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Birding Costa Rica high elevations

Costa Rica is a great place to see Resplendent Quetzal

It may be revered in Guatemala and grace cloud forests from southern Mexico to Panama, but the easiest place to see Resplendent Quetzal has got to be Costa Rica. You can definitely watch them at highland sites in Chiapas, Mexico but there aren’t too many places that are readily accessible where the birds are common. The extensive highland forests of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua may hold the largest numbers of quetzals, but much of these forests are inaccessible, and only a few sites with little infrastructure can be visited. In western Panama, like Costa Rica, it’s not too difficult to see Resplendent Quetzal because of good tourist infrastructure (roads, trails, guides, information, accommodation) in excellent habitat. This is only in the westernmost part of Panama, though, whereas in Costa Rica, Resplendent Quetzals can be found in cloud forests nearly throughout the country.

Quetzals in Costa Rica even occur in the mountains that overlook the central valley although most birders see them in one of two places: 1. Monteverde, or 2. on Cerro de la Muerte.

Quetzals at Monteverde aren’t very common but there are always some around and guides for the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves usually know where some of the birds are.You might even see a quetzal or two along the road up to the Monteverde reserve but it’s always easier to see them with a guide. The reason for this is because quetzals are often found near their preferred food source of “wild avocados” and guides will know where and when these trees are in fruit, and may also know the whereabouts of a nest.

On Cerro de la Muerte, most people go to the Mirador de Quetzales or San Gerardo de Dota. The Mirador de Quetzales is located just off of the main road before reaching the turn-off to San Gerardo. Take the quetzal tour, and the owner (Eddie Serrano?) will bring you to fruiting wild avocados for typically fantastic views of one or several quetzals.

Further up the main road is the turn-off for San Gerardo de Dota, a small community in a deep valley not too far from the summit. It takes about two and a half hours to drive there from San Jose and vehicles descending into the valley may need four wheel drive to get back out during the rainy season. This may not be true but that’s the way it looked to me when I was there last month. If you stay in the valley, I’m sure your hotel will give you the best assessment of the driving situation.

Descending to San Gerardo de Dota.

This is the valley where hundreds of birders have seen their first Resplendent Quetzal while lodging at Savegre Lodge, Trogon Lodge, Dantica, or a few other hotels in the area. All of these hotels offer morning quetzal tours. You could also follow the signs for “observacion de quetzales” and pay to see quetzals, or, if you get up there early enough, you can drive along the road through the valley and just stop when you see a crowd of tourists staring at something in the trees. They will almost certainly be looking at a quetzal but you usually have to do this in the morning because if they aren’t looking at a nest, the quetzals may fly off to visit fruiting trees away from the road.

Looking at a Resplendent Quetzal.

To our extreme good fortune, on a short trip to the Dota Valley in search of quetzals a few weeks ago, there was a pair nesting very close to the road. We found the nest thanks to a couple of photographers who were lingering at one spot along the road. Upon arrival, of course the quetzal has “just left” but so what- we knew it had to come back to feed its hidden youngsters some wild avocados. I think we waited around 15 minutes when sure enough, a male quetzal gave its cackling vocalization (yes, the males cackle) and flew overhead, its long tail feathers streaming behind. About five minutes later, things got much, much better as it flew down closer to the nest and paused near the entrance before hopping inside.

Notice the green avocado in its bill. No, it doesn’t look like the avocados we are used to because its a wild one- a fruit of some Lauraceae species.

After hopping inside, its tail feathers were so long that they stuck out of the hole and waved in the breeze!

Eventually and luckily for us, the male had to have a look at us. He was apparently intrigued because he sat there for about 15 minutes and let us take a ridiculous number of  pictures. Here are a few of mine:

After leaving the hole, he then flew to a perch to show off his incredible, iridescent plumage….

and sallied close to the ground for raspberries! Here is a bad action shot as he takes off from his perch.

The female eventually showed up too but by then the battery for my camera had run out. At least I got pictures of the male though!

The places I mentioned are the easiest sites to see Resplendent Quetzal in Costa Rica because they are easy to get to, and there are usually some people around who know where to find these sacred birds. Keep in mind though, that they also occur in most areas of good, highland forest such as along the trails at La Georgina, other areas in the high Talamancas, up on the Irazu, Poas, and Barva volcanoes, and other sites. It might take a while to see them at those other sites though and could be tough without a guide but the birding will always be good in any case.

5 replies on “Costa Rica is a great place to see Resplendent Quetzal”

The last time we were at Savegre Lodge in San Gerardo de Dota was March, 2007. At that time the hotel “promised” you would see a Quetzal or they would give you a free night’s accomodation (or meal if you were day tripping). No contest. The Quetzals were everywhere! Three pairs nesting and two males courting a female in a fantastic display of swooping and cackling and generally showing off. What female could resist? Is it true that the male looses his long tail after the nesting season?
Great pictures, Pat.

On March 23, the day of your posting, my wife and I took some visitors to the San Gerardo area, arriving around 7:45 and came up on a stand of serious cameras and their owners taking up about half of the road, all focused in on the very nest where you got these great shots. On this morning a very young Quetzal was perched up on the edge of the hole looking around. An adult female watched from some 25 yards away, back by the river. We were told that on the previous morning, Monday, the 22nd, another young Quetzal had been coaxed from the nest and taken flight with an adult male for parts unknown. The expectation was that this was the morning for junior #2 to try his wings. Within a half hour or so the male (presumably the same one that appears on your photos) arrived with a meal for the youngster. It was exhilarating to watch the male go to the nest, give the young a morsel, then find a perch some 15 feet away, watch the humans for while, then work up another morsel and back to the nest, and to the perch. This was repeated several times, in full view. We weren’t able to stay long enough to see the young bird leave the nest, but what we did see was a real treat.
Happy birding,

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