In Quest of the Elusive Quetzal

A magnificent bird captures the color and splendor of Costa Rica's forests

It's 6 in the morning.

The first rays of sun stream through the trees, falling on pink bougainvillea, exotic orchids, and soft ferns.

Suddenly all slumber is shattered by the piercing shriek of a scarlet macaw. Assorted birds join the chorus, awakening a bevy of furry critters who, like myself, open a reluctant eye and begin to stir.

Costa Rica? So soon?

Uh, no. I haven't left home yet.

My house, you see, is a sort of jungle annex, a Cypress Gardens North, if you will, near Boston, festooned with flora and an ever-growing menagerie of fauna (including that raucous macaw).

So it was with much excitement that I packed my binoculars, and a six-pack of industrial-strength bug spray, and headed south for a bird-and-botany adventure in the tangled, tropical wilds of Costa Rica.

On the way, a layover at Miami Airport was time for a crash course in intensive Spanish. As everyone knows who's been there, the airport contains the largest Spanish-speaking population outside Guadalajara.

In a matter of hours, I was trotting along behind Arturo Jarqun, a Costa Rican guide, in the 25,000-acre Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve with five fellow nature lovers from the States.

The forest here, high in the central mountains, is cool and verdant, shrouded in a scrim-like mist that bathes and nurtures it. Every branch drips with arboreal orchids, bromeliads, and ferns. "One tree is like a botanical garden; as many as 30 different plants on one tree," he said, identifying a particular specimen by its Latin name.

Hundreds of bird species either migrate between the two continents or are permanent residents here.

But more than any bird (or creature), it is the resplendent quetzal that is the drawing card.

"Did you see a quetzal?" is a question you'll be asked time and again by fellow quetzal questers.

A negative response is nothing less than humiliation.

"No, but I saw a sloth, and a..."

Forget it. It doesn't matter if you saw King Kong. You didn't see a quetzal. Shame on you. Go to your room.

Arturo was somewhat optimistic. Our chance for spotting the elusive quetzal was "about 50-50" he said.

Then one morning, things began to feel different. The sun appeared, dissipating the mist and stretching narrow shafts of light through the trees.

Shedding our ponchos, we entered the emerald forest in single file, looking a bit like ants in a caesar salad (sans anchovies).

A variety of greens enveloped us as we were dwarfed by giant ferns and 150-foot trees. A carpet of moss blanketed the ground, while vines dangled from the canopy like streamers on a departing ocean liner.

The air, cool and oxygen-charged, honed our senses.

There were birds everywhere; orange-chinned parakeets, woodpeckers, magpies, warblers, and hummingbirds - the Faberg jewels of the forest. A magnificent hummingbird sat on its thimble-sized nest woven of moss and lichen. Some 50 species of hummingbirds can be found in the Monteverde area.

A coati (a sort of stretched-out raccoon), foraged in the bush. We saw two-toed sloths and a Mexican porcupine in the area.

Finally we stopped along the path. "We'll wait here," Arturo said softly.

This was quetzal country.

We waited...

Other quetzal-seekers joined us.

We watched, scanning the forest canopy. Nothing.

Then, out of a cloudless sky it appeared.

"There," Arturo whispered, motioning to the top of a fig tree, quickly mounting his bazooka-sized telescope on a tripod.

An exquisite male quetzal, with crimson chest, white tail, and two-foot-long iridescent-green streamers shimmered in the dappled sunlight.

We watched it flit among the trees, bobbing its crested head while gobbling avocado-like fruit.

Surely this had to be "the most beautiful bird in the New World," as my guidebook proclaimed.

Like fireworks, it burst into the sky for a few breathless minutes and was gone.

Ecstasy!

Epiphany.

And relief.

The pressure was off. Now we could relax and explore other wonders of the cloud forest. And there were many:

Brilliant butterflies drifted like confetti among frail stands of bamboo.

We poked among the flora finding mistletoe, colorful fungi, and orchids. Standing under a leaf the size of a Volkswagen, Arturo joked, "Sometimes I feel like Alice in Wonderland in the forest."

Although there was talk of snakes - the deadly eyelash viper and fer-de-lance - and tarantulas, none were seen. And, no, we didn't see a jaguar. Arturo had never seen one in the wild.

Arturo was our teacher, guide, and mother hen, spotting things we surely would have missed, while always alert to potential troubles.

"Don't stand there too long," he warned as I stopped on the trail to take a picture. "Army ants."

OK, I'm outa there.

A troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys entertained us as we departed the cloud forest.

We left smiling, with notebooks thick with recorded observations, and heads held high.

After all:

We're the few.

We're the proud.

We're the quetzal spotters.

The next three days were spent at Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast: a change of pace, scenery, and temperature. Hot, steamy, and muggy. No trudging through the forests here. Our nature tours consisted of motoring in an open boat through the rivers and canals of Tortuguero National Park.

This dense, lowland rain forest is almost impenetrable by foot. Sneaking up on snoozing toothy caimans was safer and easier from the perspective of a boat.

We saw iguanas, the original lounge lizards chilling out in the afternoon sun, and the aptly-named howler monkeys. So loud and obnoxious is their call, you'll be pleading to hear Roseanne Barr sing another chorus of the National Anthem.

Howler monkeys aside, our days here were more restful, but no less rewarding. Without leaving our lodge we spotted a variety of birds, lizards, and heard the calls of rare great green macaws from our window.

Even the river banks held wonders like Jesus Christ lizards. When startled, this little reptile stands on its back legs, and runs, not just walks, across the water.

Then there were the poison-arrow frogs. Not even Miss Piggy would dare make a pass at these tiny red hoppers.

Leaf-cutting ants paraded across our paths carrying shreds of banana leaves to their underground nests.

Each day was filled with wonder. As Arturo said, "Nature is full of surprises."

Our meals were always sparked by banter with Arturo whose knowledge was as endless as our questions.

One man from California summed up the experience as we left. "Nature was everywhere," he said, "walk out the door and there's a sloth in the trees. There's always something to see and hear."

A serious birder back home in California, he figured we had seen 98 species. Just spotting that resplendent quetzal might have been enough for me.

It's 6 in the morning.

The first rays of sun stream through the trees.... Suddenly all slumber is shattered by the piercing shriek of a scarlet macaw.

It's nice to be back in my private, snow-bound, little jungle.

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