“Maybe we should go to Salama?”. I put the question to my travel buddy despite knowing it was a big ask. Salama was a two day trip off our planned route but that’s how extreme my quetzal obsession had become.
Quite the reputation
In the UK I spend my work life juggling multiple priorities and people, so I was finding great pleasure in having a singular focus: The resplendent quetzal.
What began as an awareness of a Central American bird whose feathers flashed the rainbow as they swooped through the canopy, had turned into nothing short of an obsession. The more I read, the more fascinated I became. Quetzals are very illusive and only nest in very specific areas of quiet forest in parts of the isthmus. They are notoriously difficult to spot without a trained guide.
You could say that their reputation precedes them.
Call off the search
I never made it to Salama in Guatemala (the country where the quetzal is both the national bird and the name of the currency). On another occasion I almost diverted my journey to a remote lake in Honduras where quetzals can be spotted but I ran out of time. As I travelled south through El Salvador and Nicaragua I spotted kingfishers, pigmy owls and beautiful mot mots, but never a quetzal.
When I returned to Costa Rica I realised that Monteverde was a last-chance saloon. If I didn’t see a quetzal there, I would only ever have Google images and a Wikipedia page.
Leaving nothing to chance, I decided to wake up at dawn and pay for my first guided birding expedition of the trip. Expert birder Freddy, who obviously had much more experience with birds than people, was quiet but conscientious. He found me colourful woodpeckers, a reclusive long-tailed manakin and the loudest bird in the world: the unique three-wattled bell bird.
Still no quetzal.
The early bird catches the worm
On my final day in Monteverde I was up again at 6am to visit the cloud forest. I’d had a tip-off from a local guide that there was a quetzal nest not far up a certain trail in the forest. I reached the spot by 7.10am. There was nothing left to do now but wait patiently. After staring at the nesting stump for almost an hour, I realised that a small crowd had gathered. Park guides accompanied by expensive equipment and sleepy tourists were setting up eagerly.
Then a tiny head appeared and everyone was hushed. The female was partly out of the nest, apparently waiting to swap ‘babysitting shifts’ with her partner. Excited, the guides made their call and received one back. The male was nearby. With a start, the female flew to a low branch and started preening her iridescent feathers. I forced myself to observe her between my camera shots. I held my breath until my friend spotted a flash of colour. “Macho. Macho!” the guides quickly picked up the spot and shuffled sideways with their gear.
My first sighting of a male quetzal surpassed my wildest imagination. His luminous green feathers that neatly followed the curvature of his bright red breast were like an illustration from a children’s book. His comically fluffy head surrounded kind eyes. His tale, first white and bold, faded gradually over half a meter into the finest of feathers that were barely visible against surrounding foliage. I was so taken in that not even the realisation that some spectators didn’t know what they were looking at could ruin my very personal moment.
I was lucky enough to see three more quetzals that day. After five months, my focus on a singular task had paid off. My virtual devotion to the resplendent quetzal had been rewarded by a reality that outshone the obsession by a thousand glorious feathers.