“My God it is…it’s a Sunbittern!” Monteverde, twitchers paradise and ecotourism central

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.

Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

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.

Flower, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Flower, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Bird of Paradise flower, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Bird of Paradise flower, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

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.

Emerald toucanet, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Emerald toucanet, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Orange-bellied Trogon, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Orange-bellied Trogon, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Sunbittern, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Sunbittern, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Great Kiskadee, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Great Kiskadee, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Hummingbird, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Hummingbird, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Collard Redstart Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Collard Redstart Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Black Guan, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Black Guan, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

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.

Quetzal, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Quetzal, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Quetzal, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Quetzal, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

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.

Howler Monkey, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

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.

Green Dart Poison Frog, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Green Dart Poison Frog, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Tarantula, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Tarantula, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

All-in-all a fabulous day of spotting wildlife…looking forward to tomorrow already.

An audience with the Andean Condor

If your idea of fun is getting out of bed at 5am, standing by a roadside for 30 minutes wondering if your guide is actually going to pick you up, driving 2 hours over terrible mud and dirt roads into a remote valley, then walking for 2 hours up a large hill in the blistering heat, before spending four hours perched on the edge of a cliff under the unrelenting Bolivian sun, before repeating the journey in reverse…then Andean Condor spotting may be for you, and the rewards may well be this…

Up close and personal with the Andean Condor

About 40km from Samaipata is El Nido de los Condores, or the Condors Nest, perhaps the finest site in Latin America for viewing Andean Condors – sometimes at very close quarters. Getting there is easy, most agencies in Samaipata offer the tour, but the journey isn’t very pleasant and the hard climb at the end of it puts most people off. So much so, the day I went I had the privilege of being there alone with my guide.

I’d been recommended to contact a Bolivian guide called Saul Arias Cessio, an amazingly well informed biologist and wildlife expert who has devoted much of his career to the study of birds, especially the Andean Condor. Saul runs an agency with his wife in Samaipata called Tucandera Tours (tucandera.tours@hotmail.com or Tel. 731 67735/763 39435/726 66771) whose office is located just in front of Samaipata’s museum. Saul speaks good English and thankfully was available to take me the next day to see the Condors – although he also offers trips into nearby Amboro National Park, where there are dozens of bird species.

Saul explained that there were approximately one hundred and thirty Andean Condors in the Samaipata area, but that El Nido de los Condores was a special place for the Andean Condor because they ride the thermals across the face of the cliff to drink from a waterfall that tumbles down the cliff edge.

During the four hours we spent at the site we saw around 15 different Andean Condors, but we also saw Turkey Vultures, a rarely seen Buzzard Eagle and, to our delight, an even rarer sighting of a Tropical Condor (actually a King Vulture). We even saw three different types of Parrot and a flock of Parakeets.

If seeing the Andean Condor close up was the main reason for coming, a good secondary reason would be the beautiful countryside that you pass through to reach the Condors.

The view as we climbed up towards El Nido de los Condores

My guide, Saul, at El Nido de los Condores

El Nido de los Condores

The valley below El Nido de los Condores is home to nine families (you can see the cleared areas where they farm), living a subsistence and independent existence away from modern life – no electricity, no running water, no shops, no access to health care and no road in or out. In fact, the nearest road was the one we had travelled on into a different valley, which would be a walk of several hours to reach, but even then there is no public transport so you’d just have to hope you got lucky if you needed to get to medical help urgently.

Shortly after we arrived we started to spot Andean Condors, both adults, with their distinctive white and black plumage, and young Condors aged between three and four years of age. There is nothing to quite describe the feeling of seeing these giant birds floating effortlessly past you, sometimes at the same level as you, sometimes overhead and sometimes below, set amidst the most beautiful mountain scenery.

Adult female Andean Condor

The rarely seen Tropical Condor, all-be-it from a distance

Young Andean Condor

Young Andean Condor floats right past us

Young Andean Condor

Adult Andean Condor

Turkey Vulture

On our way back we came across this odd looking plant, which was just about to flower. It takes about twenty or twenty-five years for the plant to mature, it then flowers and dies. As Saul said, twenty-five years and it gets just one chance to reproduce!

Death becomes her/him/it