Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Quetzal Resplendent

Thursday, March 23, 2006
I traveled to Costa Rica in 1995 with Julie and we had fabulous birding there. Loads of amazing lifers including scarlet macaw and keel-billed toucan and scarlet-rumped tanager and orange-collared manakin, but we were never in the cloud forest, so we had no chance to see the totem bird of that habitat, the resplendent quetzal.

This beautiful painting of the resplendent quetzal is by Mike DiGiorgio.

If I had a dollar for every time a non-birder, who had been to Costa Rica on a "Rainforest Safari" had asked me: "Oh, you've been to Costa Rica? Me too! Did YOU see the kwetzil?" I'd be a thousandaire. In 2005, on my first trip to Guatemala, where the national currency is the quetzal, the national futbol team is Los Quetzales, and where quetzals adorn everything from billboards to Mayan temples I was determined to see this mythic bird. Some of the non-birders on our trip saw it on our half-day trip to The Biotopo Quetzal Reserva. In fact, one Texan woman on the trip said to me, "Well I don't know why y'all bird watchers is so fared-up about seeing the qwotwal. I saw one. and it's just a l'il old green bird with a long tail, perched way up high in a tree!"

Gee, that's perfectly sums up the experience of seeing a resplendent quetzal. Thanks for sharing.

My friends Marco, Ana Cristina, and Hector went out of their way to help me find my quetzal. We spent most of two days at a small local ranch, tucked into the edge of the cloud forest, trying in vain to see the bird. No dice.

The quetzal is a weird bird and it's a member of the trogon family, perhaps the bird world's weirdest family. They are one of those birds that you see while flipping through a field guide, but you cannot really believe they are real, seeable birds. In fact for many birders, the quetzal remains a ghost bird---something that quests are made of. Not only do quetzals reside in the highest elevation could forest, they can either be incredibly hard to see, or incredibly easy and cooperative (especially when they are gorging on ripe fruits). Over and over again during the past year, my friend Hector "The Manakin" Castaneda sent me e-mails from Guatemala describing his encounters with three, four, five quetzals, calmly feeding on a fruiting tree over his head, oblivious to any nearby birders. So I was really excited when our Guatemala itinerary was changed to include a day in the cloud forest at Reserva Los Andes.

The cloud forest at Reserva Los Andes.

We started the day on large buses leaving the fancy hotel resort where we'd stay for a couple of days, heading to the highlands and Los Andes. Buses will not make it up the narrow, rough roads into the highlands, but four-wheel drive vehicles will, and this is how I ended up riding in the open bed of a pick-up with Keith Hansen and his wife, Patricia, laughing and telling bad jokes all the way up the mountain to Los Andes. While our butts took a beating riding on the metal truck beds, we did manage to spot some white-bellied chachalacas in the trees along the road.

Once at the top, in the driveway at Los Andes, we stepped down from our truck bed gingerly and met the enthusiastic owners and staff. Los Andes is practically its own small village. It's a farm, growing coffee, tea, and other agricultural products. But since it is so remote, the people who work at Los Andes also live there, so there is a school, a soccer field, a bakery, and other necessities.
The Los Andes staff lined up to greet us upon our arrival.

After a light late breakfast, we remounted our trucks and headed up the dusty farm roads to the entry point for the cloud forest. Several local guides accompanied us, including Claudia, a graduate student studying the resplendent quetzals at Los Andes, and Jesus, a Los Andes resident of many years. Claudia, Jesus, and others at Los Andes had been erecting nest boxes for the quetzals--several of which had been used in recent years. And although we were not yet in the breeding season for the quetzal, the males had already shown some territoriality.
Tea is one of the many crops being produced at Reserva Los Andes. This field is adjacent to the cloud forest trail.
As we dismounted from the trucks once again, we geared up to hike up into the cloud forest. Below us stretched agricultural fields for miles. And far to the west was the gleaming Pacific ocean. Our focus was on the dark cloud forest where avian riches untold awaited us. Just a dozen steps along the path into the forest, the light dimmed considerably and we heard the cries of a black hawk-eagle overhead. Although the path was wide and the grade reasonable, we stopped every 50 feet or so to rest and catch our breath, the altitude getting the better of us momentarily. Another 100 yards and we heard the call.
Our group of quetzal seekers included several birders with lots of tropcial experience.

Impressively huge trees dominate the cloud forest in Guatemala. It's no wonder it can be hard to see a quetzal.

I remembered the hoarse, cuckoo-like call from a year ago, when we'd spent a hour trying in vain to spot a calling male quetzal in the top of a bromeliad-covered tree. The bird we were hearing now was close--maybe 200 yards into the forest. Jesus motioned to us that we get closer to the bird's location by simply following the curving path, so we did. Alvaro Jaramillo, one of our trip's participants, and a trip leader for Field Guides, asked if he could play a quetzal call to try to lure our bird in. Once we settled in farther along the trail, Alvaro played the called just twice and the male responded, coming closer.

For a while, Alvaro and I thought the only quetzal we'd see was on the Guatemalan currency.

Simon Thompson, another birding tour company representative, shouted out that he'd found the bird. He grabbed my scope, trained it on the quetzal, and beckoned those of us for whom the quetzal was a life forward to see our bird. I stepped to the scope and saw a dream come true. Greener and brighter than I'd imagined, the bird was perched on a thick horizontal branch about 50 yards away. Although the male quetzal is colorful and has those familiar showy tail feathers, it did not stickout in the cloud forest. In fact the opposite was true. The bird blended in almost perfectly. We were lucky that Simon had spotted it when he did. The male quetzal called again and then flew. I refound it, in a spot of sun, but it flew again just as I centered it in the scope. Now, its calls were from farther off. We let the bird go about its business and we began to celebrate quietly. I did an impromptu jig along the forest path, silently screaming YEAH! YEAH! OH HELL YEAH! to the heavens.
The view into the cloud forest from the precise spot where I saw my one and only resplendent quetzal.

I had seen my most-wanted bird of the trip. And I could still hear it calling. Oh I was happy. Everyone in our group knew how much this sighting meant to me and they all congratulated me with big smiles and high fives. I was not able to digiscope this exquisite creature, but the image of my first quetzal is forever burned in my mind's eye. I radioed Marco, leading another group on the far side of the forest, and I could hear the happiness and relief in his voice that I and all of us had seen the quetzal.
Jesus and I drank a watery toast to our good fortune with the birds at Los Andes, especially the quetzal.
Los Andes features a quetzal viewing tower, though climbing it is not for the faint of heart.
Opposite the quetzal viewing tower are several fruiting trees. Our local guides told us that when the fruits are ripe, and the quetzals are eating them, the birds are almost tame.

But our day a fabulous cloud-forest birding was just beginning. Farther up the trail we came to a set of rough-hewn benches in a small clearing. This was the stake-out place for one of Central America's rarest tanagers, the azure-rumped tanager, sometimes called Cabanis' tanager. After waiting for an hour or more below the fruiting tree where the birds are regularly seen, a feeding flock flew into the tree. As we picked through the birds high above us, we called them out. The light was horrible, looking into a milky-gray overcast sky. Soon a trio of the tanagers appeared and we whistled for the rest of our group to join us. Everyone got decent looks at the speckled breast of this odd tanager, a key field mark for the species. This bird was a lifer for nearly everyone, including a couple of our Guatemalan friends.
Simon, Hugo, and I worked hard to find the azure-rumped tanagers. We all got bad cases of tanager neck shortly thereafter.
Claudia helped us find our way around Los Andes, providing lots of insight into the local bird populations.

And although this bird might have been rarer, or harder to see than the resplendent quetzal, there was no doubt in my mind which bird made this day memorable. ¡Viva el quetzal!
We ended the day back at the main house, gazing out over the foothills and to the gleaming Pacific Ocean in the distance.


On March 24, 2006 at 8:57 AM Rondeau Ric said...

Like everyone in your group, I'm really pleased that you got "THE" bird.

On March 24, 2006 at 11:08 AM Bill of the Birds said...

thanks Ric!
believe me, no is ad happy about it as I am! SUCH a cool bird.....

On March 27, 2006 at 10:26 AM Claudia Burgos said...

So Bill, I`m so happy for you and thanks, for the tangaras, you are always welcome to Guatemala,

On March 27, 2006 at 8:48 PM Bill of the Birds said...

¡Hola Claudia! Muchas gracias, amiga, para estas palabras. Espero para volver a Guatemala un dia en el futuro, podemos encontrar muchos pajaros!

On January 23, 2008 at 3:22 PM Terri's Learning Tree said...

My preschool is on the letter "Q" and I was grateful to find your web site that showed the rainforest where the Quetzal live. The picture of the large tree really expressed the highth. My preschoolers really enjoyed looking at your pictures.

On April 18, 2008 at 10:11 AM Anonymous said...

i love resplendwent birds!! there so beutiful. the the most beutiful bird ive ever seen!! and the colors...WOW. its amazing!! mi fave colors!! lol

On October 9, 2008 at 6:39 PM Anonymous said...

i am a former resident of Guaemala and when i went to go see my aunt who lives on the Rio Dulse we would go on boats and go to the foresat and we would see these birds perched on trees. beautiful animals

On April 16, 2009 at 7:35 PM Alina said...

I was lucky to see the quetzal through the scope and in flight while I was in Costa Rica last week. What a blessing to behold. Also, I was lucky enough to see the Arenal volcano three days in a row. I understand that this is rare...I had the chance to feast on two wonders in Costa Rica.
Pura Vida