The Cerro de la Muerte or “Mountain of Death” sounded pretty bad when we left San Isidro to track down the Respledent Quetzal – a beautiful and threatened bird species native to Central America.
Our day began at 4:30 AM for the two hour drive over the Cerro de la Muerte. Douglas, our driver and native Tico explained how the mountain got its name. Prior to the completion of the highway, people would take three or more days by oxcart to clear the pass. Temperatures close to or below freezing, rain, and/or a clinging fog would create conditions that would lead to hypothermia for poorly equipped travelers. “Poorly equipped” was easy to understand as we were driving up from a valley where we had experienced nothing but 75 to 85 degree days which required only the clothes modesty demanded.
We thought we were prepared. We had fleece jackets and windbreakers we had brought from upstate NY just for these mountain conditions. This proved to be barely enough as we encountered a misty cold above 8000 feet that continued to the top above the valley and above the clouds.
We were headed for Los Quetzales National Park before the sun rose. Clear, cold and only lightly oxygenated air met us at the top of the 11,000 foot pass (according to my iphone app “Altimeter GPS”). Our approach to the park took us through forests dominated by oaks, cypress and wild avacados. We had seen only tropical trees near our apartment on Alto San Juan where the elevation was, at most, 2500 feet. In fact we were to go through a number of the total of fourteen ecosystems on our way down to about the 8000 foot level – home of the elusive Quetzal. The Quetzal is only one of the more than 200 species of birds in the 12000 acre park.
As we got closer to the wild avacado trees the Quetzal loves we pulled over where several dozen avid bird watchers were spread out along a stretch of the road. Mixed in with this group were several professional guides. One of the guides had a small speaker he used to broadcast the aluring call of a female Quetzal. Before long a male was spotted and the group congealed around a spot where it could be seen. Douglas was as excited as we were. He had only seen one Quetzal in his life – in the same forest. I had a camera but no telephoto lens so the best I could do was to take a photo of people taking photos of the Quetzal which was partially hidden and at a distance of about 50 feet from the road. This a professional photo of a Quetzal in flight I found on google images.
At this point everyone was quietly excited. ( For obvious reasons bird watchers don’t jump up and down and scream during a sighting.) We though we had been amply rewarded but soon there was a bigger treat.
About a half mile from that sighting someone heard a Quetzal singing in the trees. (It is not particulary melodious – sounds a little like a chicken.) As a small group approached the Quetzal flew but not away from us – toward us until it sat on a branch only 20 feet away where it eyeballed the lot of us. One of the observers lend me his telescope and I was able to snap this photo of the second Quetzal that we could easily see without binoculars. It is hard to see in this photo but the male Quetzal has a very long and beautiful tail.
By this time the chill had still not wore off. When this Quetzal flew to some other nearby trees we figured it was time to leave him to search out a real female Quetzal which had to be more attractive than a portable speaker.
We got back into Douglas’ four wheel drive vehicle and continued on to visit with his friends at – Los Lagos Lodge – subject of the next post.