Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the June 22, 2007 Newsletter issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, QUERÉTARO, MÉXICO

Last Friday with some other teachers based at the Reserve I went to give classes in the isolated mountain settlement of San Juan de Los Durán. I'd been looking forward to the trip not only because San Juan is in a pretty area with interesting plants and animals but also because here in the Jalpan Valley at the end of the dry season the days had been oppressively hot for a long time, and I knew that the air at San Juan would smell of pine resin and be blessedly cool and fresh -- which it was.

After a combined birding and flower-interpretation walk Saturday morning my work was done so I strapped on my backpack and started hiking the 50 kms, or 31 miles, of narrow gravel road back into the valley. For two days I walked, camping at night, then when I reached the main road I caught a bus back to Jalpan.

Each dawn and dusk there was a flurry of birdsong, the most conspicuous singers being Brown-back Solitaires with their complex, echoic, bubbly, fluty calls, Rufous-capped Warblers issuing series of accelerating chips sometimes ending in trills, and a Canyon Wren's piercing, cascading series of rich notes.

During the middle of the days' long hours these and other birds were generally silent, except for one very notable exception: Trogons. The trogons' simple kyow-kyow kyow-kyow calls continued monotonously hour after hour, all through both days.

Yet, during the first day I didn't see a single trogon! Trogons are notoriously hard to spot because of their living strategy. Their main foods are fruits, foliage and insects plucked from trees' outer branches during brief, sallying flights. They rush up to their meal, grab it while briefly hanging in mid air, often using their body's weight to help leverage the meal off the stem with a snapping action, then they streak back to their perch where they stay very, very still, their green tops camouflaging them among green leaves.

At San Juan the forest is mostly pine interspersed with oak and the trogon species calling there was the Mountain Trogon, some pictures of which you can see at http://www.manybirds.com/guatemala/bigjpegs/Mountain_Trogon.jpg.

Soon after leaving San Juan the road rose and passed more into the mountain's rain-shadow, causing the land to become more arid and the vegetation to change. As pine forest gave way to juniper forest the trogons' kyow-kyows lost their nasal quality and became somewhat raspy. The deal was that Mountain Trogons inhabit the relatively humid pine forests around San Juan but the rain-shadow's drier juniper forests are the domain of Elegant Trogons, which can be seen at http://www.astrobirdphoto.com/searizona/eleganttrogon.htm.

Don't be surprised if you can't see much difference between the two species, for they're very similar -- surely "sister species," or species derived from a common ancestral species, shared by no other species. The two species share a similar distribution, just with the Elegant more specialized for arid habitats.

As I was descending into the valley finally an Elegant Trogon darted right before me, his scarlet breast resplendent in the sunlight. Trogons are such plump birds and their tails are so long and stiff-looking that they're easy to recognize as trogons. However, to know which trogon species you're seeing you need a good look at the tails. The undertail feathers are "bar coded," the bar patterns of each species being characteristic. Unusual among trogons, the Elegant's tail is coppery colored above, and in that day's sparkling mountain air my bird's tail shined like a new penny.