Saturday, February 20, 2010

Valley of the Quetzals

Perhaps one of the most famous residents of the Central America highlands is the Resplendent Quetzal, it’s certainly at least the most well-known among the bird watching community. The species is a member of the Trogon family; and although this group of birds is particularly colorful, the quetzal stands alone. With a long and extravagant tail about three times the length of its body and feathers so bright blue the entire bird looks like a neon sign, the quetzal looks like a character out of a fairy tale.

I was informed quetzals were occasionally spotted in Cerro de la Muerte before we arrived and the thought of finding this exceptional bird during my stay soon began to fester in the back of my brain. Egged on by the pleas of State-bound bird aficionados that I “had” to see a quetzal during my time in Costa Rica if I ever found myself within 200 miles of one, my quest became an obligation to avoid a guilt trip upon my return. Being able to boast of seeing a quetzal would be much more satisfying than the disapproving head-shaking and hypothetical tales of the great lengths others would’ve gone to and tribulations persevered through just for a brief glimpse, should they have been in my shoes. A realist by nature though, especially when it comes to the chance of observing rare wildlife, I was not particularly optimistic regarding my chances. However, the revelation that we’d be staying at the Quetzal Education Research Center* was an encouraging sign.

I’ve decided to make this blog as anti-climactic as my quest to find a quetzal. I saw one about five minutes after I walked out of the research station the morning after arriving, while I was standing in the yard.

Perched in plain view, I frantically fumbled with the straps of my camera bag and rushed to take a picture before this holy grail of birding flew away. My frenzied attempt at a photograph isn't worth posting here, despite the bird's close proximity.

With this monkey (bird) off my back in short order, I was free to take a more relaxed approach during the rest of my stay at Cerro de la Muerte. Compared to Palo Verde, the forests of Cerro were lush, verdant, and I could feel the moisture in my lungs (instead of dust) when I breathed.

The high elevation oak forests appeared full of life as exotic birds flitted through the dense underbrush, weaved in and out of the moss laded branches, and soared high above. There were species familiar to most amateur east coast U.S. bird watchers, like Swallow-tailed Kites and various warblers; they were spending their winter in the warm tropics. There were also a wide variety of species not found outside the tropics, like the Emerald Toucanet and Blue-gray Tanager. But, perhaps the greatest diversity I observed was among the myriad of tourists who fly in from across the globe to check birds off their life lists, they hauled their giant lenses and spotting scopes to and from their cabins and lodges, nestled into the mountainside.

Yet, despite the vast distance many of them had traveled to arrive in Cerro, one didn’t have to travel deep into the forest to leave all sign of them behind. It was there that my group spotted a mated pair of quetzals perched above a small stream.

Located along the Talamanca Mountain Range, we were within a portion of a vast protected area that connected national parks, providing a vital conservation corridor. One of the unique features of the area is the paramo, a high elevation habitat above the tree line. Only grassy and shrubby vegetation can be found here, and they’re well-suited to the huge fluctuations in temperature that are typical of these high elevation sites. My group visited a paramo in the afternoon, and although we were warned by the morning group to bring lots of suntan lotion, by the time we had arrived the fog had rolled in and had made a sunburn about as likely as getting a good slice of pizza before I get back to the U.S.

The fog advances

Kim is blissfully unaware of the deathly fog approaching her

*So far, the showers at the stations we've stayed in have had two temperatures, "cold" and "is this colder than it was last time?" but the Quetzal Education Research Center was a notable exception. The temperature went from literally scalding to ice cold (and back again) almost as fast as the water shut on and off. It was perhaps one of the most unpredictable experiences of my life.


Matt said...

Next time you all are in San Jose, Il Pomodoro (either the one near the university, or the "new" one near the mall). Might be the best slices of pizza you've ever had, even including the US places.

Quetzal said...

Glad that the quetzals found you in the Rio Savegre.