How To Watch Eared Quetzals

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An adult male Eared Quetzal near Madera, Chihuahua.

An Eared Quetzal, one of the most mysterious and frustrating rarities in southeastern Arizona, was sighted around midday on April 17 in Gardner Canyon, a rugged and infrequently birded canyon on the east side of the Santa Rita Mountains. Tucson birders Patty Tersey and Keith Kamper found the bird and reported details of their encounter to the Arizona-New Mexico listserv.

Good Birders Don't<br />
Wear White: 50 Tips From North America's Top BirdersEared Quetzals are infamous as the species that raised awareness of how the colors we wear while birding may affect the birds themselves and therefore birding success, as summarized in the essay “Good Birders Don’t Wear White.”

Based on our extensive experience with Eared Quetzals in both Mexico and Arizona, we offer the following tips that may make the difference between success and failure for would-be quetzal watchers:

  • Dress in muted, natural colors from your hat right down to your boots and socks. Browns, mid-tone grays, tans, and natural greens are all okay, but avoid white and very light pastels, bright colors, and light blues such as faded denim. If your wardrobe doesn’t include any camo, muted plaids and checks dominated by shades of green, brown, tan, and/or gray are the next best thing.
  • Eared Quetzals are more often heard than seen, so prepare by studying recordings of the bird’s calls ahead of time. The most commonly heard calls from both sexesthe squeal-chuck and the flight cackleare signs of alarm. If you hear either of these calls, the bird has probably seen you and/or another observer and is in evasive mode. Chasing a frightened quetzal is counterproductive. The best strategy is to freeze in place until it calms down.
  • A stationary quetzal giving the tremolo call is advertising to prospective mates and/or rivals and provides the best opportunity for stealthy approach. This call is heard most often from males during the summer breeding season.
  • When approaching an area where the bird has been sighted, move slowly and as little as possible, stay in the shadows, and keep noise to a minimum. Eared Quetzals are extremely stealthy for their size and can fly in quite close to you without you realizing it, so any sudden moves or sounds may result in lost viewing opportunities for yourself and others.
  • Eared Quetzals are rare globally and extremely rare in the United States, and their continuing presence in Arizona may depend in large part on how we behave toward them. Use of playback in an attempt to attract Eared Quetzals is contrary to the American Birding Association’s Principles of Birding Ethics, which recommends the following:

If you witness unethical birding behavior, assess the situation, and intervene if you think it prudent. When interceding, inform the person(s) of the inappropriate action, and attempt, within reason, to have it stopped. If the behavior continues, document it, and notify appropriate individuals or organizations.

(This post is adapted from posts to the BirdChat listserv in December 1999, the Arizona-New Mexico listserv in 2005, and the Birders on the Border blog in January 2011.)