It was 1530 when Tecun Uman decided he and his Mayan people had had enough from the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Alvarado. He entered battle armed with just a bow and arrow and a beautiful green bird perched on his shoulder for good luck. He was fighting the armored conquistador mounted on horseback. It was unfair from the start and after a heroic fight Tecun was run through with a spear and killed. The quetzal, however, survived, landed on his vanquished master’s chest and bathed himself in the red blood. The previously all-green bird now donned the amazing resplendent colors we see today, but as a sign of grief it vowed to never sing again until the land was free.
When a birder chooses to visit Costa Rica for the first time the Resplendent Quetzal is usually the number one target on the list. Olivier, our guide, and my birding companion Mel, designed the itinerary with a two-night stand at the beautiful Savegre Hotel and Spa with this in mind. It’s in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountains, several winding miles off the Pan-American Highway. The gravel road descended into a valley along the Savegre River to the lodge, still nestled 7000 feet above sea level.
The Quetzal inhabits the montane cloud forests of southern Mexico and Central America and is a cavity nester, often taking over and remodeling the vacant homes of woodpeckers. In fact, our guide and many of the hotel’s guests knew the location of an active nest just up the road. The cameras were loaded and with great anticipation that was our obvious first stop at the break of day.
The Resplendent Quetzal is the largest bird in the Trogonidae family. All of the members are large and colorful, and so very different than any of our birds. They are generally sedentary and if you’re lucky you may spot one between the branches posed for a photograph. We were fortunate to see seven of the ten Costa Rican species on our recent trip.
The resplendent male is an amazing emerald green that seems to glow in the sunlight. The lower chest is red with the lower body and tail showing areas of contrasting white and black. The male sports long green plumes that trail behind in flight. When perched these feathers hang several feet below the bird. My first photos were zoomed too tightly before I realized the extent of the tail.
When we arrived at the hollow tree there was already a small crowd gathered staking it out. I noticed that among the obvious birders there were many brightly dressed tourists without binoculars and cameras other than their smart phones. This bird clearly draws fans from far and wide, even the non-birders. The watchers told us that in the very early dawn light the male emerged from the hole and flew off, and was replaced with the less resplendent female. We could barely detect her head in the dark hole, and after a short wait and several poor photographs we decided to resume the quest for the male elsewhere. Apparently their tag-team approach to nesting and incubation is characteristic of the species.
Less than a mile up the dirt road we found a parked tour bus and a much larger crowd. This time there was clearly more excitement in the air with scopes and cameras aimed out over the ravine toward a dense tree. Somehow someone had spotted the well camouflaged bird and cameras were clicking away. I had great difficulty seeing the bird but finally took a few shots through a small gap in the foliage, zoomed to the maximum. Suddenly the bird took off and flew right over the road and crowd, with feathers streaming behind. I wish you could have heard the squeals of delight from everyone. I was much too slow to get a flight shot, but he landed just a hundred yards down the road. I was swept in the stampede toward the new perch. This one was a bit better, but his back was still turned to the crowd. I never did get a photo showing that red breast.
You have to wonder at the selective advantage of evolving such bright colors and long gaudy feathers. They must make take-offs and landings difficult. I’m told that the iridescent green feathers resemble wet leaves and helps the bird hide in the forest from his main predators, the hawks, eagles, and owls. I’m sure the female quetzal must have played a critical role in this evolution, likely demanding the resplendent display when choosing a mate.
Unfortunately the population of the Resplendent Quetzal is decreasing, but not yet severely depressed. It’s estimated that up to fifty thousand birds remain. Their primary threat is from deforestation and loss of habitat. The conquistadors have long since moved on, Costa Rica is free, and once again the wicka-wicka call is heard as this spectacular bird flies by.