Monteverde, pioneer of ecotourism in Costa Rica, is a small village at the end of a dirt road that has become iconic in green circles. It is home to some of the most pristine primary cloud forest imaginable, straddling the continental divide that runs down the centre of Costa Rica, protected in perpetuity by a series of privately owned reserves that are home to a mind-boggling number of birds, amphibians, insects and mammals.
For me the forest was the star, but it is the birdlife that draws many to Monteverde, and amongst the plethora of extraordinary and rare specimens on display there is one bird in particular that bird stalkers, or twitchers as they are known, seek out amongst the lofty trees of the cloud forest: the Resplendent Quetzal.
The name alone is enough to make you want to catch sight of it, and truly it is an extraordinary sight when you do finally see one. The Quetzal has luminous feathers that have been sought-after prizes for thousands of years. Mayan, Aztec and Incan royalty wore them as symbols of their status thanks to the birds reputation as a flying serpent; it is also the national animal, official symbol and name of the national currency of Guatemala.
The Bird of Paradise Flower is normally pollenated by Hummingbirds, but the example above is turned upwards rather than the traditional downwards. The reason? It is pollenated by bats who don’t fly upside-down and sideways, so the plant has evolved to aid pollination by bats.
The Quetzal is not alone in having an exotic name. We also saw the Orange-bellied Trogon, Black-thighed Grosbeak, Great Kiskadee, Emerald Toucanet and the Black Guan (the largest bird in the cloud forest and a relative of the humble chicken). We also saw the Sunbittern of the title, which moved a grown man to utter the words, “My God it is…its a Sunbittern.” At that moment, as I looked at a bird and he looked at a mystical creature, I realised I’d never be a twitcher.
Early morning at the entrance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve you can see a gathering of typical twitcher types: huge telephoto lenses mingle with telescopic tripods powerful enough to spot alien life on Mars; the conversation is expectant, excited but reserved, no one wants to seem too keen at the prospect of seeing a Quetzal just in case they don’t see one…or worse, others see one and they don’t.
I love to see animals in their natural habitat, but I fail completely to understand the obsession (there is no other word for it) of the twitcher. We went with a Reserve guide for a three hour naturalist walk through one part of the Reserve. In our group was a fanatical twitcher, who talked of nothing but the Quetzal. Yet when we spotted one and trained the telescope on it he didn’t even take a look. It was enough to tick it off in his book.
I was astonished, it was beautiful. My photos don’t do it justice, not by half.
After we finished the guided tour we took off down some of the more remote trails in the reserve. For nearly three hours we didn’t see a another human being, but we did see a lot of birds, some fleetingly, some hidden in foliage and some out in the open as if inviting us to photograph them. In addition we saw Howler Monkeys and White-faced Coati – who were feeding on the ground on fruits being thrown to them by another Coati high in a tree above.
As if that wasn’t enough, on the walk back to our hotel we saw more birds, a tarantula and a poisonous frog. This whole area is teeming with wildlife, even looking out of our bedroom window we can see two or three types of Hummingbird flitting between the many flowers.
All-in-all a fabulous day of spotting wildlife…looking forward to tomorrow already.