Operation PhotoTrogon Stop #9 – Santa Rita Mountains

By Jim Gain


This blog series chronicles the adventures that Rich Brown and I experienced on our quest to find and photograph the amazing birds of Southeast Arizona in May of 2022.


After the Paton Center for Hummingbirds, we stopped briefly at the nearby Patagonia Lake Birding Trail.

We had a very enjoyable walk along the birding trail with views of the local Mexican Ducks and many migrating Yellow Warblers.

Mexican Ducks
Yellow Warbler
Lucy’s Warbler

Leaving the lake, we continued our journey to our final destination, Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita mountains. As it is customary for me we first stopped at the Santa Rita Lodge to see what was feeding on the multitude of hummingbird and seed feeders.

The customary flock of Wild Turkeys was present as always as were numerous Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, House Finches and Lesser Goldfinch‘s.

Wild Turkeys

As we were watching the hummingbirds, first a Rivoli‘s hummingbird popped in for a drink and then an Arizona woodpecker flew in to one of the feeders to one of the suet feeders.

Rivoli’s Hummingbird
Arizona Hummingbird

There was not the type of activity I was used to seeing there and the numbers of birds was low, possibly being that it was 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Was not a particularly hot day, but it was pretty slow at the lodge.

Rich inquired inside the store as to the status of the elegant trogon‘s that day in the canyon. He was showing a map which he photographed that showed where the trogons had been seen earlier in the day. We were cautioned that we were not likely to find them at this time in the afternoon. We drove up to the upper parking area and made plans as to how to approach our target birds.

Rich with his uber-enthusiasm was anxious to go up the Carrie Nation Trail in search of the trogons. This was truly his most sought after target bird. I was feeling a little low on energy and with my injured Achilles tendon I was not anxious to go hiking up the trail at that point in time. So Rich went up the trail and I hung around the parking lot for about 45 minutes. I was enjoying the many Bridled Titmice and Painted Redstarts that were flitting about the shrubs.

Bridled Titmouse
Painted Redstart

Suddenly I see Mr. RICHARD BROWN practically running down the trail towards me. He yells out “Take a look at what I saw!” I knew what it had to be, an Elegant Trogon. Sure enough Rich had not only found, but taken a most excellent photograph of a male Elegant Trogon. He stated that he had barely gotten up 1/3 of a mile up the trail and could hear them calling, quite loudly. So after drinking some water we took off up the trail, so that I could also find and photograph the most elegant trogon in the canyon. We got up to the area where the Old Baldy trail veers off to the left and the Carrie Nation trail continues. There’s a nice bench there for folks like myself that might have depleted their oxygen supply getting there, and it was in the shade. What a nice spot to sit back and wait. Well the wait didn’t last more than about 60 seconds as the trogon started calling again. So over the next 45 minutes we followed the strange ventriloquistic sounds, which always seemed farther away than they actually were, and took a few nice images of the Elegant Trogon.

Elegant Trogon – Male

We managed to find not only the male but the quiet female Elegant Trogon.

Elegant Trogon – Female
Elegant Trogon – Female
Elegant Trogon – Male
Elegant Trogon – Male

And so the target of operation PhotoTrogon was in hand.


After a high five and a couple of very big smiles we walked back towards the car and at this point it seem like anything else would be anti-climatic.

But then I remembered there was a nesting Elf Owl right across the street from the Santa Rita Lodge. So we drove back down to the parking lot a little before 7:00 pm finding another half dozen birders excitedly waiting for the pending show from the female Elf Owl.

Waiting for the Elf Owl to Show

As we chatted, the owners of the property came out and invited us to stand up in the area that was next to the pole where the nest was. We were informed that this Elf Owl pair had been there for at least 10 years and that she was not bothered at all by the chatter of birders standing underneath her house. This was a nightly occurrence at the spot and the owner felt that this way birders got their Elf Owl and all of the neighboring Elf Owls were not bothered.

Almost on cue the Elf Owl appeared at the hole and sat there for about 2 1/2 minutes all the while photography cameras were going click, click, click.

Elf Owl

I inquired about the possibility of Whiskered Screech-Owl and Mexican Whip-poor-will and it was suggested that we go to the amphitheater parking lot just up the road for the screech owl. He laughed when I asked about the Whip-poor-will because he said you can’t miss them all the way up and down the canyon. So we join another couple and drove up to the amphitheater parking lot quietly closed our doors and almost immediately the toot-toot-toot call of the Whiskered Screech-Owl came from one side of the road followed shortly there after by a second owl on the opposite side of the parking lot. At the same time we could hear a Mexican Whip-poor-will start up. We decided to drive the rest of the way up to the top of the parking area at Mount Wrightson to see if anything else appeared and sure enough, there was probably four or five Mexican Whip-poor-wills calling from around the parking lot.

So, with feelings of complete satisfaction that the trip had been an outstanding success, we headed back to our best western hotel room in Green Valley unsure about where to go next over the next two days. At this point almost every one of our target birds had been not only seen, but also photographed and now we were starting to look for needles in a haystack so to speak.

Next stop unknown.

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