Volume 1: Ornithology

Birdwatching in Costa Rica

A birdwatcher’s paradise, Costa Rica counts some 850 bird species.

Definition: The branch of zoology that deals with the study of birds.

The trick with the resplendent quetzal is that it really likes wild avocados, swallowing the fruits whole and regurgitating the pits. It helps to know this when you’re hiking through the emerald-coloured forest of the Río Savegre Valley on the lookout for an emerald-coloured bird. My guide and I stroll slowly through the tropical mist, staring intently at every branch of every avocado tree as we go, trying to catch a flying bit of green among the greenery, wondering if today we might get lucky.

People in Toronto tend to look at you funny when you tell them you’re travelling 4,000 kilometres to see a single bird, even if it’s the quetzal. Part of the Central American trogon family, it’s widely considered to be the most beautiful bird in the Americas – a creature sacred to both the ancient Aztecs and the Mayans. So perhaps the best part about the Río Savegre Valley is how totally normal birdwatching is here. I’ve never felt that birding needs defending – since when does the pursuit of beauty need justification? – but looking at pretty birds is right at the centre of the valley’s cultural and economic life. At the Del Río Spa in the Savegre Mountain Lodge, you can have a massage that’s specifically designed for birdwatchers; the masseuse works out the crick in the neck you get from staring up into trees all day. There’s a tendency among Canadian birders to embrace a spartan attitude: One ought to be roughing it in the bush, half-frozen, waiting for hours to catch a glimpse of a hawk owl or prairie chicken. Somehow this is supposed to bring you into greater communion with nature. But why do that to yourself? In the bungalows of the Dantica Lodge, you can sit in a Jacuzzi heated by solar power, watching fiery-throated hummingbirds (see fig. 3) play around gigantic bromelias in the high branches.

Birdwatching in Costa Rica

Left: To get a glimpse of the quetzal, try finding the tree that bears its favourite food: the avocado.

For a Canadian birdwatcher used to near-infinite prairies and some of the largest lakes in the world, the proximity of so much bird variety within such small distances in Costa Rica can be disconcerting. When Carlos Serrano Obando, the guide at the Dantica Lodge, took me for a hike, we could walk, at a leisurely pace, from the spare highlands of the volcanoes through dwarf forest into cloud jungle and still arrive with enough time to spend the afternoon knocking back beer and cane liquor in the hotel bar. (I managed to identify four species I hadn’t seen before while sitting in the restaurant.) Serrano Obando has my dream job – the birdwatching equivalent of being a professional ski bum – but he showed me on that hike how far out of my league a true expert is. In an empty clearing, he made owl calls that filled the air with dozens of freaked-out songbirds. Hearing a faint tweet a half-kilometre away in the thick jungle, he tweeted back for 20 minutes and coaxed an uncommon bird into view: the gorgeous golden-browed chlorophonia (see fig. 2). Later that evening, at a turn in the road near the lodge, he uncovered a dusky nightjar (see fig. 1). No need for scopes or even binoculars: The nightjar sat close enough that I could have touched its silky rufous feathers.

Birdwatching in Costa Rica

At the Savegre Mountain Lodge, you can have a massage designed for birdwatchers; the masseuse works out the crick in the neck you get from staring up into trees.

You still have to work to see the quetzal, though. Part of the thrill of birding, which is essentially hunting for people who don’t need to kill things, is that nothing is certain when you set out in the morning. No bird can be guaranteed. The guide and I did eventually find one, though not in an avocado tree. We found two, in fact – a couple – and they put on a show for us, as if they’d been hired. The birds considerately sat on the same branch for two hours, while I and 50 other obsessives, who quickly gathered to share our discovery, stared at them, totally enraptured. The jewel-like tail feathers of the male are the most obvious source of wonder: They extend in some cases up to a metre long. No photograph or painting can capture the colour of the plumage, which is really an ambivalence of colour: Depending on the light, the quetzal’s iridescence is either all blue or all green and sometimes seems to be both. That changeability also affects the appearance of the redness of the belly, which at times looks light orange and at other times deep scarlet. The shape of the bird is extravagantly proud, the crest a triangular crown, the side coverlets over its belly like an antique waistcoat. And then those tail feathers – like long fluttering crescents.

It was worth the search through all those avocado trees. An impossibly, absurdly, unfathomably beautiful bird. Resplendent, in fact.

Write to us: letters@enroutemag.net

Above: Sacred to the Aztecs and the Mayans, the quetzal is considered to be the most beautiful bird in the Americas. No wonder.

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Where to Stay

Perched on the mountainside, the simple Savegre Mountain Hotel is surrounded by hummingbird feeders, which makes it a picturesque, if bare bones, haven in the cloud forest.

San Gerardo de Dota, Cordillera Talamanca,

You have to walk through the jungle to get to most of the rooms at Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge – that’s how intertwined it is with the landscape. Pick one of the rooms with a semicircular picture window so you can practically bird-watch from within. Le Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge est à ce point intégré au paysage qu’on doit marcher dans la jungle pour accéder à la plupart de ses chambres. Choisissez-en une avec fenêtre panoramique en demi-cercle : vous pourrez continuer d’observer les oiseaux de l’intérieur.

San Gerardo de Dota, Los Santos Forest Reserve