In Search of The Quetzal

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Written by Matt   
Thursday, 29 October 2009 07:55
Quetzal PanamaIf scavenger hunts and hiking, two things I desperately, almost embarassingly despise, had sex and produced a child, it would be something that very closely resembled the leisurely pursuit of birding. Throw in some golf etiquette and the potential mind-numbing of an unsuccessful fishing outing and you have Panama birding. Experts will tell you otherwise, that Panama is teeming with rare breeds you won't find anywhere else in the world. But imagine shopping with your girlfriend, in search of a very extraordinary purse, just to find it in a window for several seconds before it flies away. On my first visit to Panama, I wanted to see a quetzal. I had lived in Costa Rica and made several unsuccessful trips to Monteverde where it was rumored quetzals expressed themselves publicly on a regular and daily basis. But such is my luck with destination sightings. I could show up at Niagra Falls they one day of the year they've turned off the water for maintenance. In Spain, I drove something like 300 miles to eat the most famous plate of paella in the country, just to find out they were closed on Wednesdays. What restaurant have you ever known to be closed on Wednesdays?

Which is to say, that during this first Panama visit, the quetzal was, for me, just another made-up creature that I'd someday have to tell my kids didn't exist. It'd just as soon join the ranks of the Tooth Fairy and unicorns as things we'd never see outside the pages of our little storybooks. Santa Claus, werewolves, and the quetzal: all sitting there pleasantly by the fireside.

Among all the types of quetzals, one particular breed always held my fancy and that was the resplendent quetzal: a brilliant colored bird sacred to the Mayans, the fieldguide read. They are solitary birds that do not survive in captivity with tails up to three feet long. They eat worms, snails, larvae and they are very poor fliers.

It was this last bit, the poor fliers part, that really threw me for a twist. What's the point of being a bird if you can't fly? I wondered. Much the same way I protested being raised by my parents, I envisioned the quetzal hatching from his egg and hearing the news. "This is a joke right?" he would say. "No, seriously. You have got to be kidding me."

I went birding with one of the country's most famous companies and proceeded to ask non-stop about the quetzal. The guide who was called Hernando was extremely patient and assured me, rather certainly, that we'd see one before noon. Had I been alone, identifying the quetzal would have been like picking up a stranger from the airport. "This cabinet is infested with quetzals," someone could have said and I'd have accepted it entirely. "Did you see that quetzal scamper across the road?" Again, I'd arrived with no idea of what to expect. My guide offered to draw it for me, but I turned him down, preferring instead to save my pent-up anticipation on the real thing. After all, there was no point in blowing my load on the eleventh hour.

By the end of our tour, we had seen no less than four resplendent quetzals. A team of two were sitting in a tree and the two additional quetzals just happened to be passing by. They were spectacular indeed. The other, and more serious, people on my tour were moved beyond emotions: jaws left open, their hands on their chests the way you do when someone dies. What shook me rather was the ease with which our guide located them: it was like having the map to birding's holy grail. It was also not unrepresentative of Panama's ridiculously diverse and supremely underrated ecosystem. The Monteverde folks in Costa Rica had been banking off this bird for years. And now, maybe a month into my first trip to Panama, I understood what all the fuss was about.

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 October 2009 07:57