The Resplendent Quetzal is a bird watcher’s dream. To “tick” one requires near superhuman persistence. Since persistence is one of my strongest traits, this should be a walk in the park. The first issue is that they only live in the mountainous tropical forests (cloud forest) of Central America, requiring a bit of travel. Travel is something we are very used to doing, so no problem. Second issue is that we will be at a minimum of 8,500 feet of elevation. There is not much oxygen at this height. My walk in the park just went strait uphill. Now I am dubious.
We make it to the cloud forest with the typical altitude sickness symptoms of shortness of breath, loss of appetite, tiredness, and dizziness. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? We had better get over this as we are quetzal hunting in a few hours. It’s now 1:30 and time to visit the quetzals. Adding to our altitude sickness is the weather. It is raining, bordering on a downpour. These birds like the rain, told to me by our hired guide. I don’t think he wanted to give up his guide fee. Downpour on top altitude sickness, I’m more dubious.
We arrive at the viewing area, the property of a local elderly Costa Rican. He has the good fortune of owning a large avocado tree, the quetzals’ favorite food. They fly into the tree looking for avocados to eat. These avocados are small, perhaps the size of an acorn. Once they find one, they leave the tree and sit on a perch and dine. This is the time to watch and photograph them. This lucky Costa Rican now has a steady supplementary income just because he has an avocado tree in his backyard.
His house looks nice, and the property is beautiful except it is on a severe slope. Isn’t 8500 feet high enough? We are informed that we must hike up to the viewing area. Normally hiking is not a worry but it is still raining hard with a full camera pack on our backs slogging through the mud at 8,500 feet. Not a recipe for fun with the quetzal. Dubious is now an understatement.
The 300-meter hike took what seemed like an hour, arriving at a covered structure perfectly situated in front of the massive avocado tree. Success might be in the air, along with copious amount of rain. We set up our gear and waited for their grand arrival. 30 minutes pass, then another 30 minutes, and another 30 minutes after that. No quetzal. Did it not read the memo? Our guide noted that this is quite a rare event, being shut out by the quetzals. I gave him a look that could kill, New York style. Good thing he was looking the other way. Did I mention I was dubious?
As the light of the day began to fade, the rain going from a downpour to a light rain, a quetzal flew into the tree looking to pick off an avocado for dinner. All discomfort vanished immediately – a quetzal has been spotted. A few moments later it hopped out of the tree and landed on a perch where it likes to dine. I think I would pick a different place, but I am not a quetzal. My first photo below is of a drenched quetzal, the only one we saw.
The next day we did this all over again. What is the definition of insanity? This time the weather was slightly better – it was only a steady drizzle. After a slow start, quetzals made their appearance. All became right in the world.
Why would we want to go through this? It’s just a bird, and we are not birders. The Resplendent Quetzal is beautiful, often considered one of the ten most beautiful birds in the world. I wasn’t dubious at all! Tick.
Background: The Resplendent Quetzal was a sacred bird in both Aztec and Mayan cultures, where priests and royalty wore quetzal feathers during ceremonial events. It is culturally associated with the “snake god,” Quetzalcoatl. In Mayan culture, it was forbidden to kill a quetzal. (From Wikipedia). Today the resplendent quetzal is the national emblem of Guatemala (whose monetary unit is the quetzal). (from Britannica)