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Quest for the Resplendent Quetzal

Posted on 4/28/2020 12:00:00 AM in Traveler Insights

Costa Rica’s thick rainforests provide habitat for a long list of mammals, amphibians, birds, insects, and reptiles.

This story originally appeared in Kathy's local newspaper, The East Oregonian. Have you published a story that you'd like to share in the Inside Scoop? Email a link to [email protected]

By Kathy Aney, first-time traveler from Pendleton, OR

On a sultry day on Costa Rica’s Rio Tarcoles, I was a wildlife photographer in paradise.

Crocodiles swam by. Brown pelicans sunned themselves on logs. A neotropic cormorant dove into the water and emerged with a catfish.

I and 15 other boat passengers feasted on the biggest buffet of photo ops I’d ever experienced. My camera shutter clicked away almost nonstop.

With so many photo ops for a wildlife photographer, it’s no wonder Kathy needed an emergency memory card.

I focused my lens on the cormorant, which was working to swallow the fat, bug-eyed catfish by flipping it into a head-down position. As the bird and its prey resolved into crystal clarity in my viewfinder, I pressed the shutter, but instead of the usual click came silence. My mouth formed an O as I viewed the blinking message on the back of my Canon.

“Card full.”

A silent scream.

Like a magician, my husband Bill produced another card, averting disaster and the possibility of his wife’s head exploding. He is always prepared.

We had arrived in Costa Rica about a week earlier and joined a tour group of 16 to explore the Central American country together with the help of our Costa Rican guide Carlos Calvo, a veteran Overseas Adventure Travel guide, naturalist and wildlife photographer. Our group, mostly U.S. Forest Service retirees and their spouses, came to know him as irreverent, engaging and uber-knowledgeable about the natural world.

The first morning of the trip, we circled up and Carlos asked us our goals for the trip. Bill, an avid birder, said he fervently hoped to see a resplendent quetzal. With plumage of shimmering blue, green and red, and twin tail feathers that grow up to three feet long, some consider the male quetzal the world’s most beautiful bird. Quetzals, Carlos said, were considered gods in the Mayan world. To kill one was punishable by death.

Carlos, a naturalist, also shared insights into Costa Rica’s culture and politics.

During our two weeks in Costa Rica, we looked for them wherever we went, knowing that our best chance would come near the end of the trip at San Gerardo de Dota, a quetzal nesting area.

In the meantime, we kept an eye out as we toured the thickly forested nation about the size of West Virginia, taking in the country’s diverse flora and fauna. My birder husband added about 100 new bird species to his life list and identified 119 total species.

Carlos apprised us of the country’s politics, education system and economics as we rolled along in our 18-passenger minibus. As we drove past wind turbines sharing the mountainsides with cows, he told us about the country’s commitment to renewable energy.

Though the common name of this creature is the green iguana, they often come in bright shades of orange.

On our hikes, he pointed out wildlife that sometimes took us several seconds to see even with his instructions. We hiked through the Monteverde Cloud Forest, Tortuguero National Park and the Manuel Antonio National Park and cruised the Rio Frio, Rio Tarcoles and Lake Arenal by boat. The group stopped often to gawk at fascinating animals and plants, sometimes through Carlos’s spotting scope. Our sightings included scarlet macaws, three different species of monkey, a magnificent frigate bird, tarantulas, kinkajous, sloths, 6-foot-long iguanas, motmots, coatis and a pit viper, among others. Floating along the Rio Tarcoles, we ogled numerous crocodiles and also, alarmingly, fishermen standing waist-deep in the river.

We learned about Costa Rica’s volcanos, six active and more than 60 dormant. As we neared the Arenal volcano, northwest of San Jose, Carlos described the volcano’s dramatic awakening in 1968. The mountain exploded that day, he said, flinging giant car-sized boulders. Three towns disappeared under rocks, lava and ash and at least 87 people died.

During that day’s boat ride on Lake Arenal, the volcano provided a dramatic backdrop as we scoped out wildlife on the lakeshore.

A surfer walks on the beach near the town of Quepos, located on the west coast of Costa Rica.

One doesn’t need to be a nature fanatic to enjoy Costa Rica. The country offers other adventures for adrenaline junkies or those who simply want to relax in the ocean. Opportunities abound for parasailing, horseback riding, zip lining, canyoneering, rafting, scuba diving, waterfall rappelling (yes, that’s a thing) and bungee jumping. Our group experienced a series of zip lines through the cloud forest of Monteverde that ended with a Tarzan jump from a platform.

Nearing the end of our trip, we hadn’t yet spotted a resplendent quetzal, but our best chance was near at hand. We headed to San Gerardo de Dota, at 7,000 feet a favorite nest spot for quetzals. We rose at 5 a.m., drank some coffee and joined Carlos to seek out the elusive bird. In our minibus, we headed up a steep, switch backing road to a place some quetzals recently had been seen. Carlos kept in touch with other group leaders by cellphone, and when one spotted a quetzal, everyone converged.

A resplendent quetzal perches on a branch near the tiny high-elevation town of San Gerardo de Dota.

There it was, beautiful and yes, resplendent. The male quetzal perched on a branch, seemingly oblivious to the stir it was causing as more than 50 bird lovers focused their binoculars and cameras on him. The bird’s long turquoise tail shone in the morning sun.

By the time we returned to the hotel for breakfast, we’d spotted four quetzals, two males and two females. Bill smiled broadly as he mentally added another bird to his life list.

Resplendent quetzal.


Take your own quest for the resplendent quetzal when you travel on our Real Affordable Costa Rica adventure.

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