The Quetzal Resplendent
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!