Birding in Costa Rica

Quetzal: Emerald jewel of the Costa Rican forest

Print edition : September 27, 2019

Resplendent quetzal (male).

A male quetzal. Depending on the sunlight, the bird can sparkle in a variety of colours and shades.

The quetzal is a solitary bird except during the mating season. The female (left) is not as striking as the male.

A female quetzal.

A male quetzal checking out a man-made nest.

Montezuma oropendula.

Clay-coloured thrush, the national bird of Costa Rica.

Yellow-throated toucan.

King vulture.

Keel-billed toucan.

Green honeycreeper.

The verdant landscape of the Talamanca Nature Reserve.

John Anthony.

A photographic encounter with an elusive bird of the cloud forests of Costa Rica, the resplendent quetzal.

THE male resplendent quetzal, found in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, with its dramatic swooping double tail, is visually overwhelming. Iridescent green dominates the major part of its feathers, with intense red on the ventral side and a smattering of white, black and yellow. Nicknamed the emerald jewel of the cloud forests, the quetzal blends with the lush greenery. Depending on the sunlight, the bird can sparkle in a variety of colours and shades.

The male quetzal is one of the most spectacular birds of the world. The female is relatively drab-looking, dwarfed by the male and devoid of the double tail. The male and the female are seen together only during the mating season. Otherwise, they are solitary birds.

The bird was worshipped by the Maya and the Inca as a lord of the air. It was the subject of many ballads and folk songs. The Maya and Inca rulers were very particular about protecting the bird, and the punishment for killing it was usually death. Today, its distribution ranges from Mexico to Panama.

For birders and wildlife photographers, the male quetzal is a sought-after bird. There are around 850 species of birds in Costa Rica, and along with the cloud forests, the enthralling canopy and a landscape attired by lush greenery, they attract wildlifers from different parts of the world. But the quetzal is an elusive bird. It usually prefers thick foliage that provides cover from predators and raptors. Photographers who get the bird perched in visible locations consider themselves very lucky.

John Anthony, a passionate wildlife photographer based in Kochi, Kerala, was fortunate when he trekked in the Talamanca National Reserve, located a three hours’ drive away from San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica. He was setting up his camera to take a few landscapes of the frost-smeared tree branches of the forest when he stumbled on the quetzal. “It was a magnificent surprise from nature. It was an incredible sight, a great achievement in my birding ventures,” said John Anthony. The bird was just in front of him perched on a tree branch, beauty personified. It was the realisation of a cherished dream for John Anthony.

The quetzal has captivated many a birdwatcher and ornithologist.

Mark Cocker, a prominent British naturalist, says that the quetzal is a creature of renowned beauty and considered by many to be the most spectacular New World bird. He is the author of Birds and People, written after extensive travels in many countries and interacting with people who have deep knowledge of bird behaviour. He observes that a Brazilian ornithologist, Helmutt Sick, noted that the quetzal symbolises the exuberance of the tropics.

Baron Cuvier, a French naturalist, was inclined to think that its feathers were a man-made hoax. It was the Mexican scientist Pablo Delesa who, in 1823 observed the bird for the first time and left to posterity valuable notes about it. However, until recently, only a few scientists have studied the ecology and behaviour of the bird.

The quetzal was mercilessly hunted for its striking plumage. But now it is legally protected and to hunt it is a penal offence.

Nathaniel T. Wheelwright, a professor of zoology at the University of Washington, described the situation in a paper he wrote in the early 1980s. When he returned to the United States after his scientific studies on the quetzal in Costa Rica, he saw a fellow passenger walking freely to the Costa Rica customs counter toting a souvenir bag from which protruded the long green tail coverts of a stuffed male quetzal. He observes that to protect the quetzal, its economic, symbolic and historical importance has to be stressed. Not only is the bird a seed disperser, but it helps in the regeneration of many trees. It also attracts tourists and earns foreign exchange for the country.

John Anthony talked to many local people residing near birding spots. He believes that the people are now committed to the protection of the quetzal and other birds and their habitats. They are fully aware that ecotourism projects launched by the government have increased job opportunities.

In 1998, the Costa Rican government launched a nature conservation programme for environmental and wildlife protection. As a result, ecotourism is growing. Every year, 1.7 million tourists visit Costa Rica. The country gets around $2 billion as income from tourism.

Although the quetzal is Costa Rica’s much-sought-after bird, its national bird is the clay-coloured thrush. It was declared a national bird in 1977 as it is very common.

After three days of quetzal birding, John Anthony went to other parts of Costa Rica, the Atlantic lowland rainforest, the Barradel Colorado Wildlife Refuge and many other birding spots. Apart from the quetzal, he captured hummingbirds, macaws, toucans, king vultures and many other birds. However the big cats, the jaguar and the puma, remained elusive.

G. Shaheed is the Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi, Kochi.