For the Birds Radio Program: Resplendent Quetzal
When I was four years old, I taught myself to read with our family encyclopedia. The article I read over and over was the one about birds, and the picture I stared at for the longest time was that of a Resplendent Quetzal. The word “Quetzal” was strange and wonderful, befitting a truly strange and wonderful bird. Even though the picture was in black and white, I loved looking at this striking bird, its funky full-head crest looking as if it had just poked its toe into an electric socket, and its lower back feathers that formed an amazingly long train that grew and grew beyond the tail. And the word Resplendent was simply resplendent. Suddenly everything I liked was “resplendent.” I’d say things like, “Mom-the Cheerios are so resplendent today!” or “I washed the toilet until it’s simply resplendent.” I drove my family crazy, but it was worth it just to be able to use such a resplendent word.
I was thinking about this when, on April 4, my birding group came upon a gorgeous male Resplendent Quetzal feeding on fruits in a leafy tree in Costa Rica. Unlike cheerios and toilets, this bird truly deserves the word “resplendent.” His tropical green body feathers and brilliant red belly feathers were spectacularly beautiful, and when, after many long minutes of letting us gawk at him he took off in flight, his long train flowing with beautiful ripples, I could feel my pupils dilate and my heart pound with the sheer visual pleasure.
We were headed for the Savegre Mountain Lodge, where we’d stay for the next two nights. Right on the grounds behind one of the cabins, a pair of quetzals were nesting. We arrived after dark, but at 4 in the morning, I woke up without an alarm clock and headed out to try to find the nest. I heard the quetzals a couple of times, but they’re apparently quiet around the nest so I needed light to actually see them. I saw glimpses of them flying through the twilit shadows, but didn’t locate the actual nest hole until it was almost time for breakfast.
I stayed with my group that morning, going up to one of the highest mountain tops in Costa Rica, disconcertingly covered with communications towers and inhabited by the few birds that thrive at high altitudes with the sparse alpine vegetation found there. By lunchtime I was hungry for quetzals, not food. So I separated from my group for the rest of the day, and parked myself within view of the nest.
After an hour of watching the female fly in with food, come out again and fly off, to return in 15 minutes or so with more food, Senor Chacon, the owner of the lodge, came past. Sr. Chacon loves his quetzals, and knows their habits intimately. He led me to a better vantage point, at which I stayed for the next three hours. The male stayed away all afternoon, but from where I stood, the female was often right over my head, looking down on me with cautious eyes. Little by little she got used to me standing there, and spent more and more time not looking at me, but attending to her normal business. I kept track of the time every time she flew in or out of the cavity, and felt a warm glow just to be in her company.
Before twilight, the male started coming, and for one brief time as he was poking his head out of the nest she was perched on a branch right above him-I got a photo of the pair in the dim light. Next morning, I was back before light, in time to see the female leave the nest for the first time that day, and saw the male’s first flight to the nest with food. When he was in the cavity, two feathers from his long train stuck out-I took photos. He only fed the babies a few times before he flew off, but every time I saw him in flight, that lovely train rippling delicately, I was thrilled. My group was packing up the bus and getting ready to go to another place, so I finally had to leave, with the female sticking out of the box watching me as I bade her farewell. I whispered thanks for the lovely time I had in her presence. My time with the Quetzals was simply resplendent.