If you’d told us that one of the happiest experiences of our lives would be photographing hummingbirds over the course of two afternoons, for a total of almost six hours, “Really?” we would have questioned.
How did it happen?
After wanting to visit Costa Rica for decades, Magellan and I signed up on a half-price sale on back-to-back photography tours in the country’s south. Our first stop was the Talamanca Mountains, the habitat of one of the most gorgeous birds in the world, the Resplendent Quetzal. Located about fifty miles southwest of the capital city of San José, the region is also a primary habitat for rare hummingbirds—especially at Batsú Birding & Photography Garden—one of our favourite aspects of our twenty-five days in Costa Rica.
Up the road, winding steeply for a kilometre or so from the “exquisite hamlet” of San Gerardo de Dota is Batsú, a birding and photography garden set up in 2015 by a local young man named Phillipe Chacón A. The Chacóns are one of the area’s founding pioneering families who settled here three generations ago. His family had orchards of apples and peaches. Eco-tourism is huge in Costa Rica so Phillipe, luckily for us, decided that some of the family’s land would be valuable as a garden for birdwatching and photography. He named it Batsú, a word from the indigenous language of the Talamancan people meaning “small bird.” (There are many other species than hummingbirds but that’s for another postcard.) He planted nectar-rich flowers that hummers like, built a covered blind, bought a truck to transport guests up the road and added amenities like free coffee and clean toilets. Phillipe limits the number of guests so Batsú is a pleasant experience for both birders and birds. There were only seven of us in our group and for most of both of our afternoons at Batsú, we had the place to ourselves.
Phillipe knows birders. A photo of a hummingbird at a feeder—meh. A photo of a hummingbird sucking nectar that’s been injected onto brightly coloured flowers garlanded on a stand—delightful.
Squirting more nectar onto the flowers throughout the afternoon, our tour guide Ben earned his nickname: “Sugar Daddy.” Especially when he sprayed nectar into the flower in Dr. Marion’s mouth!
(As cute as any hummingbird is Phillipe’s darling daughter, Ana Elena, in his arms as he drove us down to the Sevegre Hotel where we stayed.)
My family (and by now, you, dear readers of our blog) know my uncanny linking of disparate things. Today it’s hummingbirds and…can you guess?…Leonard Cohen.
The last words on the last album Leonard Cohen recorded are about hummingbirds.
I’d written a lot of songs with hummingbirds in them. None of them ever came to anything, but I did write a few lines last month. It went like this: ‘Listen to the hummingbird, don’t listen to me.’ I would say the hummingbird really deserves the royalties on some of my songs.
How like Leonard’s voice is the soft bass sound of the quick pinions of a hummingbird, the whirring synchrony from the rapid vibrations of its wing feathers. Is it this what Leonard wants us to listen to?
Or is he implying something deeper—the hummingbirds’ improbable existence, their irrepressible nature, their preference for solitude, their ephemeral lightness of being? Hummingbirds have the largest hearts and the largest brains, relative to body mass, of any bird in the world. Did Leonard covet their lungs, which can process more than 250 breaths per minute?
Remember his song, “Bird on a Wire?” I think from her experience with a hummingbird sucking nectar from a flower in her mouth that Dr. Marion would agree, “A bird in the hand is worth less than two birds à la bouche.”
A return trip to Batsú would be music to my ears. Meanwhile, there’s a garden of sweetness in my soul exclusively reserved for hummingbirds.
UPDATE: May 15, 2020 National Geographic has an amazing close-close-close-up photography of hummingbirds in flight. Check it out here.
For more info on the tours we took, take a look at Backcountry Journeys.
Baker, Christopher P. MOON Costa Rica. Berkeley: Avalon Travel, 2015. Our favourite guide to this wonderful country.
You can find our more about Batsú Birding & Photography Garden here. Phillipe and his wife also have a restaurant nearby, Alma de Árbol, modernly designed restaurant where Magellan and I had a delicious lunch served by a very gracious young woman. (I coveted the walnut cakes for dessert but birdwatching isn’t exactly calorie-burning.) The group following us at Batsú arrived with wine and cheese—very likely from Alma de Árbol. Next time…
Kitwood, Dan. “Costa Rica: best and brightest hummingbirds—in pictures.” The Guardian. February 4, 2016. Such good photos.
Merlin Bird ID. A great app for identifying birds.
UPDATE: FEBRUARY 8, 2022: Montgomery, Sy. The Hummingbird’s Gift. New York: Atria Books, 2021.
Parker, Jenn.“Hummingbird Species You Can Find Only in and Around Costa Rica.” Culture Trip. June 5, 2017. Culture Trip is always a good source for more authentic travel.
One of the best meals we ate in Costa Rica was at Lauráceas in San Gerardo de Dota where we had trout ceviche and one of the fifteen kinds of avocado that flourish in Costa Rica in a perfect guacamole. Our guess is the place is fairly new and their website is still under construction.
Efraín Chacón came to San Gerardo de Dota in 1954 by foot, the only way you could back then, cutting every step forward out of the thick forest with a machete. For years, the Chacón family has operated Sevegre Hotel Natural Reserve & Spa, now a forty-room hotel and restaurant set in a 400 hectare biological reserve, 80% of it old growth. We spent two nights here, awakened by howler monkeys to go quetzal finding before dawn and hummingbird watching in the afternoons.
Stiles, Gary F. and Skutch, Alexander F. Birds of Costa Rica. New York: Comstock Publishing, 1989. Thank you Karol for lending us this classic tome.
Strycker, Noah. The Thing with Feathers—The surprising lives of birds and what they reveal about being human. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. This Christmas present from our daughter Lynn came into my life at just the right time; an outstanding book I read on the flight to Costa Rica and the source of most of the info here on hummingbirds. “He thinks like a biologist but writes like a poet” says the Wall Street Journal, …distilling “empirical research into lyrical imagery.” Birdwatch UK says he “educates and entertains in equal and enthralling measure.” Agreed!
Wallace, David Rains. The Quetzal and the Macaw—The Story of Costa Rica’s National Parks. San Francisco: Sierra Books, 1992. “A vivid portrait of natural beauty and human commitment that reveals why Costa Rica has become model for all developing Latin American countries in balancing political enlightenment with environmental concerns.”