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Resplendent Quetzal (Costa Rica)

Posted by birder on Saturday, August 3, 2013
On my birding trip to Costa Rica in late June and July, pretty much the biggest target and hoped-for bird was the Resplendent Quetzal, a beautiful trogon of the highlands. To find this bird, I visited the Cerro De La Muerte region of Costa Rica. Cerro De La Muerte means mountain of death, but the incredible birds and scenery of this region made it seem more like the mountain of life.

The easiest time to see quetzals in Costa Rica is during the breeding season when they are very plentiful and much less shy than at other times of the year. Early July when I was looking for the quetzals is not during their breeding season so they are harder to find.

The road that goes through the Cerro De La Muerte region divides the Pacific side and the Caribbean side of the country. The lodge that I was staying at in this region was called Paraiso Del Quetzals (Quetzal Paradise), and it was on the pacific side. During the breeding season the lodge is really quetzal paradise. During most of the other times of year though, the avocados that the quetzals eat get too small around the lodge and the quetzals move to other areas.

One spot that the quetzals go to is on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, ten kilometers from the lodge on the opposite side of the road. This spot is a small farm town with lots of fields and a tiny house or shack here and there. Surrounding the town however is forest that is full of the avocados that the quetzals love. 

Paraiso Del Quetzals lodge where I was staying runs a tour to this area to try to find the quetzals. I went on the tour, and we walked up and down the hills over and over with no luck. The elevation is at about 3000 meters, and even at that elevation it gets hard to breath if you exert yourself. So walking up and down these slopes everybody was out of breath and everybody's muscles where burning. Eventually someone living in the farm town came out of his home on the farm and called to our guide. The guide said that they had spotted a quetzal in a tree. So we walked up the slope once more and just as we got to the top the quetzal flew out of the tree, over our heads into the forest.

For a first look at this bird, I was really blown away. In flight, you see the really long tail and the beautiful red and green colours. Unfortunately we couldn't relocate the bird so we eventually headed back to the lodge.

I was heading to a new site a couple hours away later in the day, so after lunch after checking out of the lodge I headed out and stopped at the farm town once again. It was the peak of afternoon which our guide said is the worst time for the quetzals, but we decided to give a "quetzal search" a go anyways.

As I got out of the car, I saw a man coming out of his home. I had been in Costa Rica long enough by now to know something: the locals know best. Even though I don't know any Spanish and I knew the man wouldn't know any English, I went up to him and said, "Quetzals?". He didn't know what I was talking about, so I played a recording of the Resplendent Quetzal and he said "ahh, Quetzaall!" He then started talking to us in Spanish and pointed to a bunch of different places. After saying "gracias" (thank you in Spanish) I decided to head in the direction of the way he pointed most often. I walked up the path and found a barbed wire fence that wasn't there in the morning. I went back down, and this time he motioned for us to follow him. He undid the barbed wire and took us up to the forest. We walked through the forest (and remember, we are at 3000 meters and there are no trails in the forest) for a long time and he checked all the avocado trees for quetzals. I was getting really tired, but then he started taking us down a slope into a clearing. After an hour and a half of walking with no trails through the forest at 3000 meters with thin air, he pointed into a tree, an there it was: a beautiful male Resplendent Quetzal feeding on avocados.

It is such an incredible bird, and it was a dream come true getting to see one.

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