Saturday, June 20, 2020

As Rare as a Unicorn

The incredible beauty of Portal, AZ.  A must visit place for all people to see, especially for birders
On the day the Eared Quetzal showed up in Southern Arizona, it would also be the day I was in a no WiFi zone in Box Canyon with Celeste. There we casually observed a beautiful group of White-throated Swifts feeding babies.  Meanwhile the birding world was literally and figuratively on fire elsewhere. Our Catalina mountain near Tucson is STILL on fire.  The other fire was the one that spread just as fast, only by word of mouth.

White-throated Swift
In the background, we had Scott's Orioles and Five-striped Sparrows singing. A Lucifer Hummingbird buzzed us with a loud speeding motorcycle VROOOM!  Sure, they are all exceptional birds but so were the swifts.  Since when do we ever get chances to see this species in action?  There, in the high rocks on the cliff in that little crack, the little ones called out to the group with their hungry call, "Feed us!"  And the group of swifts would all go and feed the babies. 

As we left our beautiful trek from Box Canyon and the grasslands, we hit a wifi spot and saw that a very rare Eared Quetzal was seen in the Chiricahua Mountains.  I have waited so long to see that bird.  It would be a lifer and one from my bucket list.  But by the time we got back from our birding, we were both too tired to make the nearly 3 hour drive to a remote part of the state.  It would have been dark by the time we got there.  

We planned to go if the bird had been seen again.  We were set for a Thursday trek to Portal.  After the day it was reported, the bird was nowhere to be found for several days.  "I should have gone!  I should have gone!"  The group who saw the bird had really nice views. Usually this bird is a heard only species in the dense forest.  Sometimes, it's seen but briefly!  But on that first night reported, the bird was so cooperative for that evening crew of birders that they even got pictures!  I was angry with myself.  I remember a friend's words to me about rare birds. "You can rest when you're dead." I was so angry with myself for NOT TRYING!  Even if I had dipped, I would have felt better because I had made the attempt.  Now it was too late. I'd probably have to wait another 10-20 years or go to Mexico. The latter was the original plan.

Western Wood-Pewee building a nest
The next day we were supposed to go but there weren't any sightings.  We made the tough decision to stay.  I suggested we hike the Carrie Nation Trail to find bear and our own Eared Quetzal!  It was the right decision but a grueling hike!  The bird song was so beautiful. Hermit Thrushes sang and their electronic melodies echoed throughout the canyon. 

Arizona Sister
The bird show was incredible as were the lizards and butterflies.  A hiker was so excited about the bears that he even filmed them and showed me his videos.  What a beautiful thing to see! 

Yarrow's Spiny Lizard
We were exhausted after that day.  Still no reports of an Eared Quetzal.  My iceless cooler arrived as I got home from our Carrie Nation Trail hike.  I was so excited.  You just plug it into the outlet in your vehicle and drive while it keeps all your meals and drinks cool!  No need to get covid or stop at restaurants.  People reminded me to make sure I unplugged it after I was driving so that I didn't kill my car battery.  

This cooler came at the right time because I was going to get to see my friend Gordon for a Saturday morning run up to Globe where we would bird. We hadn't been able to bird for several months and I was looking forward to seeing him. That night, I set all my equipment out, including my new iceless cooler!  I prepped my meals for the day and then all hell broke lose. 

This pic is not mine, from KOLD news
That evening our Santa Catalina mountain exploded with fire. I had some friends leave their home to take a fun weekend trip up to a cooler location.  When they left, there was no fire.  As the wind picked up, the flames spread quickly and raced down the mountain towards their home.  Their neighborhood was set to GO which means that they had to evacuate.  Our friend Lori got their dogs and watched the fire as it approached their home. The town of Catalina was almost up in flames.  This lasted until 3 in the morning as everyone worried about this fire.  Our friends drove back the next day and thankfully, the fire fighters were able to keep it away from their property!  But the fire still threatens surrounding communities.  Now it's on the other side by my friend Celeste's home!

Mexican Jay
I was supposed to leave the house by 4 AM so that I could meet Gordon by 6 in Globe.  Well, that wasn't going to happen so I texted him and let him know that my plans to meet him had changed. I went to sleep and didn't wake up until 10 AM.  I sat in the pajamas bummed yet again that I missed birding with my friend, watching the fire grow out of control on the Catalina mountains, and reading a few of the birder's posts who had seen the Eared Quetzal that one special night.  I should have gone.  I should have gone. 

All my stuff still sat on the table.  The backpack.  The cooler.  The camera and water flask were charged and full.  Then a birding friend, Steve V, posted on FB that the quetzal was seen again.  I grabbed my face mask and without thinking, loaded my vehicle, the USS Betty White, with all my stuff.  And I drove.

My first view of the Eared Quetzal!
I put on relaxing music to calm my inner anxiety.  But I felt better because I was acting and not feeling sorry for myself or making terrible excuses for not going.  

This bird, like its close relative, the Elegant Trogon, blends perfectly into the shadows of trees. 

Then the bird flew our way!  NO WAY!  
There were a lot of birders with smiling faces that afternoon.  Fast track to now and there have been hundreds of birders who remain hopeful.  Even as I write this, there are people from all over the US keeping an eye out for this rare Arizona gem.  For me, it was a lifer and Arizona bird.  But for the ABA listers, which covers North America(not Mexico but Hawaii?!), it's a significant bird.  Due to covid and airline flights, many are naturally choosing to drive.  I have met birders from almost every state here in AZ, THE capital of covid.  There is no greater sport than the one played by ABA listers.  I am not that person but I understand their competitive natures.  To say that this quetzal didn't light a fire in my brain for the irrational chase would be a lie.  

Its relative, the Resplendent Quetzal, did the same thing to me years ago in Guatemala where I interviewed locals to find a secure place to see this bird.  On a time constrained trip, there are only small windows, moments really, to observe these birds. Living in a place gives you more time to enjoy these birds. As a traveler with an agenda, if you miss it, it's over.  In Guatemala, the quetzal is their national bird.  It's also the name of their currency.  And it also happens to be a rare bird.  My friend followed my crazy butt to the area near Coban EARLY on that foggy morning.  Together, with a wonderful family, we saw so many of these birds flying around eating avocados. We also had avocados with our breakfast after observing these amazing birds.  It was one of those perfect days.  They were never seen again while we were there on that day. It was a 30 minute window and was done.

We share an exciting moment with this little girl as she grabs video of these amazing birds. She stays with Lynda and helps point all the birds hiding in the trees from her.  We are amazed by the quetzal show near Coban
Like the Kirtland's Warbler or Lesser Prairie-Chicken, it took some research to see that particular subspecies of Resplendent Quetzal in Guatemala. It is said that at some point, the Resplendent Quetzal may be split into separate species. It took a lot of work to see them in Guatemala.  They were much easier to see in Costa Rica.  Anyhow, back to the Eared Quetzal.  

This is the print I ordered for my wall.  
Here's what I can tell you. The Eared Quetzal is a very secretive bird, even in its most active range. So to get views of the bird ANYTIME like this is a Christmas miracle.  And to get a view of this bird in the US is one extra bonus.  As many of you know, I travel to Mexico often.  It is my sacred place of sanity and spirituality.  So any chance I get to go to Mexico is a special time.  The Eared Quetzal and Thick-billed Parrot have been on my research list for quite some time. Drug cartels over recent years have made travel to that particular area difficult.  US news makes you fear Mexico more than you should so I listen to the people who live there.  And I read several local papers.  Yeah.  It really wasn't safe.  Now with covid, the borders are locked.  So one can understand why an Eared Quetzal in Arizona is a big deal. The last sustained view of an Eared Quetzal in Arizona was back in 1999.  There have been other "sightings" or "heard onlys" since then, but nothing like a viewable bird for many people to see out in the open.  In fact, ebird has had very little photo documentation on this species....until now:)

I hope others are able to find him safely.  After more than a week now, this bird still makes me smile.  This is what bucket list birds do; they inspire and capture the magic of birding. It's about exploration. It's about sharing an experience. And it's also about observing an incredible bird that you never thought possible. The Eared Quetzal is like a unicorn.  We see the bird in our guides, but never hope that we'll ever see something so amazing. Surely this bird does not exist. I promised myself that if I ever saw this bird, I'd make a photo and hang it up in my house.  I've ordered the picture and I'm drywalling, texturizing and painting the area where it will go.  If this is the last bird I ever see, I will be a happy person.  Until next time.... 


  1. Hello Chris,

    I am sorry to hear about the fires, I hope you,your friends and all the residents all remain safe. Congrats on your Eared Quetzal sighting, it is a beautiful bird. Awesome photos! Happy Birding!

  2. The quetzal is a beautiful bird. So glad you were finally able to view it. Hope the fires die down very soon.

  3. Birds really can light us up - I always feel that there is going to good bird just round the corner, and the advantages of windy paths, is that there is always another corner!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  4. Well done glad you got to see the quetzal. The lizard is also beautiful. Wow that fire looks scary I hope it is soon under control. Have a good day, stay safe, Diane

  5. So it worked out for the bird photos after all! All that beating yourself up was for nothing!!
    There is so much on the earth that is alarming these days but the beauty that we stop to see is just as exciting!

    I'm glad you are a part of 'My Corner of the World' this week! Thanks for linking up.

  6. Gorgeous photos! And lucky you to see the Eared Quetzal finally!
    The fire is really scary!


Thanks for stopping by!