us.  It turned out to be a single-striped morph of the Hooded Skunk.

Hooded Skunk

I’ve learned that birders, myself included, are an easily distracted lot, especially when it comes to cool animals.  The TROGONS-ONLY! mode was now set-aside for a wild-skunk chase, a venture that could have gone south in so many regards.

Gordon Tommy Evan

Front to Back: Gordon Karre, Evan, Tommy DeBardeleben

Thankfully it didn’t, though, and we were back on the Super Trail hunting for Trogons again.  A little bit later as we were walking along looking at every mid-level perch along the canyon wash for our target, an exotic bird sound boomed and brought us to an abrupt halt.

“That’s it!” Tommy exclaimed.  Tommy thought he heard it further up the wash, but as we all paused to listen, the sound was coming from behind us in an area we had already walked past!  Tommy had been leading our single-file procession up the wash and was actually the furthest from the bird.  Tommy immediately sprung into action and quickly walked by all of us to now take the lead in the opposite direction we had been traveling.  It was an extremely serious and tense moment–we were on the cusp of glory, and we could all taste it. The whole time we were hearing the cool sound of the calling Elegant Trogon and multiple heart beats were collectively being skipped.  In seconds Tommy had pinned the location of the calling Trogon from across the wash.  Then, magic happened– he saw it take flight, in all its splendor, and land on our side of the wash!  This was the moment when Tommy pointed it out to all of us and became a greater hero than Kirby Puckett. We got to see it in the early morning light briefly before it flew into an open area allowing incredible but brief looks.  It was staggering. We were really looking at an Elegant Trogon. I managed to get a couple photos before it flew further up the mountain slope.  Considering the early morning light and the bird’s unwillingness to sit still, I was beyond thrilled to get this shot which is the best souvenir I could hope for from the 2015 AZ trip.

Elegant Trogon

I never could get that classic shot of the bright orange belly and white neck band, though I saw those features whenever the bird would fly.  That forward look was the photo I really wanted, but the more I think about it, the more I like the photo above because it shows off the bird’s emerald sheen on its back as well as its coppery tail.  You don’t see that too often in photos.  And considering some birders dip completely on the Trogon or get crummy views at best, I count myself extremely lucky for the sighting alone.  This photo was the icing on the cake.

That said, I didn’t stop trying for the classic shot.  I never got it, but it’s a right of passage that I should post at least one blurry, bigfoot-esque photo of this massive prize.  At least you can get a sense of the bird’s orange belly.

Elegant Trogon Tommy and Gordon were excited with the find too, namely because they had gotten us this key lifer, but also because it is a fantastic year bird for them.  The only comparison I have is a Great Gray Owl to a Minnesota birder–it’s a bird we can never count on, is elusive and easily missed, and is always a thrill to see.  So as the bird kept calling and moving up the slope, Tommy asked me, “You want to go after it, Josh?”  Um, yeah!

Tommy, Evan, and I started racing up the slope for better looks at this bird.  It continued to call and move often, which Tommy believes is a sign that it was looking for a mate.  Evan was having trouble on the steep incline with his sandals, so he waited on the trail with Gordon while Tommy and I went uphill.  Eventually the bird had gone completely out of sight and earshot, and we gave up and headed back down the hill.  Once Evan and I were in sight of each other again, he called up the mountain with a huge grin on his face, “Hey dad, I just got my Arizona Woodpecker!”

“What?! You beat me to it?!”

This was the smug look that met me at the bottom of the hill.  Do you see the smug all over that face?


He and Gordon had gone behind my back, literally and figuratively, for this life bird which I was now desperate to see even though I had just come off a literal mountain-high from seeing the coolest bird of my life.  But it didn’t take long for Gordon to find the AZ specialty  for me too.  I got crummy looks, but a lifer is a lifer after all.

Arizona WoodpeckerAfter double-lifering, our party of four continued up the wash in hopes of refinding the Trogon or finding a new one altogether.

Gordon Tommy Evan

L-R: Tommy, Evan, Gordon

Sadly, we never did see or hear the Trogon again even though we walked the wash as far as we could.  The walk back was pleasant with lots of bounce in all our steps as we had secured the main treasure.  As we walked along, I could visibly tell that a weight had been lifted from Tommy’s shoulders.  He was relaxed; he had done his job that he took more seriously than anyone else.  The rest of us were all just on Cloud 9, now enjoying being in bonus-birding mode.  To kick things off, we had another lovely Painted Redstart, and Tommy found Evan his Townsend’s Solitaire lifer.

Townsend's SolitaireFinally the sun crested the mountain peaks, washing the valleys below with beautiful light.  Evan announced he had found a great photo-op of an abiding Mexican Jay while Gordon and Tommy simultaneously found him his Hutton’s Vireo lifer.  I opted for photographing the Jay while Evan got his Vireo.  Great photo-scouting, Evan.

Mexican JayAnd nearing the parking lot, we were also able to get Evan his Bridled Titmouse lifer.  I was finally able to get a photo of them.

Bridled Titmouse

Getting back to the car, we decided to make a stop at the spot in Madera Canyon where Gordon and Tommy crushed Whiskered Screech-Owls the night before.  I got to sleep in a hotel room the previous night instead of a tent. They got WHSOs.  I guess that’s a fair trade, or not. Definitely not. I’d sleep on a rock for those shots: Tommy’s photos and Gordon’s photos. Sadly, our brief owl search turned up nothing, other than a nice photo op of a lone Band-tailed Pigeon that Gordon found.

Band-tailed Pigeon

Evan and I then hung out at the Santa Rita Lodge feeders to get Evan caught up on some lifers while Tommy and Gordon went to work packing up their campsite.  Evan quickly lifered on Broad-billed Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, and Red-naped Sapsucker.

Acorn Woodpecker

Red-naped Sapsucker

Red-naped Sapsucker

We also had an Arizona Woodpecker fly over our heads, and Evan finally got good looks at numerous Lesser Goldfinches.  His lifering on LEGO was the same brief sighting as mine in Colorado.

Lesser Goldfinch

After enjoying these birds for a little while, Evan and I went into the gift shop at Santa Rita Lodge where we were greatly wooed by anything and everything Elegant.  There’s nothing as effective as victory for loosening the purse strings: Trogon hat for me, Trogon pin for Evan, Trogon postcard for Randy back home who’s always dipped on ELTR…  Thankfully, Tommy and Gordon came back before we were completely bedecked in Trogon bling/apparel.

It was a monumental morning that will go down in the Wallestad birding history books as one of the greatest birding adventures of all time. We got the big guy.  All the dreaming and planning culminated in success. Moreover, Evan added nine additional lifers, including the dazzling and much coveted Painted Redstart. A huge thanks goes out to Tommy and Gordon for making it all happen. The only fitting way to end this post is a group photo of the conquerors.  These men will never be the same; they belong to an elite club.  They stand a little taller.  They walk with confidence. These men have seen the Elegant Trogon.

Josh Gordon Tommy Evan

L-R: Yours Truly, Gordon, Evan, Tommy

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.

Custer’s Last Stand

As I packed the car that last morning in Colorado, the Western Tanager was weighing heavily on my mind.  Yes, I had seen it earlier in the week, but the quick looks and obscured photos were unsatisfactory. Additionally Evan wanted it too.  There would be time for one last play. But I doubted that play and felt that Custer County was going to defeat us as it had us surrounded with Western Tanager-less mountains (or so it seemed).  Custer was the last option to see WETA as we’d be heading east out of Colorado into lower elevations and windswept grasslands.

I had been debating two options for that play – back to Forest Service Road 383 by Bishop’s Castle where six WETA had been reported or back to Greenwood Road where two had been reported.  I got skunked on 383 earlier, and it just didn’t give me a good vibe overall.  I finally settled on Greenwood Road; it wasn’t as much of a detour, and I had previous success there. Statistically speaking it was the worse bet, but sometimes a birder has to follow his gut.

With that decision made, we said our goodbyes and began descending the mountain to the Wet Mountain Valley below.  As I drove away, fear of not seeing the bird mixed with doubt about my decision.  All this was churning inside when I spotted a larger bird at the top of a Ponderosa while that mountain home was still visible and looming large up on the mountain behind us.  I had quickly become acclimated to the new species at Jon and Carol’s house and this one didn’t fit any of the profiles. Even as I reached for my binoculars on the floor of my car I had a strong suspicion of what I was about to see and could hardly get those bins up fast enough.  And my suspicion was right for I was looking at a Clark’s Nutcracker! Oh yeah!

Clark's Nutcracker

Clark’s Nutcracker

Evan looked up to get his check mark while I hopped out to follow this bird around a bit and get some photos.  I had hoped I would get this bird in Colorado, but I had read it’s a high elevation bird near the timberline.  Needless to say I was quite surprised and delighted to find one at 8,300 feet.  The whole time I observed it, it made this rasping, croaking sound.  I had heard that sound the past couple days but didn’t know what was making it.

Clark's NutcrackerClark's NutcrackerThis was quite the thrill seeing this cool bird.  Every new western species I find is a double bonus – it is one more for the life list and one less vagrant to chase in Minnesota.  I missed out on a Clark’s in Minnesota just before I really got serious about birding.

Now the prospect of potentially losing out on Western Tanager was easier to stomach. We eventually left the Clark’s to do his croaking and eating in peace, and we later arrived at the Greenwood Road for the moment of truth.  This road is a few miles long with very few inhabitants.  It was a nice, quiet, birdy-kind-of-road.  Not wanting to make this trip agonizingly long for the family, I was traveling around 25 mph – slow enough to bird but not too slow to keep us from making decent progress on our way home. Melissa then told me I’d never see anything going that fast.  (Isn’t she great?) Ok, then, so I dropped it down to 5 mph.  Melissa asked me what we were looking for so she could help.  Some of you may remember that she found all five of those Aitkin County Great Gray Owls and that bevy of Burrowing Owls in Arizona.  Anyhow, I explained the red, yellow, and black pattern to her of the tanager.  I no sooner said it and she pointed and said there was a bright yellow and black bird in the pine just ahead of us.  No binoculars were needed to see we already found the Western Tanager!  Of course, Evan couldn’t see it and the pressure or exhaustion was getting to him and the tears started coming.  I hopped out to grab a photo while Melissa was able to get him on the bird.  But that sneaky WETA was using his best goldfinch disguise.  I only got this shot before it flew across the road and down to the ground.

Western Tanager

I watched and watched the spot where it flew to the ground.  What in the world? They’re supposed to be birds who prefer the tops of conifers.  Eventually I figured it out as the now soggy Western Tanager flew up to a bush after bathing in the quiet mountain stream that was running alongside the road.

Western Tanager

The bird continued to sit in one spot, preening itself.  Even though it was still, the distance was too great and the bird too wet for any remarkable photo.

Western Tanager

Eventually it flew, and I couldn’t relocate it.  It was nice to get this one for Evan.  I was also able to improve my photo of the bird just a little, so I was content.  Even still, we kept birding.  There could be more Western Tanagers around.  We saw some empids, and based on eBird reports they were probably new birds for us.  I didn’t care though.  I will fight the empid identification battle in retirement when I have more time.  Time was precious right now, and I wanted to see more Western Tanagers with our last remaining minutes in the mountains.

Evan and I searching for WETA on foot on Greenwood Road, Custer County, Colorado

Evan and I searching for Western Tanagers along Greenwood Road, Custer County, Colorado

Reaching the end of the short Greenwood Road, we turned around to drive down it and back one more time.  Good thing we did because I saw another(?) Western Tanager fly across the road.  I got one photo before it was gone for good. Not a crush, but it was enough to defeat Custer.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

Though I was still ignoring empids and the like, there was a bird I couldn’t ignore because its size, its numbers, and its awesomeness wouldn’t allow it. From a streamside Willow Tree, a half dozen big birds flushed high into the pines above.  From the same eBird report I had read earlier, I knew these were Band-tailed Pigeons!  And they kept pouring out of that tree.  We must have seen 20.

Band-tailed Pigeons

Band-tailed Pigeon

Band-tailed Pigeon

Band-tailed Pigeon

Two big bonus lifers (three for Evan) and the number one target nailed – I think we beat you, Custer.  In the last post I had said this would be the final Colorado post, but leaving the mountains is a natural break in the story and a good place to stop.  The story of the rest of the journey home will be a short and sweet post and will truly be the last one. Colorado had one more big gift for Evan, and Nebraska surprised us.