For the Birds Radio Program: Resplendent Quetzal
Resplendent Quetzal .
The time I spent in Costa Rica was in many ways the most wonderful four weeks of my life-a dream come true. But the joy of visiting a tropical country, seeing monkeys and sloths and macaws and toucans and dozens of different species of hummingbirds, meeting wonderful people and eating wonderful food in outdoor restaurants while gazing at tropical sunsets–all of this paled in comparison with the sight of one specific bird that I’ve yearned to see since I was four years old–the Resplendent Quetzal.
I first saw this bird in a black-and-white encyclopedia when I was a little girl–the caption said it was emerald green and brilliant red, and my imagination put the colors on the page. I figured the book had to be exaggerating at least a little, but even in gray tones it sure was a pretty bird, with a round-crested head and incredibly long, flowing tail feathers. When I bought my Costa Rica field guide the year it came out–1989–1 avoided the page with the trogons and quetzal because I couldn’t bear to look at pictures of what I couldn’t hope to see in real life. Now suddenly here I was in Costa Rica.
And on January 14, I found myself face to face with not one but TWO Resplendent Quetzals. A flurry of wings drew my eyes into a tree. I searched the branches and voila! There was a perfect male with the sun gleaming on his emerald green and brilliant red feathers-the encyclopedia had called that right. And his upper tail coverts–the feathers that flow down behind and beyond his tail, trailing in a glorious stream–were even longer than the encyclopedia photo. I don’t know how long I watched him before I realized I was holding my breath, lost in awestruck wonder.
Every few seconds he made a call that was ever soft, gentle, and low–I’ll always think of this as the Desdemona bird. It took me at least five minutes to finally notice the female on a nearby branch facing him-she sat there motionless, her head, back and underbelly soft gray rather than emerald and red, but her undertail coverts were as brilliant red as his. The underside of his tail gleamed white while hers had soft black and white barring, and she lacked his long tail stream. But if she wasn’t as eye-catching as he, she was beautiful in her own right even if she was almost invisible in the thick tropical foliage. Not invisible to the male, of course–when I finally saw her, I realized he had been calling to her all this time.
She got restless or decided to tease him and flew to another branch. He stayed almost precisely a foot away from her, following her to three different branches, his gaze fixed on her face even as she coyly averted her eyes. We watched them, transfixed, for at least 20 minutes, and all the time he stayed precisely at her side, talking softly to her. If she wasn’t as attentive as he yearned for her to be, neither was she trying to get away, and our guide told us it wouldn’t be long before they were mating.
Now, a month and a half later, my heart still races when I think of how lovely they were. I forgot both my camera and my recording equipment, but my senses were so engaged with the sight and sound of this magnificent pair that the experience is burned into my memory without electronic reminders.
It was three days before we saw another quetzal. If our first view was glorious and intimate, our second was simply spectacular. On our last morning of the birding tour, we spent an hour at a feeding site where six or eight quetzals were eating breakfast, sometimes sedately perched in their feeding trees, sometimes flying right over our heads, their tails undulating gracefully, my heart pounding with the thrill. These birds were all silent, thinking more of food than romance, but if they didn’t provide pleasure for my ears, they sure gave my eyes a feast! It may be a few years, or more, before I see another living quetzal, but the sights and sounds of them will remain in my heart and soul, sustaining me until we meet again.