Thursday, August 1, 2013

In Search Of: The Resplendent Quetzal

The Resplendent Quetzal(male)
This post has been years in the making.....ever since I began to travel, I chased this elusive bird in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, Guatemala and around Central America. Of course, I wasn't a birder during those times and I didn't understand birds very well.  Taking a break from my Panama chronicles, here is something very special that happened to me while in the cloud forests of Guatemala this past June.  Of course, it took a lot of energy to make this happen.  And it was an expensive gamble, but one that paid off in a big way. 

 In my heart, I knew I had to understand the habits of the Elegant Trogon from Southern Arizona to ultimately find the Resplendent Quetzal. After all, they are related. It took me a frustrating year and a half to find this bird.  Later, during a survey mission, our team would help Audubon find two more.  These studies were incredibly important because birds like the Elegant Trogon or Resplendent Quetzal follow a time table.  So if I missed the window in Coban, Guatemala, I would dip again on this bird.  We gave ourselves only 1 day for this task. And whether I admitted it outloud or not, it would either be a personal success story or an epic failure that I'd have to live with again and again in my head. We all do it, don't we?  We challenge ourselves to be better at finding birds.  It's those kinds of stories that will continue on throughout our lifetimes. They are experiences shared with friends both present and past. It is our human connection to the bird world.  And then there are the failures that push me to do better.  International birding is extremely challenging when you're doing it alone.  On a gamble with some experience, background info, research, money and good weather, I'd hope to finally capture this bird on camera.  The hopes of the people went with me as I searched for their national symbol.....the Resplendent Quetzal.
Female Resplendent Quetzal
So many people have come to find this near threatened bird and like myself once, missed every single time. There were a lot of cold and wet hikes into Central America. I remember one trek up into a cloud forest near San Jose, Costa Rica. We were caught in a downpour several times and by days end, I had been covered in mud.  The bird had called in the mist but we never could see where he was perched.  A bit haunting as we were all alone in this forest of bromeliads and vines surrounded by the clinging cold fog. In Panama, the humidity was terrible! So this time it had to count. Every expensive moment had to count. I am a birder now.  This time, there wasn't any excuse for me to miss this bird.  I memorized the exotic calls, spoke with locals about any recent reports, arranged a private taxi with a man who knew exactly where the birds had been seen.  I also plotted a course for a secondary area just in case we didn't spot the bird in the first location.  I brought my friend who wasn't a birder but still interested in spotting the Resplendent Quetzal. Even the non-birders love this bird.

Two sets of eyes are always better than one.  I showed her what the bird looked like and replicated the call.  She just laughed at me, but when the birds appeared, she was in awe by their incredible beauty.  A young girl, a future birder????!!!, became quick friends and was very excited to have my friend listen to the calls and recordings of the birds.  I had to take this adorable shot of them quickly because the birds came and left the area within 20 minutes.  They never returned again!  While we waited for a second observation, we had breakfast at the Ranchito for an hour after the "Quetzal show". The birds were gone. The observation window is a tight one.
Look at the tail of this bird!!!!
 We left Coban at 4:30 in the morning weary eyed in the rain and fog.  The signs weren't good.  Even if we did see the bird, the weather might interfere with the observations. So many birders complain about this happening.  A cloud forest obviously is many times shrouded in heavy fog.  The birds like to perch high up into the trees and well.....generally, people will hear them but not get to see them up close and personal. As we headed towards a private ranch near the Biotopo Quetzal, we passed through farmland, downpours, and patches of fog.  But as the sun began to rise, the fog began to lift.
 My heart began to race.  Would we have clear skies?  It's almost 5 O'Clock!!!!  We have to get there!  Our observation window is vanishing.  As it hit 5 O'Clock, I became anxious.  The private ride was still better than any public transportation.  It was reliable.  Plus the driver, knew the place well.  Trying to find someone who liked birds in Guatemala was extremely difficult.  Our driver knew his birds.  How do I know?  I asked him a million questions about what birds were seen in the area.  He gave me detailed info on each of them and I knew I had found my man:)  We arrived at the ranch around 5:15 AM. The owner was waiting for us since we had phoned them the night before:)  This was serious business.   Apparently, the bird had left about 5 minutes ago.  My heart sank.  The sun was out and I missed the window!!!!  A lot of bad thoughts went through my mind.  How could I be so stupid!???  I sat in defeat with my head down.  But then I heard it?  No!!!!  THEM!!!!  Just how many were there??!!!!  An explosion happened above our heads.....
Can you find them all?  There are 4. 
 In the tree tops, I saw green.  Being the desert rat I am, I had a hard time distinguishing the greens!  My friend was telling me...."THERE!!!  THERE!!!  Oh my God!!! Over THERE!!!!  Chris LOOK!!!!"  I saw nothing. Just green. Then the owner of the ranch came out calling my title, "Señor!!!!  Señor!!!"  Wait??!!!!!  When did I become an old man?  I miss being called a "joven" or "young man":)  Think about that later and LOOK Chris!!!  In the photo above, there are 4 Resplendent Quetzals.  Can you find them?  Look carefully.
 Years ago, the owner of Ranchitos Del Quetzal planned everything well while building his dream along the border of the natural reserve called the Biotopo del Quetzal.  He planted many of the trees, like wild Avocado, that the birds use as a food source and thought about how his property would attract these birds back around his home again. There was a 40 Quetzal charge(5 US dollars). She informed us that after the rains, the birds will come out to feed. Not only do they enjoy avocados(who doesn't?) but they will feed from other fruits from the laurel family. The difference is that they'll swallow the avocados whole and regurgitate the pits.  I tried doing that but I later had the Heimlich maneuver performed;)  They also like to eat lizards, frogs and wasps. Something I've never tried....yet.  But it's the wild avocados that attract them. Los Ranchitos Del Quetzal also have rooms available if you are interested in spotting this elusive bird or just want to walk over the Biotopo del Quetzal(a reserve created for these magnificent birds).
Clay-colored Thrush enjoys avocados
June and July are the months that avocados hang off the trees like holiday ornaments.  I had them for every meal during our visit.   So did the Clay-colored Thrush above! I've had that same look after eating one of these delicious fruits.
 Between the months of May and June, the Resplendent Quetzals are on their nests. They will carve out a hole inside a dead or rotting tree and sit on 2 pale eggs.  When inside the nest, the long tail of the Quetzal will look like a fern sticking out of the tree. Those magnificent tails were used by Mayan royalty in their ancestral head pieces back in the day. The bird was also considered a divine god by the Aztecs as it was fused with a serpents body. The god was known as Quetzalcoatl.(Kate-sal-ko-ah-teh-l).
 This last shot was important to me.  The Resplendent Quetzal in flight.  WOW!!!  What an incredible show! 6 Resplendent Quetzals in one day!  When we went back to our hostal and shared the news, it was a hit. People were shocked by our lucky discoveries!  One was wonderful....but SIX! As a gift to the owner(our driver), I gave him two of my pictures as a thank you for his knowledge and help. And while on our trip, tourists and locals were excited to hear about our Resplendent Quetzal adventures. Just remember one thing about Guatemala.  Nothing is easy.  The payoffs are amazing and out of this world, but the journey is quite the challenge.  I'll write more about it all down the road.
The Resplendent Quetzal is the national symbol of Guatemala because it represents freedom.  If the bird is caged, it dies.  The Quetzal is from the Trogon order and is the largest representative from this group of birds. On this day, I won another imaginary birder trophy.  My friend was able to observe a bird most people never get to see in their lifetimes.  She also understood better why we all love to bird.  I think the words she used to describe the experience were "peaceful" and "exciting".  I'm not sure she'll become a birder, but she did say to me on our last day that she will pay more attention on her walks. With a little luck from Mother Nature, research on the Elegant Trogon back home, knowledge from the locals, our gamble paid off.  And when it all works together, life is good.  And that's why Birding is Fun!  More coming up.....

27 comments:

  1. Beautiful bird. I'm always amazed at what is outside of Arizona.

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    1. So many wonderful birds everywhere:) The hard choice is figuring out where to go and find them:)!

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  2. Yeah Chris! good job! That bird does look like the trogon, but with a longer tail! I like the part about how the bird is so wild that if it is caged it dies. I think that would be me too!

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    1. Never could understand cages for any birds. We had parrots growing up and I could never keep their cage doors closed. I'd get into so much trouble for opening them up:)

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  3. Congrats Chris! What a beautiful bird, awesome photos! I hate to see what were once wild birds in cages, it does not seem right! Happy Birding!

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    1. No Eileen, I agree. Happy birding to you!

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  4. Fantastic blog! I now know more about this bird that I did before reading it. Very well written and some great photos as well. Congratulations and thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thank you Gordon. I discover one bird only to find another just as amazing! Glad you found Birding Is Fun! Welcome!:)

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  5. pretty awesome birds! great that the farmer planted trees to bring them in!

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    1. Oh yes....I wish more people had this forward thinking. Little by little.....:) I have peach trees in my garden and just discovered our first tanager! That is also part of the fun in gardening:)

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  6. What a wonderful bird! Great post, Chris.

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  7. Wow---what a gorgeous bird... I cannot get over the tail --and those beautiful colors. SO glad you saw him!!!!

    Loved that last photo of a VERY VERY VERY Happy Birder.
    Hugs,
    Betsy

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    1. Super happy birder Betsy!:) Thanks for stopping by:)

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  8. I'm new to your blog today, Chris. Looks like I picked the right day! Great post of a beautiful bird!

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    1. Welcome!!! Lots of wonderful tips and fun on this site. Thanks for stopping by!

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  9. Cudowny kolorowy ptak i bardzo długim ogonem. Cieszę się, że spełniło się Twoje marzenie. Pozdrawiam.
    Wonderful colorful bird and a very long tail. I am glad that your dream come true. Yours.

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    1. Thanks Giga:) So many dreams and so little time:)

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  10. Nice captures! It was worth making any efforts to capture the beautiful bird. Thanks for sharing.

    Yoko

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    1. For this particular bird...yes, it was worth it:) Thank you for stopping by:)

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  11. Hello Chris, I was so excited to read about your post on the Resplendent Quetzal because I was also was in search of this beautiful bird. I stayed at Los Ranchitos this past June and don Julio (the owner) and Andreíta (the little girl on your photograph) were so helpful and kind in helping us find the quetzales. We were so lucky to have seen several during our one-day-stay. Saludos.

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    1. Saludos Ileana!!! I'm trying to remember now when we were there...mid-June?? I wish we would have stayed at Los Ranchitos but we had to go to Coban for some reason or another due to logistics in planning. It would have been much easier getting up in my PJ's and camera without all the roadtripping:) The trip back was a nightmare. They sure know how to pack those buses:) It was so exciting and that young lady Andreita was extremely helpful...especially with the count of 4 on one tree. I could not locate the 4th without her help:) Thanks for stopping by!

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  12. Congrats on finding so many Resplendent Quetzals! They are gorgeous with their stunning colors and incredible tail feathers!

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    1. Thanks Tammy The chases have more drama than any TV show I've seen:) It can be rather exciting finding the birds:)

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  13. Lucky you! I haven't seen one... :-)

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  14. Congratulations on seeing this elusive, beautiful bird! All of your hard work really paid off. An absolute joy to read your wonderful post so filled with enthusiasm, interesting information and great photographs. The Resplendent Quetzal is indeed a most resplendent bird! Awesome post, Chris!

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