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.
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.
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.
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.