The Eared Quetzal

A rare U.S. visitor, a male Eared Quetzal (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Although I’ve always loved birds, I didn’t get seriously into birding until January, 2008, when we took a multi-month road trip into Mexico.  One of many highlights on that trip was a two-night campout in Reserva Monte Mojino, a private preserve in the mountains east of Alamos in southern Sonora. This is a very wild area where the focus is conversion of cattle ranches to conservation in order to protect an ecological treasure. There were a couple of biologists doing research at the ‘ranch’ where we camped, but Prudy and I were there for the birds.  Our host was Stephanie Meyer, a U.S. expatriate biologist who rode with us in our Jeep, and without whom we never would have found the destination, just 17 miles from Alamos but which took nearly 3 hours to drive.  We saw lots of great birds including Lilac-crowned Parrot, Tufted Flycatchers (as thick as bees) and Plain-capped Starthroat, but we never saw the Eared Quetzal, a rare and beautiful bird in its own genus, falling between trogons and true quetzals.  At the time, I didn’t realize this would be my best opportunity to find one in Mexico, where they are endemic except for Arizona incursions

A female Eared Quetzal near Portal, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

However, luck sometimes comes to he and she who wait. Early in the morning of June 9, a couple who know their birds spotted and photographed a female Eared Quetzal on the road above the middle fork of Cave Creek near Portal, Arizona, which unleashed a COVID-defying stream of birders from all over Arizona and surrounding states.  Daily sightings have continued monitoring a pair, and possibly a third quetzal for over four months now, at least until October 13, the day before this article was written.  The birds have moved down the creek canyons closer to Portal, and when Prudy and I were staying at Cave Creek Ranch in late September, we only had to drive 3 miles to find 20 birders practicing social distancing and looking for the birds, which showed up 20 minutes after we arrived at the stakeout. 

Female Eared Quetzal in flight, Arizona (photo Randy Smith)

Eared Quetzals have visited Arizona since Richard Taylor first discovered one in the south fork of Cave Creek on October 23, 1977, but they are sporadic and unpredictable.  Several birds were in Arizona in late 1977, but it was two years before they were seen again, and then ten years (1989), and another two years (1991).  From 1991 until 1996, at least one bird was seen on at least one occasion annually, but then a three- year hiatus interrupted this run, and they have only been seen in 5 of the past 20 years.  Until this year’s good fortune, a single bird was found in 2013 in Madera Canyon, but 11 years since they were seen before that, in 2009. In addition to the birds in Arizona, this year two appeared for the first time beyond Arizona, near Pinos Altos, New Mexico on September 28, about 100 miles northeast of Cave Creek.  The birds live in steep rugged canyons in Mexico and may be more common than previously believed in Arizona, by hanging out in areas seldom reached by birders.

Even from the back this is a beautiful iridescent bird (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

This is a large and strikingly beautiful bird with brilliant iridescent colors.  Like trogons, it can perch immobile for long periods of time, evading detection. It has been found in Arizona in four different areas, most often in the Cave Creek area near Portal, Madera Canyon (2013 and 2007), the canyons south of Sierra Vista (not since 1999) and for two months in 1996 in Haunted Canyon, a remote area north of Superior.  It feeds on madrone berries and wooly black caterpillars among other fruits and insects.

Note the eponymous ear feather behind the eye (photo Randy Smith)

Eared Quetzal (Euptilotis neoxenus, ‘good-feather-eared new stranger’) gets its name from several long ‘ear’ feathers that contour horizontally around the back of its head.  In Mexico, it inhabits the wildest mountain terrain, and it has the most restricted distribution of the nine species of Mexican trogons. It is uncommon or rare throughout its range, and it always draws large crowds when it appears in Arizona.  We’ve documented 455 bird species in Mexico, and the Eared Quetzal would be number 456, except we’ve never seen it in Mexico.  For us it remains a feather-eared stranger in its native land.

(this article originally appeared in the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona on November 1, 2020)

This is a large and strikingly beautiful bird with brilliant iridescent colors.  Like trogons, it can perch immobile for long periods of time, evading detection. It has been found in Arizona in four different areas, most often in the Cave Creek area near Portal, Madera Canyon (2013 and 2007), the canyons south of Sierra Vista (not since 1999) and for two months in 1996 in Haunted Canyon, a remote area north of Superior.  It feeds on madrone berries and wooly black caterpillars among other fruits and insects. Eared Quetzal (Euptilotis neoxenus, ‘good-feather-eared new stranger’) gets its name from several long ‘ear’ feathers that contour horizontally around the back of its head.  In Mexico, it inhabits the wildest mountain terrain, and it has the most restricted distribution of the nine species of Mexican trogons. It is uncommon or rare throughout its range, and it always draws large crowds when it appears in Arizona.  We’ve documented 455 bird species in Mexico, and the Eared Quetzal would be number 456, except we’ve never seen it in Mexico.  For us it remains a feather-eared stranger in its native land.

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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