Arguably the most beautiful bird species in the world, resplendent quetzals are found only from extreme southern Mexico to extreme northern Panama. They are birds of the cloud forest, dependent on fruit-bearing trees, especially those in the Lauraceae family, including the wild avocado.
The IUCN considers resplendent quetzal as near threatened on its Red List, with the population on a “moderately rapid” decline because of deforestation for agriculture and livestock production, as well as timbering. Quetzals nest in tree cavities, which means large, old trees with holes in them are essential for the species’ survival.
Numerous ecolodges in the highlands of Costa Rica provide opportunities to view this spectacular bird, but Paraiso Quetzal Lodge allows tourists to reward local farmers for protecting quetzal habitat. Coordinated by staff at the ecolodge, a group of local farmers keeps track daily of where quetzals are most easily spotted.
When tourists request a sure bet on a close-up view of the bird, the lodge makes arrangements with co-op members for tourists to visit, paying the farmer per visitor. The farmers, then, directly benefit from protecting quetzal habitat. Some farmers have built quetzal viewing platforms, shelters, or benches overlooking trees quetzals frequent, allowing great views and even close-up photos.
On a November 2018 Bird Watcher’s Digest Reader Rendezvous to Costa Rica, our group stayed at Paraiso Quetzal, and took a morning tour to a private farm not far away, with Jorge Serrano, Jr., who organized the co-op, as our guide.
The farm was tiny—not much more than subsistence, or so it appeared. The land was steep, but the path to the quetzal viewing area was well-worn. Footing was uneven, but we didn’t have far to hike to get our first look at a brilliant, iridescent green, red, and white bird with three-foot-long tail feathers, as it plucked wild avocados from a tree. Farther up the hill was a wooden viewing platform with benches, where we watched two adult male and one juvenile quetzals put on an amazing show.
We watched the young bird as it swallowed wild avocados whole, but didn’t get to see it barf up the huge pit.
We saw the three quetzals fly, perch, and actively feed—indifferent to us gawkers, even though we were only about 50 feet from them. At times, the birds were too close for me to fit entirely, bill to tail-tip, into the frame of my camera’s viewfinder! We watched for about 20 minutes, and when the birds departed, so did we.
At the base of the hill was the modest farmhouse. The farmer was busily constructing nativity scenes to sell for the upcoming Christmas season, but was happy to interrupt his work to chat—
via Jorge who also served as a translator—with our group, and to show us a fistful of molted quetzal tail feathers he has collected on his property over the years. The feathers were not for sale!
There are, no doubt, thousands of other resplendent quetzals in Costa Rica, but our group was happy to see these quetzals, to reward the farmer for protecting them, and to thank him in person for doing so. Thanks to Crescentia Expeditions and Mario Cordoba for allowing us to participate in ecotourism at its finest.
About the Author
Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She has been watching birds since 1979, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald Times newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.