The birds were her travel guide

"Aventuras repletas de adrenalina."

This was the boldly printed heading of a tourist brochure in our hotel room. We had just arrived in Costa Rica. And although I know very little Spanish, the enticing words were easily comprehensible: "adventures replete with excitement."

I loved that word "adrenalina" and could just imagine adrenalin coursing through one's veins while experiencing the adventures of zip-lining (zipping along cables between treetops in the forest canopy), white-water rafting, volcano hiking, scuba diving, and more.

But I had come with a small group of bird-watching devotees who fully intended to spend their entire time in Costa Rica behind binoculars, in search of neotropical avians. The farthest we would be getting off the ground was a suspended bridge in the rain forest.

Although appreciating the beauty of birds, I had never understood how someone could stand for hours waiting for a small feathered creature to come into view, then erupt euphorically when able to match it to the picture in a book.

Yet there must be more than meets the eye, I thought, and so I agreed to join "the birders" while absorbing Costa Rica's splendor.

With binoculars and scopes, we made our way through rain forests, volcanoes, and cloud forests and along the Pacific coastline. Monkeys swung from trees, coatis emerged from dense foliage, and shimmering electric-blue morpho butterflies, the size of dinner plates, flitted among the tropical lushness.

The fantastic forests in which we stood begged to be explored – huge palm trees laden with fruit, luminous flowers of unimaginable shapes and design, and umbrella-size leaves (indeed, called "poor man's umbrella").

But the birders were focused on only one thing: "There, look there, on that narrow twig next to the crooked branch from the second tree on the right."

I followed their directions and stared through my small, humble binoculars at the thick collage of many shades of green.

Occasionally I would catch brief glimpses of a feathery form flitting past my view. Hot and sweaty, I stood listening to everyone else's oohs and aahs. The birders' adrenalina was obviously flowing.

"I have to find the motmots," Carol, from Texas, said.

"Wait till you see the quetzal!" said Anne, who had been to Costa Rica before.

I had never heard of a motmot or a quetzal. Cardinals, blue jays, and chickadees were the birds of my acquaintance. Finally I borrowed a field guide to see what all the anticipation was about. Sure enough, pictures of the exotic birds were magnificent, with brilliant colors and long, flowing tails unseen anywhere in North America.

Onward we traveled, through different elevations and varied avian habitats. While the birders birded, I gazed at a furry sloth curled up in a tree and marveled at iguanas sitting immobile in the sun, like miniature dinosaurs. I watched Arenal Volcano spit out fiery red lava rocks that careened down its slopes.

But my fellow travelers were only partially impressed. Alas, the wonders I kept pointing to had no feathers.

Finally, Bob, the leader of our group, took me under his (nonfeathered) wing.

"Here," he said. "Try my binoculars." They were far more powerful than mine. I could see each leaf and flower in glorious detail. And – I began to see the birds.

With praiseworthy patience, Bob explained how to spot a bird, first with the naked eye, then with "binocs." He showed me what to look for – shape of beak, crest on head, eye rings, wing and tail patterns. Slowly but surely I began seeing – and catching on.

Trogons, coquettes, bananaquits, honeycreepers – names started matching brilliant, Crayola-crayon colors. Cartoonlike toucans, looking as though they were right off Froot Loops cereal boxes, flew above our heads. The number and variety of bird species populating Costa Rica was mind-boggling.

Finally I began to understand the adrenalina of birders, as avians were transformed from "just another feathery flier" to a specific bird with its own identity and its own characteristics, sharing a piece of the world with me.

Now I, too, began to savor the thrill of recognition. Best of all, once or twice I was the first to proclaim, "There, perched on that vine between two branches ... a tropical kingbird!"

Our last stop was in a cloud forest called Bosque de Paz, "Forest of Peace." Several species of iridescent hummingbirds – in brilliant violets, greens, and golds – greeted us when we arrived.

Once again the trees and trails were filled with opulent opportunities for "us" birders. (By dint of effort and enthusiasm, I had now earned my novice credentials.)

Early on the morning we were due to leave, I hiked along a trail beside a rushing stream, accompanied only by the songs of birds, leaves rustling in the wind, and howler monkeys' wake-up calls.

Here, the peace of the forest embraces you and clouds brush you gently with their wisps of mist.

I thought about the past days of our trip, so richly full of things to see and do. They had, indeed, been replete with an unexpected type of adrenalina – of learning something new, of entering an avian world I had never known before.

There are so many kinds of "excitement" here on planet Earth: spine-tingling adventures in water and air and on land, exhilaration from a piece of music or a work of art, and the awe of nature's mysteries. And always, the thrill of a new discovery – of the "I get it" that makes it yours.

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