Thursday, November 7, 2013

Eared Quetzal in Madera Canyon

Thursday 11/7/2013:  It was six years, one week, and two days ago, that is 28 Oct 2007, that I found an Eared Quetzal on the Agua Caliente Trail in upper Madera Canyon.  Louise and I were hiking, enjoying the beautiful autumn afternoon, and not really birding when I began hearing a unfamiliar bird call.  After tracking the call down and getting a brief look at the bird, I determined it was an Eared Quetzal.  This was a significant day from a number of standpoints: personally, professionally, and for the birding community.  Though I had lived in Arizona for more than 8 years at this time, I was not part of the local birding community.  Up until this time I did not report any of my sightings, did not attend field trip, or participate on counts.  From a professional standpoint, during the following days the seed of becoming a birding guide was sowed.  And for the birding community, the “Patagonia Roadside Table Effect” occurred where birders searching for one rare species find more rare species. In a few days following my original quetzal observation a Crescent-chested Warbler and an Aztec Thrush were discovered.  Not to mention a few more observations of the quetzal.
Each fall since, in late October through November, I have made a point of searching the upper reaches of Madera Canyon for Eared Quetzal. Today was one of the days; I was hunting quetzal.  My intension was to checkout a couple of the Arizona Madrones trees that were full of berries along the Carrie Nation Trail.  The first such Madrone is just below the first stream crossing.  Last year it was host to a Varied Thrush.  This morning it was host to several American Robins and Hermit Thrush as well as a Red-shafted Flicker.  I continued my trek up the trail, past the second & third stream crossing, heading to a group of Madrones that were full of fruit last week and hosting a good number of birds.  Likewise this morning, however the quetzal I had dreamed about being there was not.  I watched these trees for thirty minutes or so, two male & a female Williamson’s Sapsuckers and my second Townsend’s Solitaire were probably the best birds among a few American Robins, several Red-naped Sapsuckers, and many Hermit Thrushes.  I continue up the trail enjoying the wonderful weather, the falling leaves, and my favorite view along this trail.  My mind begins to wander from my quetzal search; I begin thinking about an up coming trip to Australia and New Zealand.  Before my mind get anywhere near the land-down-under, I hear “kwreeee chunk” call behind me.  I turned around without seeing anything until I hear it again (2-3 seconds between calls).  Through a few twigs I got an obscured binocular view for about three to five seconds of an Eared Quetzal.  As I start reaching for my camera it called again and flies up the slope directly away from me. Two Steller's Jays also took off at the same time and generally headed the same direction.  I was originally about 100 feet from the bird when I observed it and the bird was about 50 feet off the trail.  I head back down the trail in the direction of where the quetzal disappears.  I listen for any sounds that might reveal the quetzal’s new position. After about twenty seconds I hear another call, it sounds distant.  I am not prepared for an off-trail scramble, plus I am alone and no one knows that I am up here.  It is not a good idea and probably futile to pursue.  
The quetzal is definitely not an adult male, I believe it is an adult female based on the darkness of the hood.  Though my view was somewhat obscured I could clearly see the transition from the dark gray breast to red belly without a separating white band, the under tail appeared unmarked white, and the shape was all quetzal (small head, thick body, broad tapered to a rounded end tail). In flight directly away, it looked dark; dark gray head & neck, dark green back, & blackish-blue rump & upper tail.  Only saw the white in the tail briefly when it spread its tail in a slight bank turn.  Coordinates: 31d 41.966m, -110d 52.584m. 
I try to send a text message to Andrew Core. Even though my phone is showing several bars, the text fails to go through.  I try several more times from different spots along the trail, no luck.  I decide to finish the trek and linger in this area again on the way down. 
Above the entrance to the Carrie Nation Mine, an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk seemed to be on guard.  For a Sharpie it allowed a rather close approach and a fairly long period for photo opportunities.  To the bird’s credit, it was backlit and in the shadows. 
Heading down trail, which is easier for birding, I linger in the area of the previous quetzal sighting.  No sight or sound of my quarry.  I loiter around the group of fruiting Madrones; many other birds but no quetzal.  I notice the time and remember that I have quite a few things to do before my departure in a few days.  I expedite my pace yet still enjoying what has turned out to be an especially wonderful day in Madera Canyon.
Back at the parking lot I get my message off to Andrew, only an hour and half after first trying.
Before leaving Madera Canyon, I stop at Madera Kubo briefly to check on a reported Blue-throated Hummingbird and at the Whitehouse Picnic Area for the Red-breasted Sapsucker.  No on the hummingbird, yes on the sapsucker.