The Resplendent Quetzal Comes to the Talbot County Free Library
by Bill Peak
I've only seen one in my life. And I had to move heaven and earth to
see that one. First there was the flight to Miami, where we changed
planes, then a long flight across the Caribbean, and then south over
Nicaragua and the isthmus of Costa Rica, where, finally, we touched
down again in the latter country's capital, San Jose. It took us
several days to find a bus that would take us to Monte Verde.
Monte Verde. It means Green Mountain in Spanish, but it means so much
more to anyone interested in Mother Nature's various ecosystems, for
Monte Verde is home to one of the rarest: a cloud forest. Cloud
forests occur only in tropical regions on mountains close by the sea.
The heat of the sun bearing down on the water's surface generates
massive amounts of evaporation. When this warm, evaporated water
strikes the cooler air of the mountaintops, it immediately condenses,
forming clouds that drape the forested slopes like big fluffy boas.
Standing in one of these forests, you can watch clouds pass between
you and the tree limbs overhead.
But back to that bus. When we arrived at the corner in San Jose where
we had been told we could catch it, we were surprised to discover it
was just an old school bus, looking rather the worse for wear. But,
hey, it was supposed to be an adventure, right? So Melissa and I
clambered aboard along with a few other trekkers and an assortment of
Costa Ricans loaded down with purchases they had made in town.
We had been told the trip to Monte Verde would take four hours, the
first two driving north from San Jose to the mountain, the last two
driving up the winding, vertiginous, and far too narrow road that led
to the mountaintop. Those last two hours Melissa had to hold my hand;
I've never been so scared in my life. On our left, as we climbed, the
mountain rose from the side of the road in a steep slope, no verge at
all, while on our right the world dropped away beneath us, at first by
tens of feet, then by scores, then by numbers I didn't want to think
about, our ancient school bus lumbering around the increasingly acute
switchbacks like a dull-witted and none-too-nimble Brontosaurus.
Toward the end of that drive, as it grew dark and our driver turned on
his one working headlight, I remember someone pointing out the side of
the bus and exclaiming in Spanish. I looked that way and, at a
considerable distance, perhaps fifty miles away, glimpsed the
unmistakable silhouette of a volcano, its crater glowing red through
The long, tortuous drive up that mountain was, as it turned out, more
than worth it, for the next morning, when we stepped from our lodge,
we walked out into not just a new dawn but a new world. Tree ferns
the size of bass fiddles rose up out of a forest floor littered with
peace lilies, begonias, and bird of paradise flowers. Overhead, life
seemed to grow from the air itself: tree limbs festooned with lianas,
bromeliads, orchids, and moss; the trees that supported these
overladen limbs (often with trunks of a most untree-like
color—broccoli green, celery heart yellow) were, in turn, supported by
root systems that looked like flying buttresses. Butterflies the size
of dinner plates floated down the trail beside us.
I remember at one point, while wandering through a stand of blue
bamboo—each cane as big around as my thigh—Melissa and I came upon an
opening where we could look down on the ridge that marks the
continental divide, a clear, steady breeze from the Caribbean side
turning, as it spilled across to the Pacific, instantly to cloud. An
indigo wasp as big as my hand hovered for a moment before my face.
Howler monkeys called.
And then, on a limb about ten feet above us, we saw something that, at
first glance, looked more like a brightly colored Chinese figurine
than something alive. It was a Trogon, a male Resplendent Quetzal to
be exact, its body over a foot long, its tail adding another two feet
to that length. You catch your breath, you tell yourself it's real,
that this is really happening, I'm really seeing this, and then you
feast your eyes.
The bird's head is covered with soft green feathers that rise, front
to back, in a feathery, Mohawk-like crest. An iridescent blue collar
and bib decorate the bird's neck and upper breast, the bib resting
upon dark red feathers which, in turn, as they descend over the bird's
chest and belly, change to a bright, almost electric crimson. The
animal's back and sides are covered with feathers that appear either
blue or green, depending on the light. Several of these darker
feathers extend out around the bird's chest and belly to point out and
accentuate the crimson. But it is the tail that is the bird's
greatest splendor. At more than twice the length of the body, it is
long, flexible, and blue-green, supported anteriorly by chalky white
undertail coverts. Resplendent indeed.
When, finally, almost disdainfully, the bird rose from its branch and
flew off into the surrounding clouds, that magnificent tail trailing
after it, it was like watching a minor Mayan god take flight.
On Tuesday, November 9, at 6 p.m., the Talbot County Free Library, in
collaboration with the Talbot County Bird Club and the Pickering Creek
Audubon Center, will offer a Zoom presentation on the Resplendent
Quetzal by Dr. Alan Poole, an Associate of the Cornell Lab of
Ornithology and, for 22 years, editor of the Birds of America life
Dr. Poole's talk, entitled The Resplendent Quetzal: Gem Bird of the
Mayan World, will be an intersection of bird ecology, ancient Mayan
history, and conservation in the Americas. I wouldn't miss it for the
world, and I hope you will join us either in the Easton library's main
meeting room (seating capacity, due to Covid, limited to 25), or by
registering for the Zoom program at:
When you register you will receive a confirmation email and, prior to
the program, a reminder email that will contain your Zoom link. Hope
to see you there!