It’s not as hard as you think to get in to Fort Huachuca, the extensive Army base that’s long been one of the finest birding sites in southeast Arizona. Unlike some of the army owned property in the east which have been effectively off-limits to recreational birders since September 11, 2001, all you need to access the many near-pristine canyons on the base is a photo ID and a pair of binoculars. When we rolled up at 6:30 am after a 4:30 wake-up call in Tucson we were waved through with little fanfare, to pull over beside the road and meet our “guides” for the day, none other than Sheri Williamson and Tom Wood from the Southeast Arizona Bird Observatory. With so many canyons and birds to choose from, they’d decided on the appropriately named Huachuca Canyon, the current “birdy” canyon, for our walk this morning. It turned out to be a good choice.
The canyons in these isolated mountain ranges are a shocking change of pace from the epic heat down in Tucson. The air is a comfortable 70 degrees and dry as a bone, like being in an air conditioned house, but with butterflies and birdsong surrounding you. The trees are tall and wide, a mix of oak and sycamore with thick branches covered with knots that are just begging to be filled with tiny owls and trogon nestholes. The canyons on Fort Huachuca are especially gorgeous because, as they say down here, the army got here first and took the best watering holes. Protected from development and rampant grazing under the auspices of the Department of Defense, these canyons are practically primordial and just filled to the brim with birds.
I was pretty stoked on our drive in that I recognized the burry song of a Western Wood-Pewee out the car window. I took it as a sign I had my western ears on. That excitement faded when we turned out to come across nearly 100 of them, by far the most abundant species in the canyon. They were followed closely by Painted Redstarts. It’s remarkable to think you’d begin to completely ignore these birds as they dance, tails fanned, along the branches, but once you run into your 13th flock they start to fade into the background…
Other warblers were more warmly received. A mixed flock along the creek produced a pair of Red-faced Warblers, once of those fantastic Arizona specialties you have to come up into the pine zone to find. We had fabulous looks, mostly behind branches, but few photo opportunities. The best I managed was identifiable but little more.
But perhaps top on the list of Arizona target species is the Elegant Trogon. There is nothing like it north of the Mexican border, and for all the tropical species that find their way into the United States in this little corner of Arizona, this is arguably the most tropical.
We had some luck spotting a pair of males hooting at each other over an apparent territorial dispute, but that’s hardly how you want to see this bird. In addition to their gaudy colors, trogons have a habit of sitting perfectly still in the forest and being exceptionally difficult to spot. So when we managed to get a few scopes on a male with his back to us, we considered ourselves lucky, if a bit disappointed.
Once we’d reached our determined turn-around point, we quicly came back to the spot where we’d see the trogon before. This time, we spotted one closer, a young bird not long out of the nest. That was pretty cool, but the excitement mounted as the bird began to beg and we were soon eye-to-red-belly with the male pausing to feed the baby a fat hairy caterpillar he deftly plucked from the canopy before our eyes.
Not bad, except that then the male flew over to a tree overhanging the trail and proceeded to perch and call directly above us for several minutes. We experienced full-on trogasm at this point.
It hung around for a while, alternately feeding the chick and yelling at us. I can’t say I’ve had a better experience with an Elegant Trogon, but honestly prior to this point I could count my trogon experiences on one hand. And those were almost 20 years ago, I think the statute of limitations for considering this a life bird re-tick had passed.
The day was hardly over. Heck, once we returned to the parking lot it wasn’t long after that I turned up another pretty spectacular find. But it was the sort of Arizona hike you hope to have. No lifers, but a fantastic morning with some fantastic birds.
More to come.