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In Search of the Resplendent Quetzal

By | May 25, 2012
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At our welcome meeting in San José, several participants spoke of their hope to see the legendary quetzal, the near mythical trogon with an iridescent emerald green back and, in the male, a ruby red breast and belly. Making the male even more gaudy, he sports on his 15-inch body, iridescent green feathers that extend up to 30 inches beyond his tail.

The group had its chance to look for the quetzal a few days later while visiting the Monte Verde forest. The search for quetzals often involves finding a fruiting tree in the avocado family, a favorite food of quetzals; the search also involves listening for their characteristic "kyow, kyow" call. To our dismay, we reached the end of our trail at a waterfall without finding a fruiting tree or hearing the call of the quetzal. Local workers even noted that the quetzals had moved out of the area.

But fear not, we had an even better treat ahead. Shortly after we turned back to return to the visitor's center, we found a pair of quetzals, with the male working diligently to excavate a tree cavity for a nest site. After watching the birds for an extended period, we moved down the trail. As a bonus, our return route took us past yet another pair of quetzals, also excavating a nest cavity. In this case, the female was excavating while the nearby male called. By the end of our walk, we saw as many as 8 to 10 quetzals. I have visited this area of Costa Rica many times, but this was the first visit giving an opportunity to see adults excavating nest cavities.

Quetzals, Costa Rica

Quetzals excavating nest cavities. (The dark forest made it difficult to obtain high quality photographs without disturbing the energetic birds only a few feet away.) Photos (left and bottom right) by R. Tinko-Russell; photo (top right) by Jim Karr.

A Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica.

A Resplendent Quetzal. Photo by Jim Karr.

Another highlight of our travels in Costa Rica was seeing a male green basilisk lizard sunning on a streamside rock.

Basilisk lizard

A male green basilisk lizard. Photo by Jim Karr.

Throughout the trip, the tour director, coach driver, and I were able to show participants things that I have seen many times before. But I was also delighted to see plants and animals not seen on earlier trips. We saw more in two weeks than many early explorers were able to see in months of demanding travel.

Smithsonian Journeys group by a waterfall in Costa Rica

The Smithsonian Journeys group near a waterfall at Monte Verde before the first quetzal spotting. Photo by Jim Karr.


Read Jim Karr's previous post, "Sampling Exotic Fruits in Costa Rica," and learn more about Smithsonian Journeys' Costa Rica adventure trip here.
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Jim Karr

Smithsonian Study Leader Jim Karr is Professor Emeritus of Ecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, specializing in tropical ecology, ornithology, water resources, and environmental policy. He also served as deputy director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for four years in the 1980s.

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