Trogons. The name given to these fancy, emblematic birds with glittering plumage seems to fit them. A unique word for a unique family of birds. So what does the name of this family mean? “Iridescent wonders”? “Extremely cool birds”? No, “trogon” is derived from the Greek word for “gnawing” or “nibbling”. Yes, that’s right, if you saw an Elegant Trogon in Ramsey Canyon, Arizona, you were apparently looking at an Elegant Gnawer. All I can say is thank goodness that the trogon species known as quetzals are called “quetzals” (which is a Nahuatl word meaning “tail feather”).
In typical ornithological fashion, the trogons were not named after their obvious stunning beauty, but got their name from their manner of making a nest. Nest-building is more like nest-excavating for the Trogonidae in Costa Rica and elsewhere. Despite their lack of a strong bill, for millions of years, the trogons have managed to raise viable young in cavities that they nibbled or gnawed out of rotten wood and termite nests. Although many nesting holes were probably started by woodpeckers, excavating a nesting cavity still seems like quite an accomplishment with those rather blunt bills.
Close up of a trogon’s “gnawing bill”.
In any case, the strategy of gnawing or nibbling out a nesting cavity has worked for the trogons and hooray for that (!) because these are ALWAYS wonderful birds to watch. I mean who wouldn’t get a kick out of seeing a trogon? They have this comical manner of moving their heads around to look in all sorts of directions while perched in an upright position, look like nothing else on Earth, and usually have glittering, colorful plumage. AND when birding in Costa Rica, the ten different species that occur are fairly easy to see, especially when vocalizing (which seems to be most often from February to July).
The ten species of trogons to see when birding in Costa Rica are (from easiest to least easiest):
Gartered Trogon: One of the smaller trogons in Costa Rica, these guys are pretty darn common. This edge species mostly occurs in humid lowland areas but also ranges up into the dry northwest and the western part of the Central Valley. Listen for its call:
and watch for it at the edge of forested areas, semi-open areas, and in second growth.
Male Gartered Trogon from Manzanillo, Costa Rica.
Female Gartered Trogon from Rancho Oropendola, Costa Rica.
Black-headed Trogon: Slighter bigger than the Gartered, the Black-headed Trogon reaches the southern limit of its range at Carara National Park. It is mostly found in the Pacific northwest and is also pretty easy to see because of the open nature of its habitat (dry forest edge). Although it resembles the Violaceous Trogon, it has a much more staccato call (and sounds more like (and is more closely related to) Baird’s and White-tailed Trogons), has an unbroken, bluish eye ring, and lacks barring on the tail. Watch for it in any wooded area on the Pacific slope north of Carara (you can also see it along the Meandrico Trail at Carara along with four other trogon species (!)).
Male Black-headed Trogon from Carara National Park, Costa Rica.
Slaty-tailed Trogon: This big, hulking trogon is almost the size of a quetzal. Because of its size, colorful plumage, and conspicuous red-orange bill, it just looks unreal. Incredibly, it’s also pretty common and easy to see in lowland rainforest such as at La Selva or Carara.
Male Slaty-tailed Trogon from Achiote, Panama.
Male Slaty-tailed Trogon from OTS La Selva, Costa Rica.
Orange-bellied Trogon: A bit smaller than the Slaty-tailed, the Orange-bellied Trogon is most common in the cloud forests of northern Costa Rica (such as around Monteverde). It also occurs further south (including western Panama) but is mostly replaced there by the closely related Collared Trogon.
Male Orange-bellied Trogon from El Silencio Lodge, Bajos del Toro Amarillo, Costa Rica.
Female Orange-bellied Trogon from Lost and Found Eco-lodge, Panama.
Collared Trogon: Except for a red, instead of orange belly, this trogon resembles, acts, and sounds a lot like the Orange-bellied Trogon. It is pretty easy to see in Tapanti National Park and other cloud forests of the Talamancas. This species has a very wide range from southern Mexico to Amazonia. Although it looks similar throughout its range, Amazonian birds sound noticeably different from Central American birds (it would be interesting to see a molecular phylogeny of this species with sampling throughout its range).
Sorry, no photo of Collared Trogon! Imagine an Orange-bellied Trogon with a red belly.
Resplendent Quetzal: Yes, this crazy looking bird is a species of trogon. Because there are so many tours you can take to reliably see a quetzal, it almost made the top of the list as the easiest trogon to see when birding Costa Rica. Although they aren’t as guaranteed as when taking a quetzal tour, you have a pretty good chance of running into one in any area of extensive highland forest in Costa Rica. For more information see my post about this spectacular bird.
Black-throated Trogon: The same size as a Gartered Trogon, this bird is pretty common but it’s not as easy to see as the other trogons because it sticks to the interior subcanopy and upper understory of lowland rainforest. Listening for their rather inconspicuous vocalization of three, short, low-toned, descending whistles is a good way to find them in any of the lowland rainforest sites.
Male Black-throated Trogon from Achiote, Panama.
Baird’s Trogon: The male is one heck of a beautiful bird! A southern Pacific slope endemic, the Baird’s Trogon is only found from Carara National Park to the Panamanian border. Although it isn’t very rare in lowland, primary rainforest, since so much of this habitat has been replaced with non-trogon friendly pastures and oil palms plantations, it is considered to be a near-threatened species. It’s kind of uncommon in Carara (I think it used to be more common in the past), but is more frequent in wetter forests of the hills above Carara (especially at the little visited Cangreja National Park), and further south.
Male Baird’s Trogon from La Cangreja National Park, Costa Rica.
Lattice-tailed Trogon: This large trogon replaces the Slaty-tailed in the wet, mossy, foothill forests of the Caribbean slope. It’s not all that rare in this habitat, but because those forests are so dense, and because there are so few accessible sites to see this species, it isn’t sighted as often as the other trogons. If you do go birding in Costa Rica, however, you should make an effort to see the Lattice-tailed Trogon because it only occurs there and in western Panama. The best spots to see it are at Quebrada Gonzalez, Braulio Carrillo National Park, and at Rara Avis.
Lattice-tailed Trogon from Rara Avis, Costa Rica.
Elegant Trogon: Although you have a fair chance of seeing this species if you bird gallery forest in Santa Rosa and Guanacaste National Parks, it’s more common in many other parts of its large range (northwestern Costa Rica north through Central America and Mexico to southern Arizona). Hence no picture for this one either!
White-tailed Trogon. Wait, that’s not in the book! It might be someday though. I have heard of a few reports from Manzanillo that could end up being this species, so if you bird down that way, send me whatever notes you take and pictures you get of any trogon that you think is a Black-headed.
Male White-tailed (Western) Trogon from Achiote, Panama.