In Search of Quetzals

In 1951, a small group of Quakers from Alabama moved to a tiny region of Costa Rica called Monteverde. As pacifists seeking a peaceful place to live, they were drawn by the country’s decision to abolish its army. Some of these Quakers had spent months in jail for refusing to serve in the Korean War. Initially, they had the foresight to purchase and set aside over 500 hectares of Bosque Nubosa (cloud forest) in order to protect their drinking water supply. (Of course, they then set about clearing many more hectares to make way for cattle, but I digress).

Today, the Reserva de Bosque Nubosa is over 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres).

Add 20,000 hectares protected through the fundraising efforts of American schoolchildren in the 1980s, as well as other smaller private reserves, and you can see why Monteverde attracts hundreds of tourists each day. It would be thousands every day, but residents fought a plan to pave the road to Monteverde, managing the impact of tourism by requiring visitors to travel two hours over a washboard road to get there.

Initially, it was primarily birders who came to Monteverde in search of the Resplendent Quetzal, following a National Geographic article in 1983 declaring the area the best place to see this magnificent bird. In our experience, birders are in the minority today, with most tourists seeking out the canopy tours and zip lines that proliferate. Of course, the birds are what attracted us in 2007 and again last week; in particular, the elusive quetzal. We spent three full days in Monteverde visiting two of the cloud forest reserves and hiking with a birding guide in search of the fabled bird.

Hiking in a cloud forest is unlike anything I’ve experienced elsewhere in the world. It is damp and dank in the best way possible. Most of the time, you are literally hiking inside a cloud. Or you hike in the mist and rain. Only rarely is some form of precipitation not falling.

Shades of green coat the landscape as far as the eye can see. Every tree and shrub provides a home to other plants, with mosses, lichens and dozens of epiphytes dripping from every limb, often piled high on top of one another. A single tree can host 70 other plant species. Massive vines descend from the forest canopy everywhere you look, and these vines are also covered in other plants. The biomass here is simply astounding.

On our first day hiking we visited the Children’s Eternal Rainforest (the one purchased with funds raised by hundreds of kids), an area we enjoyed in 2007 thanks to a tip from the owner of our hostel, Pension Santa Elena. We walked a long, steep and incredibly muddy “road” (more like a really wide and terribly maintained trail) and then into the forest. Along the way we were treated to sightings of a pack of collared peccaries, two spider monkeys above our heads and a gorgeous waterfall.

And the birds! Oh the colorful birds! Singing and calling from all directions. Darting back and forth overhead or near your feet. They are everywhere, and yet difficult to actually see due to the incredibly dense flora. With patience, we identified 36 species over our three days (about 1/3 of these with a few hours’ help from our birding guide). Some of my favorites included emerald toucanet,  tufted flycatcher, prong-billed barbetyellow-faced grassquit, white-eared ground sparrow, and …. the resplendant quetzal!

If you aren’t a birder, you might be asking yourself why anyone would travel so many miles to see a single species of bird. Well, the resplendant quetzal isn’t just any bird. The breeding adult male is arguably one of the most beautiful birds on the planet, with its emerald green head and fire-engine red breast, not to mention its two-foot long tail feathers. Their eating habits are also celebrated. Quetzals have a symbiotic relationship with the wild avocado tree. It is the only bird able to swallow the avocado whole, later regurgitating and dispersing the seeds. Besides, I think that are completely adorable! If you want proof, check them out here.

We felt incredibly lucky to actually see a quetzal on our second day of birding in Monteverde. Our guide, Freddy, was th first to spot her, shouting “QUETZAL! QUETZAL! QUETZAL!” (Given Freddy’s laidback approach to birding, I was surprised he had that much energy inside him).

We saw not one, but two quetzals: a female and a juvenile male. Although they aren’t quite as striking as the breeding adult male, they share many of the same features and seeing them up close through our binoculars and our guides’ scope was nothing short of amazing. We first saw the female in a wild avocado tree across a small road from us. After she flew, we walked around that tree for a bit searching for her to no avail.


We then headed up a small trail not far away in the direction she flew. After a bit of searching, she flew into the trees over our heads, later joined by the juvenile male. We got to watch both of them perched in the canopy for several minutes before they flew off again.

Although our necks ached from staring up at the forest canopy for 20 minutes or so, it was truly a magical experience for both of us. One that I hope to repeat in a few weeks when we visit Parque Nacional Los Quetzales.

New birds: sooty robin, plain antvireo, american swallow-tailed kite, speckled cheeked tanager, common bush tanager, red-faced spinetail, black guan, crested guan, three-striped warbler, slate-throated redstart, tufted flycatcher, prong-billed barbet, chestnut capped brush finch, black hawk eagle, grayish saltator, orange-chinned parakeet, melodious blackbird, emerald toucanet, streaked woodcreeper, variable seedeater, brown jay, yellow-faced grassquit, mountain robin, resplendent quetzal, boat billed flycatcher, orange-billed nightengale thrush, white throated robin, rufous and white wren, house wren, white-eared ground sparrow, violet sabrewing, rufous-collard sparrow, slaty-backed nightengale thrush, black-faced solitaire, chiriqui quail dove, azure headed jay

New wildlife: spider monkeys, collared peccaries, two toed sloth

4 thoughts on “In Search of Quetzals

  1. Congrats on your Quetzal! One of many bucket list checkmarks to come this year, I’m sure. 🙂 The pictures are great and looks like you guys are having fun. We missed you on our rafting trip this weekend. We had to bail on the Grand Ronde because of low water, so we did the Lower Deschutes, good old standby! It was super hot and dry and tons of fun. Evelyn’s first Class IIIs! It’s going to be really hot in Portland over the next 10 days. Enjoy your time in the cool clouds.


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