When Ben, our guide for seven days in Costa Rica, asked us what wildlife we hoped to see, the number one response was “a quetzal.” The Resplendent Quetzal, named for the splendour of its shimmering blue-green plumage and quetzalli (“beautiful”) tail feathers—often considered the most beautiful bird in the world.
In the cloud forests from Mexico to Panama there are only 50,000 quetzals, a “near threatened” and shy species of the trogon family. Although the quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala, they are nearly extinct there and in northern Central America. In contrast, Costa Rica has a much larger and resurging population of these stunning birds because the country has preserved and reforested much of the quetzals’ misty high-altitude habitat. People across continents and oceans come to Costa Rica, one of the best places on earth to behold a resplendent quetzal.
Still, as Ben told us, spotting quetzals in Costa Rica is challenging. Elusive, they live alone, in pairs, or in a small flock after breeding. Ephemeral, their iridescent green plumage blends into the wet foliage of the cloud forest. To see them, you have to be out before dawn when quetzals are feeding on their favourite food, wild avocados the size of almonds. After they eat their fill, maybe supplemented with a few insects, frogs, snails or lizards, they tend to fly deep into the canopy and perch in stillness. If it’s too windy, they don’t bother soaring out in the morning.
However, we were in the right place at the right time. The Costa Rican government established Los Quetzales National Park, more than 5,000 hectares of land near where we were staying, the Sevegre Hotel Natural Reserve in the quiet hamlet of San Gerardo de Dota in the Talamanca Mountains, “the premier cloud-forest terrain for quetzal viewing.” (Ninety percent of the people who stay here are hoping to glimpse a quetzal and the pioneering Chacón family who own the lodge, have the Quetzal Education and Research Center on their property.) We were there at optimal viewing time, February, the beginning of breeding season. Plus Ben was joined by Amiel, a local guide, both practiced spotters with high-powered telescopes who could imitate the deep melodious call of the quetzal.
Long before dawn, bundled up (elevation 7,200 feet) and uncaffeinated, our small group was driven a kilometre or two out of San Gerardo. It was Saturday morning so I expected there might be more birdwatchers than usual. Yet we were shocked to find ourselves among a hundred or more “chasers.” Real hunters in camoflauge weighed down by their expensive long-focus cameras. Professional photographers, their vests or backpacks (or both) bulging with super-long lenses. Young families on vacation. Sleepy-looking honeymooners with cell phones. And jubilaldos like us. The joke is that the best way to spot a quetzal is to follow the cars. That’s true because the guides communicate frequently with each other and if one spots a quetzal, they radio the location to others.
As we waited, Amiel pointed out the decaying trunks of trees where quetzals would soon be nesting. Their beaks and claws aren’t strong enough to carve into live wood so they enlarge holes started by woodpeckers or toucans. Their nesting trees are short-lived because of strong wind, heavy rainfall, the rapid rate of decay in cloud forests and frequent though mild earthquakes. And by habitat destruction for timber, cattle pasture, agriculture and tourist facilities. Finding enough nesting trees is the primary limitation to the survival of quetzals. The Cordillera de Talamanca—where we were—stretching south from Meseta Central into Panama is the biggest block of quetzal habitat in the world and contains the biggest quetzal populations.
There was a lot of time waiting around, so Amiel continued to enlighten us. Quetzel feathers aren’t really green. They’re alternately translucent and dark brown. Melanin pigment stripes trap most colours of light but reflect and bounce back green light to our eyes. Males have the brighter colouration and legendary tail feathers that can be a meter long while the females have similar plumage but lack the green crest, red breast and elongated tail feathers of the males. They share the work of incubating the two eggs and feeding the chicks. But then the females typically neglect the offspring leaving the males to rear the fledglings until they can survive on their own.
Long ago, the Mayans and Aztecs thought of the quetzals as gods, mythical creatures because of their inimitable beauty and grace and “their seemingly miraculous ability to foretell rainstorms with their nesting patterns.” They used quetzal feathers as currency before the Spanish conquistadors imposed the value of gold onto Mesoamerican societies.
And then came a rush of movement and tampered voices of excitement.
What an ephemeral joy to see a quetzal in the wild, a flood of passion for the mysterious and elusive beauty of our natural world. Naturally we wished the quetzals we saw weren’t at such a far distance away in the cloud forest, nearly beyond the reach of our camera lenses. But we saw them! Both mornings!
We booked this portion of our trip, the first seven days of twenty-three in Costa Rica, with Backcountry Journeys, a great young enterprise with photography tours into the wilderness of the world.
Our guide Ben Blankenship has a wonderful website where you can see many more of his professional photos.
Owned by the Chacón family who came here in the 60s, the first settlers in this area, The Sevegre Hotel Natural Reserve & Spa is a well-established place.