Our Guided Hike In Search Of Resplendent Quetzals
The most-desired species of bird for Bob and me to see when visiting Costa Rica was the Resplendent Quetzal. In an effort to fulfill our dream, Bob pre-booked an early-morning guided hike in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve. Just before noon, our guide heard the Quetzals vocalizing, but it was actually Bob that picked them out high in the cloud forest canopy.
We met our guide, Ricardo Guindon, at the Entrance Gate to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve at 6:30 a.m. Everything was cloaked in darkness when Bob, Ricardo and I set off on the trail.
As recommended, we had dressed in 3 layers plus rain ponchos which served us well in the changing conditions that prevailed over the next few hours. Climate change had the cooler, wetter weather of January persisting into March, and the temperature did not edge any higher than 17 Celsius with a light mist falling.
As one would expect in a Cloud Forest, low-hanging clouds hovered over the canopy of trees, and moisture dripped from the trailing foliage. A cloud forest receives almost as much annual precipitation as a rainforest so there’s no wonder that the flora forms a very dense jungle.
Ricardo was very skilled at spotting and naming birds and identifying bird calls, so there was always excitement as we walked along the muddy trail.
The paths in Monteverde Cloud Forest are excellent for the most part. It was especially helpful when mounting steep slopes to find concrete gridwork forming the steps. That provided excellent footing regardless of wet and slippery conditions.
For a couple of kilometres, we climbed continuously upwards towards an observation deck that would afford a view from the Continental Divide. The visibility dwindled and at one point, it felt like we were crossing a threshold into the unknown.
At an elevation of 4,700 feet, the lookout sits atop a ridge that forms part of the Continental Divide. This natural boundary of elevated terrain stretches from Canada to Argentina and determines whether rainfall flows east to the Atlantic Ocean or west to the Pacific.
With constant mist wetting our faces, Bob and I looked out over the lowlands on the east side of the Continental Divide. Heavy clouds denied us a view of the Caribbean Ocean, and the winds were so fierce that we walked at an angle. Talk about a driving rain!
To the west, as well, moisture-filled clouds hovered over the trees, the foggy shroud conforming to the contours of the mountains and bathing the thick forest in moisture that condenses on the plants and provides a constant supply of water to the layers below.
Continuing on, Ricardo navigated the many interconnecting trails in the cloud forest in search of birds that inhabit the forest at various elevations. He was acutely aware of every bird call and sharp at detecting even the smallest of birds in the trees. Photography was difficult because of the low light, and progress was slow owing to endless stops to observe and photograph the birds.
When the trail emerged at the hanging bridge in Monteverde Cloud Forest, Ricardo shared with us some of the history associated with the formation of the Preserve. It was Ricardo’s late father, Wilford Guindon, who was instrumental in helping to establish and later expand this cloud forest nature reserve.
There is a plaque explaining some of the history next to this hanging bridge, and one trail is named in honour of Wilford Guindon’s contributions. We felt honoured to have Ricardo as our guide for he not only gave us insight into the early years of the preserve but also shared personal stories with us about the area and his family.
It was late morning when Ricardo heard a pair of Resplendent Quetzals vocalizing to one another. Though the birds were distant, Bob espied them high in the tangle of jungle plants. Here, we see the female…
and in a neighbouring tree, the male Resplendent Quetzal dazzled us with his stunning plumage and elegant train of twin tail feathers. In breeding season, the male Quetzal’s upper tail coverts are quite splendid and grow to about 3 feet long.
Our views of the Resplendent Quetzals from the trail were limited, and the birds flew off from that location within minutes. At the end of our hike, however, we visited the restaurant at the Preserve’s entrance where we were astonished to find the pair of Quetzals perched within view of the outside balcony.
What a relief to have at least a closer and unobstructed view of the male Quetzal. We could not take our eyes off these gorgeous birds. Our most meaningful experience with the Resplendent Quetzals occurred two days later when Bob and I had the birds to ourselves and watched as they hollowed out a nest hole. I will talk about that in a separate blog post.