Until this week, my only views of this magnificent bird were a few years back, on my first trek from Los Bajos del Volcán down to the small town of Suerre in the Caribbean lowlands. But on Saturday, I participated in Cornell Lab’s Global Big Day and chose the Turrialba Volcano road as my morning target. I did so hoping to explore the dirt road at La Fuente, just before La Central, because I had been told that quetzals could be found there regularly.
Despite heavy fog and drizzle for the first few hours, I was rewarded when it suddenly cleared in the late morning as I peered, drenched, through the binoculars at the very edge of the Turrialba Volcano National Park. Don’t imagine that this road runs entirely through thick forest; fincas and their cows, which represent deforestation wherever you find them, are to be found along all roads in the region. I was at one of the last fincas, Monte Calas, just before El Tapojo. “No”, said the manager, “you won’t see quetzals in this weather and at this time of year. Wait until June or July and you’ll find them in that big aguacatillo tree over there”. His opinion was echoed by one of the peones, who quite confidently and independently gave me the same information, though that particular tree was an ira, according to him.
I wandered back down the slope deciding to concentrate instead on the numerous hummingbirds, mostly Fiery-throated Hummingbirds (Panterpe insignis), a highland species. Like the Rufous-taileds in my garden, these medium-sized hummers love to chase each other around.
Nightingale-thrushes of two species were also present and seem not to be shy at all, mostly hopping around on the floor of their gloomy environment. The Black-billed Nightingale-thrush (Catharus gracilirostris) was the more common of the two, but I thought that the Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush (Catharus frantzii), which has an appealingly clear call note, was particularly pretty.
An equally clear, but very different call note rang out from above and I hurried back up to Monte Calas to find at least two male Resplendent Quetzals (Pharomachrus mocinno) in the appointed tree! One sat patiently and allowed long looks before sailing off with its streamers in the wind as the neblina rolled back in. I think that there were also females present but, though I had seen them fly in with the males, I couldn’t find them among the profuse vegetation of the giant tree.
As a linguist, I always find the etymology of bird names of great interest, and that of the quetzal is no exception. It’s a Nahuatl (Aztec) word that means a (brightly coloured) feather of this species, the feathers being used for ornamental and celebratory purposes. To name the bird, the Aztecs had to add the Nahuatl word for bird (tototl) to the word quetzalli.
I spoke this morning to long-time San Antonio resident and neighbour of mine, 75-year-old don Edgar. He confessed with a good deal of shame that, as a boy, he had very frequently captured and sold quetzal pichones, as fledgling birds are called locally, at the princely sum of 15 colones each. He claims that they were mostly exported, by air, first to El Salvador and then to who knows where.
Today he had with him a newly made cage for confining jilgueros, Black-faced Solitaires (Myadestes melanops). I would venture to say that the beautiful song of the jilguero can be heard in every village in the country simply because it has been and still is a tradition here. I heard it repeatedly on this trip since it is still a reasonably common highland species.
My bird list for the Big Day, both in the highlands, down at Guayabo National Monument and in My Yard, can be found on ebird: http://ebird.org/ebird/camerica/eBirdReports?cmd=subReport
Many thanks once again to Karel Straatman and to Richard Garrigues for the photos used in this post.