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Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory

Field Trip Photo Album

Parrots and Quetzals in Madera, Chihuahua

Photos © 2003, 2004 by Tom Wood & Sheri Williamson

The town of Madera lies in a high valley of the Sierra Madre Occidental of western Chihuahua, less than a day's drive from SABO's headquarters in Bisbee. Among the conifers, oaks, and aspens of the area you'll find many birds that cause a huge stir on the rare occasions when they cross the border into the U.S., such as Eared Quetzal, Crescent-chested Warbler, Slate-throated Redstart, and Tufted Flycatcher. You can also find species that have never visited the U.S., including Mountain Trogon, Russet Nightingale-Thrush, and Striped Sparrow. The stars of the show are Thick-billed Parrots and Eared Quetzals - spectacular, noisy, globally rare yet common here.

SABO now offers 5-day tours to this area between May and September. For information on future tours, contact the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory. For general information on visiting northwestern Mexico, please see SABO's Guide to Birding in Northwestern Mexico.

The mountains around Madera are covered in pine, oak, and juniper, with aspens, sycamores, maples, and other deciduous trees mostly along streams in canyon bottoms. Logging is still going on here on a selective basis, without the vast clear-cuts so typical of commercial timber operations in the United States and Canada. This benefits the forest and its inhabitants by mimicking the effects of natural forest-thinning events, reducing competition among trees and creating openings where many smaller species of plants flourish. Logging roads also benefit birders by providing access to a variety of habitats.

There is also small-scale ranching and farming in the mountains. Livestock have heavily overgrazed some areas, leaving few grasses and herbs on the forest floor. Another type of agriculture, marijuana cultivation, has declined over the last few years thanks to increased military and police presence in the area.

Parrot and quetzal habitat © 2003 by Sheri Williamson
Thick-billed Parrots © 2003 by Sheri Williamson The Thick-billed Parrot, locally called guacamaya ("macaw") or cotorra serrana ("mountain parrot"), was once found in Arizona. Its historical status is still uncertain; it may have been a regular breeder or merely a seasonal visitor. Hunting, primarily for food, was almost certainly the primary cause of its disappearance from the U.S., though trapping for the aviary trade and destruction of habitat no doubt figured significantly. All three of these factors have been blamed for the decline of the species' populations in Mexico.

In the area around Madera, a cooperative effort between conservationists and local residents has led to the establishment of sanctuaries in critical breeding and roosting areas. Over 700 parrots have been counted at a single roost, one of the largest remaining flocks known.

The parrot's future depends on expanding existing protected areas and gaining cooperation from local communities. Ecotourism provides a means by which rural economies can benefit from continued protection of the parrot's forest home.

It has been speculated that the decline in populations of the Thick-billed Parrot in Mexico was linked to the extinction of the Imperial Woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in the world. The parrots once used nest cavities excavated by Imperials but are now known to use natural cavities and those excavated by flickers.

The soft wood of Quaking Aspens is ideal for excavating nest cavities. Aspen is a characteristic species of dynamic forests with ongoing ecological succession. Though it can't compete with pines and firs, it grows quickly to fill sunny openings left by fires, landslides, and even logging. It takes a large trunk to hold a parrot-sized nest cavity, and few aspens live the several decades required to grow to such size. Fire suppression may threaten the parrots' future by allowing pines and other climax vegetation to flourish at the expense of their preferred nest trees.

Most Thick-billed Parrot nests are 20 feet above ground or higher, but the trees often grow on slopes where it's possible to get a more comfortable view (right). This youngster's nursery was at eye level just a few yards off a narrow logging road; it fledged within an hour of the time this photo was taken. The pale bill is characteristic of young birds; adults' bills are solid black.

Nestling Thick-billed Parrot © 2003 by Sheri Williamson
Male Eared Quetzal © 2003 by Sheri Williamson Formerly known as Eared Trogon, the Eared Quetzal is the northernmost of six species of quetzals. It is endemic to western Mexico, resident from Michoacan northward to Sonora and Chihuahua, rarely to southeastern and central Arizona. Like other quetzals but unlike the more common Elegant and Mountain trogons, the adult male Eared Quetzal (left and below) has no white band separating the emerald green breast from the rose red belly. The hair-like ear tufts that give the species its name are seldom visible. This male (left) is carrying a large caterpillar, possibly of the Polyphemus Moth, to his nestlings (below).

This species has nested in Arizona, though only a single nest has been documented. See Williamson 1992 for details.

His scapulars ruffled by a breeze, the male (right) displays the elongate uppertail coverts that show his kinship with the other quetzals. The development of these feathers is most extravagant in the male Resplendent Quetzal, whose emerald plumes are longer than the rest of his body. The word "quetzal" comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and is translated as both "feather" and "precious." Quetzal plumes were prized trade items; to preserve this renewable resource, the Maya and other people of the highlands collected the plumes from live birds which were released unharmed.

The iridescent wing coverts are another way in which the Eared Quetzal resembles the other quetzals and differs from "ordinary" trogons (as if any trogon was ordinary!).

Male Eared Quetzal © 2003 by Sheri Williamson
Female Eared Quetzal © 2003 by Sheri Williamson The female Eared Quetzal (left) banks away from the nest after another food delivery, one of 19 in a two-hour period. Both parents are noisy and call almost incessantly in the vicinity of the nest. The frequency of calling goes up in response to human presence, and the parents may refuse to enter the nest if observers are too conspicuous.

Eared Quetzals also use the same large aspen trees preferred by Thick-billed Parrots. Though they seldom create their own cavities "from scratch," their bills are strong enough to "remodel" cavities in the soft wood. The typical clutch of two eggs is laid on a bed of wood debris chewed and chipped from the interior of the cavity. The eggs are pale blue like those of other quetzals; typical trogons lay white eggs.

Could they be any cuter? It's hard to believe that just three weeks earlier these Eared Quetzal nestlings (right) were blind, featherless, bubble-gum pink blobs with vulture-like heads atop spindly necks. At this stage, within a week of fledging, they've replaced a thick coat of down with real feathers, even a few iridescent green ones on their backs. Though not nearly as suspicious as their parents, the young disappear in a flash at sudden movements or loud noises.

Nesting begins as early as late spring, but most pairs nest from July to September. The young leave the nest before their tail feathers are fully grown and will be dependent on their parents for weeks or months to come as they learn what they'll need to know to survive. As far as is known, Eared Quetzal pairs can raise only one brood per year.

Eared Quetzal nestlings © 2003 by Sheri Williamson
Thick-billed Parrot research team © 2003 by Sheri Williamson

"Team Guaca": Parrot researchers Diana Venegas Holguin and Javier Cruz-Nieto (above left, front) and their field assistants Mark (back left), José Luis (back middle) and Chuy (back right). Diana and Javier call Chihuahua City home but live in Madera during the field season. The team works under the direction of Ernesto Enkerlin-Hoeflich, professor at Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM or "Monterrey Tech"), Executive Director of Pronatura-Noreste, and Coordinator of Latin-American Projects for Wildlife Preservation Trust International.

The team's work includes monitoring nests. At right, Chuy climbs to a quetzal nest and lowers a video camera inside to check its progress (the young had already fledged).

  Checking a quetzal nest © 2003 by Sheri Williamson

International Wildlife article on the parrot project

Northern Pygmy-Owl © 2003 by Sheri Williamson

Northern (Mountain) Pygmy-Owls are more commonor at least easier to see and hear—in northwestern Mexico than in Arizona. It may be that Mexican birds are less savvy to birder behavior than their American counterparts and so more easily fooled by imitations of their calls. This individual responded to "tooting" near a spring beside a steep mountain road. These tiny but fierce predators feed on small birds, mammals, and reptiles and are often mobbed by Mexican Chickadees, Painted and Slate-throated redstarts, Crescent-chested Warblers, and White-eared Hummingbirds.

Other owls of the region include Spotted, Whiskered Screech, Flammulated, Northern Saw-whet, and even the rare and mysterious Stygian. Burrowing Owls are common inhabitants of the prairie dog towns of northwestern Chihuahua, one of the stops on the Parrots & Quetzals tours.

It's not all about birds. In the cool pine forests above Madera, the August 2004 group admires a Mexican-plateau Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma orbiculare, adult far right). This species resembles the Short-horned Lizard (P. hernandesi) found in the "sky islands" of southeastern Arizona but has larger spines on its head and back. Horned lizards that live in deserts and grasslands lay eggs, but species such as this one that inhabit cool climates give birth to live young (near right).


Thanks to our friend and colleague John Karges for horned lizard identification.

The late summer rainy season brings out colorful flowers, including the exotic-looking saucer-sized Tiger Flower or Mexican Shell Flower (Tigridia pavonia), a tropical member of the iris family. It has been bred in many color varieties and can survive in warmer parts of the U.S. Relatives of other familiar garden flowers and house plants grow wild in the mountains around Madera, including pink and yellow cosmos, zinnias, salvias, columbines, dahlias, angel-wing begonias, poinsettias, and orchids.


The western Sierra Madre is one of the world's centers for oak diversity. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the state of Chihuahua is home to 25 species of oaks, approximately twice as many species as are found in Arizona. Identification can be difficult, but these very large leaves with tan wooly undersides fit the description of Quercus macvaughii, whose leaves are second in size only to the Tarahumara or Handbasin Oak, Quercus tarahumara.

Tutuaca parrot reserve sign  © 2003 by Sheri Williamson

As we climb the road leading west out of Madera,  a sign points the way to the Tutuaca/Conoachi parrot sanctuary (above), a cooperative effort of local ejidos and the international conservation community

Bridge over the Rio Huapoca  © 2003 by Sheri Williamson

On the other side of the mountains from Madera, a 50-year-old suspension bridge (left) crosses Huapoca Canyon. Local tourist guides lead raft and kayak trips through this narrow, scenic passage. Less than a mile upriver, a state park features developed hot springs, with pools and camping facilities. For the adventurous, nearby natural hot springs flow right into the river. 

The habitat here is a mix of arid thornscrub, oaks, and pines; birds and butterflies abounded during our mid-October visit.

Cliff dwellings at Cuarenta Casas © 2003 by Sheri Williamson

The area is rich in history as well. Hundreds of cliff dwellings, from single rooms to elaborate residential and ceremonial complexes worthy of Mesa Verde, are tucked into secluded canyons throughout the mountains. Many of the Tarahumara, one of Mexico's largest and least culturally assimilated indigenous groups, still live in similar cave houses and use some of the sites.  

Interpretive sign in Tarahumara © 2003 by Sheri Williamson

At developed archeological sites such as Quarenta Casas ("Forty Houses," above left), interpretive signs tell the story of life in ancient Chihuahua in Spanish, English, and Tarahumara (above).

The cliff dwelling of Cueva Grande is so remote and seldom visited that at first glimpse (left) you might imagine that you are the first person to stumble onto it in centuries. The site consists of a few small stone and adobe structures built inside a shallow cave behind a waterfall. Soot from  cooking and heating fires blackens the cave ceiling, and a tiny basin constructed on one wall collects a trickle of water. The cave mouth is shaded by Arizona Sycamores, Bigtooth Maples, and other trees found in the "sky islands" of southeastern Arizona. Tucked beneath overhangs on cliffs across the canyon are other small structures of similar age (800 to 1000 years old). The T-shaped door on the upper floor (right) is characteristic of the Casas Grandes culture, whose tradition of exquisitely painted ceramics inspired potter Juan Quezada of Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, near the ruins of Paquimé.

For more information on SABO's field trips, tours and workshops, please write, call or e-mail:
Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory
P.O. Box 5521
Bisbee, AZ 85603-5521
(520) 432-1388
Contact SABO

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