Category: Costa Rica (Page 1 of 4)

Costa Rica (2019) #7: The Resplendent Quetzal

Resplendent Quetzal Savegre Valley Costa Rica

Having pleased the morning crowd, a male Resplendent Quetzal flies away

The Resplendent Quetzal is Truly Sumptuous

A trip to Costa Rica gives a birder the chance to see one of the most spectacular birds on Earth: the Resplendent Quetzal. It is, indeed, a mythical bird. The plumed serpent God Quetzalcoatl of Mesoamerica, who helped create Earth, was said to wear the long tail feathers of the Resplendent Quetzal. A Guatemalan legend has it that when the Quiche Maya warrior prince Tecun Uman was injured in battle against Spanish conquistadors, a Resplendent Quetzal flew down and dipped his chest in the warrior’s blood. It is the national bird of Guatemala, which named its currency the quetzal. On top of its legendary status, it is a jaw-dropping combination of red, green, and blue, with a golden crest and ridiculous tail feathers.

A Resplendent Quetzal at the center of the Guatemala flag

So there was no doubt that we’d head to the central highlands–the money spot in Costa Rica for Resplendent Quetzal–to try and see one. As I described in a previous post, we reserved lodging for a few nights at the Savegre Hotel. You can hire guides to take you at sunrise to the spots where Resplendent Quetzals are being seen. Or, if you’re like me and generally frown on paying for guides, you can ask around for tips and directions and try to find it yourself. Half the fun, after all, is the hunt.

So I asked around for tips and directions.  On the first morning, I took my son and I to the wrong place. We walked up the road behind the hotel instead of driving up the road out of the valley.  That mistake produced 6 lifers, so it wasn’t a total bust. The second day, up again at dawn, we went to the right place, but missed the quetzals by 15 minutes. It was on our third morning–this time to the right place and at the right time, and best of all with the whole family–that we were rewarded with a male-female pair of Resplendent Quetzals.

Resplendent Quetzal Savegre Valley Costa Rica

We had obscured, but tantalizing, views at first

The quetzals typically fly in just after dawn, feed on the fruit of their favorite avocado trees, and then take off out of sight. They apparently frequent the same spot for a few days at a time, until they’ve eaten all the avocados. The current spot was, as it was described to me, “cerca de una casita” at a bend in the road. Some important follow-up questions after our first day failure made it clear that the casita was just past the Trogon Lodge. With confidence that we had the spot and a good chance that we’d find a quetzal (or at least find all the birders hoping to find a quetzal), the whole family was in for our third attempt.

We rose 30 minutes before sunrise (which in January in Costa Rica is 5am), grabbed bananas and snacks, and were on the road. When we got to the spot, there were a few cars already parked. The birders were standing around in a way that made it clear the quetzals hadn’t arrived yet. There were a half-dozen local guides with their paying customers (not all of whom I’d describe as birders). 

As we waited, I heard a faint but repeated hoot  across the valley. A couple of guides  heard it, too, and said it was the Resplendent Quetzal. As word spread, a quiet excitement took over the crowd. Then, a minute later, a pair of Resplendent Quetzals flew in. They came from across the valley. And it was a beautiful arrival. The male dragged his tail across the road and into the trees, where he moved about feeding. While he did, the female perched on electrical wires along the road. The male was a good distance off, but the views were still amazing. 

Resplendent Quetzal Savegre Valley Costa Rica

So resplendent – photo by my son

I enjoy photographing birds in addition to finding and studying their behavior. Before I was able to get a good shot of the male quetzal, my oldest son asked if he could have the camera. I selfishly hesitated for a second, but then happily handed over the camera. Not wanting to miss out, my youngest son asked for the camera too. It was a birder Dad dream scenario. My oldest son took the great shot above showing the crest, yellow bill, metallic green chest, red belly, the white undertail feathers, and the long blue-green tail feathers that males grow for breeding. I couldn’t have done better myself.

As I mentioned, we were fortunate to see a pair of Resplendent Quetzals. The female, like most bird species, doesn’t bother with showy appearance. She lacks the crest and green head, and doesn’t have a red belly or grow long tail feathers. But no one would describe her as plain. I found her subdued color scheme no less spectacular than the male.

The Resplendent Quetzal is one of 6 quetzal species on Earth (some think that Resplendent Quetzal should be split into 2 species). They are members of the trogon family, often colorful birds that love fruit (and, therefore, love the tropics). They range from southern Mexico to Panama. In a story told over and over again, habitat loss has their numbers decreasing. The best part about finding the Resplendent Quetzal was that the whole family was there. It’s not easy to rise in darkness, but the payoff on this day was tremendous. It was a memory we’ll all treasure for a long time.

Selfie with quetzal in background (somewhere)

Costa Rica (2019) #6: Birding Savegre Hotel

Silver-throated Tanager at Melvin’s Garden

Birding Costa Rica: Savegre Hotel

As the calendar flipped to 2019, our amazingly awesome family trip to Costa Rica moved from the Pacific Ocean coast to the central highlands. Our drive would take us from sea level up over 10,000 feet, and then back down to about 7,000 feet. Our destination was the (birding and fishing) famous Savegre River Valley. The fishers come here for the trout. The birders come here for Resplendent Quetzals, Toucanets, Mountain-Gems, and Chlorosphingus.

The drive from Dominical was a show all by itself. We pulled off the highway at one spot for a delightful view of what looked like a cloud ocean. The steep road down into the valley was spectacular as well. It’s not as steep as the Burr trail switchbacks  we drove in Utah this fall, but it was a descent to remember. 

Birding above the clouds on the highway to Savegre River Valley

We were staying at the Savegre Hotel Natural Reserve and Spa. We had a standard cabin that wasn’t much more than two beds, a couple of chairs, a table, and a bathroom, but it was all we needed. Because we spent almost all of our three days in the valley exploring.

The birding was magical from the moment of our arrival. Before we even made it into our cabin, our neighbors pointed out the White-throated Mountain-Gem nest around the corner from our front door. There were hummingbirds buzzing all around the flowery grounds of the hotel.  A dozen Sulphur-Winged Parakeets were flying noisily about. And all manner of identified and unidentified birds were moving through the bushes. 

White-throated Mountain-Gem Savegre Valley Costa Rica

White-throated Mountain-Gem, on nest, out of focus

There are a set of trails above the hotel that take you into the forest. I’ll recount our hikes up there in another post. And while you absolutely must get yourself up that hill, just wandering the grounds of the hotel produces a rainbow of tropical birds: the red of the Flame-colored Tanager, the orange of the Baltimore Oriole, the yellow of the Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, the green of the Northern Emerald-Toucanet, the blue of the Blue-Gray Tanager, the indigo of the Blue-and-white Swallow, and the violet of Lesser Violetear. If black is your thing, there are Black Guans and Melodious Blackbirds around. And the Torrent Tyrannulet  sports the classy black-and-white look.

Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher Savegre Hotel Costa Rica

Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher

There’s a great spot for some geri-birding right next to the Savegre Hotel known as Melvin’s Garden. Melvin is apparently a guide for hire at Savegre. And he’s set up a great spot for up-close views of the birds of the valley. There’s an admission fee, paid on the honor system. And it’s worth it. The Silver-throated Tanager shot at the top of this post was taken while casually sitting on a chair at Melvin’s Garden. Same for the Flame-colored Tanager above, and the Blue-Gray Tanager, Yellow-thighed Finch, and Lesser Violetear below. 

In addition to all the feeders in Melvin’s Garden, there are trails winding through the property, an apple orchard famous for the Golden-browed Chlorosphingus, and you can bird the roadside and the river. Or just sit in front of your cabin. One day on returning from a hike, a Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thursh was hopping along the sidewalk in front of our cabin.

Yellow-thighed Finch Savegre Hotel Costa Rica

Yellow-thighed Finch rockin’ ridiculous puffy legwarmers

Lesser Violetear Savegre Hotel Costa Rica

Lesser Violetear

There are several different lodging options in the Savegre River Valley. I can’t speak for the rest – the grounds on and around all of them are undoubtedly great for birding. But I’d go back to Savegre Hotel in a hot minute. The cabins were comfy, the breakfast was plentiful and delicious, and it was the birdiest (and birder-iest) hotel I’ve ever visited.

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