Thursday, June 27, 2013

Lessons in Elegance: Six Notes on Not Seeing Trogons


by Keith Ashley

1           The Elegant Trogon is an exotic bird, not in the ecological sense of an introduced species, but exotic as in WOW!, dazzling, striking, strange, and—despite breeding in southeastern Arizona—wonderfully evocative of the tropics: parrots, toucans, fruity drinks, rainforest splendor.  Thirty-eight other trogon species fly around Mexico, Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. Just a glimpse of a bird like this can really take you places.

The male trogon’s deep green back, head, and throat feathers glisten metallic-bronze; its lower breast and belly glimmer just between super-ripe papaya orange and Scarlet Macaw red. Mid-breast, a white crescent necklace separates these colors.  The bird’s black face intensifies its vivid orange eye ring and stout, down-curved, yellow bill.  The female wears her own palette—slate brown above, rose pink below, with a white teardrop just behind the eye.  Trogons have a long, dramatic, square-cut tail and a thick, mildly frog-pouchy throat.

I did not see a trogon last weekend.  I did, however, partake in the Tucson Audubon Society (TAS) Important Bird Area (IBA) trogon census—an effort to determine just how many of these swanky birds inhabit canyons of the Chiricahua, Huachuca, Santa Rita, Atascosa and Patagonia Mountains.  From the first nifty maps of the region that Jennie MacFarland, the IBA coordinator, e-mailed me, I felt the bond with this old bird friend beginning to deepen.  Mid-weekend I began to comprehend the true elegance of citizen science.

One of Madera's green vistas

2          Friday’s volunteer training began with lessons in trogon calls facilitated by local trogon Jedi Master Rick Taylor.  Our mission would be to spend five hours (three sitting, two walking) in an assigned swath of likely trogon territory noting on a protocol form, in five-minute intervals, the trogons we could see or hear.  If possible we were also to identify their calls. 

The koa-koa-koa call sounds something like a hoarse seal begging for fish and is performed as a series of four to six notes, this series repeated as long as the bird has something to say.  Our vocal coach described the koa as typical of a male searching for a mate.  The female has a complimentary, deeper croak, delivered far less frequently.  The kuh call is produced by a mated bird and, according to Rick, when the bird is “feeling intense about life.”  It might indicate a dispute in territory boundaries or a pre-copulation thrill. The alarm call, wkkk-wkkk-wkkk, was likened to that of a woodpecker and would likely indicate a nest being threatened, perhaps by another bird, a lizard, a squirrel, or a TAS-IBA trogon census volunteer.  (Step away from the nest.)

I’ve seen and heard trogons gleefully for years, but just this brief introduction to their communication system opened my ears to elegant complexities of this bird’s life that I’ve been missing.

Spiny Lizard

3          Saturday morning I arrived in Madera Canyon to be immediately greeted by the unmistakable koa (—or was that a kuh?)  I noted it on the protocol as the bird moved up the canyon over the course of the next half hour, seeming to vacillate between the two calls regularly, occasionally throwing in what sounded to me a lot like an oink.  (Just keeping the citizen in citizen science.)  I learned that it takes a while to really train the ears.

I’ve always been a minimum speed-limit birder—no scopes, tapes, smart-phone aps, wooden turkey whistles—but sitting in one spot for three hours noting the calls of a single unseen species was a new adventure in deceleration.  Once the sun hit my patch of canyon, Magnificent Hummingbirds (the giant five-and-a-quarter inchers with electric green throats and shiny purple skull caps) probed their way along a trail of thistle buds climbing pink up the stone creek bed.  As the air warmed further Arizona Sister Butterflies appeared, obbish-long, black and white, with large orange spots on their forewings.  They floated around the bases and among the lower branches of massive white-barked Arizona Sycamores, checker-barked Alligator Junipers, thick-leaved Mexican Blue Oaks. 

A House Wren poked its head from a small hole in a sycamore.  Soon it popped its body out, lit on a twig, and fountained forth its trickling song of tsi-oodle, tsi-oodles.  Before long it was followed out by two trembling fledglings, which it began to alternately ply with insects.  One by one special envoys from the Sky Island suite of species presented themselves for my viewing pleasure: a Mountain Spiny Lizard, an Arizona Woodpecker, bright red penstemon, a flash mob of Mexican Jays, columbine, and some tiny brown critter that might have been a shrew.  The message seemed clear: slow birding pays.

I also had time to contemplate the potential nightmare of the Rosemont Mine blasting away on the other side of these incredibly bio-diverse and peaceful mountains.  Surely we can find a more elegant solution to our resource desires.

Sunday morning my assigned transect in the Patagonia Mountains had the beguiling name of Blue Nose Canyon.  Turns out a small silver mining operation—the Blue Nose Mine—ran through there back in the 1920’s.  This time I was free to hike for the full five hours through a wild and very recently back-burned canyon.  Wildlife was plentiful despite the lack of undergrowth.  This time I didn’t hear the trogon call until my final half hour.  I gave chase, but the bird was somehow always a hillside ahead of me. 

 Arizona Sycamore

4          For the weekend I was paired with a super-smart birder, a retired Kindergarten teacher, who had done her birding homework well and knew, as far as I could tell, every possible bird call, diacritical marking and local birding hotspot.  We met for the first time at the Friday evening training, for the second time at 4:45 am Saturday morning in a Safeway parking lot.  

I don’t know what community is if it’s not the elegant sharing of resources (automobile, gasoline, pizza) and knowledge (Barbara taught me how to identify a Cassin’s Kingbird, fail safe, and lead me to my first Violet-crowned Hummingbird).  We also exchanged lots and lots of birding stories from Green Woodpeckers in Europe to Tucson backyard quail.

5          While I did not see trogons, the consolation prizes far outweighed any disappointment:  a dozen Painted Redstarts posing with their tails spread, startling red breasts on display; Blue Grosbeaks shining bright; Sulfur-bellied Flycatchers squeaking like wet shoes on linoleum; Bridled Titmice; Hepatic Tanagers; a Black-throated Gray Warbler.  Where we camped in the Patagonia Mountains a Gray Hawk circled round the meadow, squealing and whistling.  During my hike through Blue Nose Canyon, I sat down to rest by an old pipe that dripped water into a shallow basin—some strange relic of the mining days, I’d guess.  Birds dropped by for quick sips regularly.  I looked up at the hillside to discover I was myself the object of intense study by a long-nosed and longer-tailed coatimundi!

Penstemon
6          We just received the final tallies from Rick and it seems that the trogon population remains stable in southeastern Arizona with an “irreducible minimum” of 86 individuals counted on the census days, and a projected grand total of 97, including some birds known to reside in remote canyons not visited by the 79 volunteer trogon counters. 

I’ve known that participating in bird counts and other species surveys enables us to give back, to contribute in gathering valuable knowledge to support the creatures we love. I was, however, surprised to discover how the learning and weekend-long focus on trogons transformed my personal investment in this species.  What an unusual and exotic treasure—let’s be sure they always have a home here!

Citizen science harnesses the observational acumen of hobby wildlife watchers to increase the scope of scientific fieldwork and data gathering. I would have likely been hiking and birding last weekend anyway—burning gas, tromping around wild places, expending human energy—why not feed several birds with one seed?  That’s elegant.


Image credits Keith Ashley. For more information on the Important Bird Area program and how you can volunteer, please contact Jennie MacFarland at jmacfarland@tucsonaudubon.org.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks, we value your opinions! Your comment will be reviewed before being published.