Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Resplendent Quetzal

Thirteen years ago, just after graduating from my university and still not very well employed, I decided to take a trip to Guatemala to learn to speak Spanish. I spent a month there, most of it in Antigua at a language school that purports to use it's proceeds for studying and preserving some of the native languages of the Maya's descendents.

On the final week there, I chose to travel and see the country. One of the places I briefly visited was the Biotope del Quetzal, a biological reserve specifically intended for the preservation of the Resplendent Quetzal, a rather fantastic looking bird that dwells exclusively in the highland cloudforests of Central America.

Prior to going to Guatemala, I read John Maslow's Bird of Life, Bird of Death, a naturalist's travelogue from the tumultuous nineteen eighties, when the Guatemalan people were suffering a reign of terror that resulted from the tensions between paranoid neofascism and socialist-leaning rebels, and fueled by the Reagan administration's big stick policy that tore apart the entire region. (This was a period during which the Spanish verb for "to disappear" became a noun used to refer to people abducted—and murdered, sometimes en masse--by the army. Trials are finally being conducted to bring to justice some of these crimes, although many of the people are reluctant to bear witness, still haunted by the not-so-distant past.)

Anyway, Maslow's story of his quest to see the endangered Quetzal left me with an itch to see this beautiful bird, and my journey thirteen years ago left me unfulfilled. I saw no Quetzals. I did see a huge beetle that was nearly the size of my fist. And, I saw the cloudforest, albeit very briefly as my traveling companion, an intense Israeli from Tel Aviv, didn't really grasp what my fascination for the place was all about.

Today, in Costa Rica's Monteverde cloudforest reserve, I finally fulfilled this thirteen year yen to see the Resplendent Quetzal. (Not without some inconvenient false starts, such as accidentally getting on the wrong bus and starting out for the distant capitol city of San Jose insteadof getting the early start to the reserve that my wife and I had originally intended.) We saw a pair, a male and a female, low in the trees, not far from the trail. One of the guides told us that they were probably seeking a tree cavity to make into a nesting site.

My wife asked whether finally seeing the bird left me feeling fulfilled. I told her that I wanted to see a Three-wattled Bell Bird.


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