Dear Bird Folks,
I read your thoughts about the Blue Jay being the best-looking bird on Cape Cod. I’m sure you’ve had a few readers disagree with you, but I won’t be one of them. I’m writing to know if you’ve ever seen a quetzal, a stunning bird that I saw on a trip to Central America last year. If so, what did you think?
– Todd, Bourne, MA
I’ll answer your question, but I don’t want this column to turn into the weekly bird beauty report. This isn’t going to become Miss America, the avian edition. However, I do appreciate the opportunity to write about the quetzal. It’s the only bird I’ve ever seen that actually made my jaw drop. Oh sure, I’ve seen my share of cool birds including eagles, falcons, puffins and parrots, but nothing stopped me in my tracks like the quetzal did. I still get goose bumps thinking about it. And oh yeah, I’ve seen geese too, without bumps.
A few decades ago, my wife decided she wanted to go on a Caribbean cruise. I told her that I would rather eat an entire cactus than spend a week trapped on a cruise ship. So she, and the rest of my family, booked a trip on the Princess Dramamine and sailed without me. Fine with me. I immediately called my friend (who for the sake of this story I’m going to call “Jonesy,” because that’s his name) and suggested we take a birding trip to Costa Rica. Today, Costa Rica is a prime tourist destination, but back then it was a bit of a secret. There were no Fodor’s, Frommer’s or tourist books of any kind. To make things worse, Al Gore hadn’t invented the Internet yet, so we couldn’t do any advance planning. Instead, we just hopped on a flight, figuring we would sort things out when we got there. Not a good idea.
The first problem we ran into was the language. I don’t know a word of Spanish, and the only thing Jonesy could say was, “sí,” which not only wasn’t very helpful, but every time he said it, I thought he was pointing out a new bird. As soon as we cleared customs we rented a car, and after arguing about who was going to drive (neither of us wanted to), we headed out. I don’t recall what kind of car we rented, but I do remember that it was little and cute, probably a Nissan Muffin or some charming name like that. Whatever kind of car it was, I definitely remember that it wasn’t nearly as cute and charming when we returned it a week later. It was a tough week.
Our goal on this trip was to visit Monteverde’s famed Cloud Forest Reserve. The reserve is noted for several things, including amazing plant diversity, spectacular birding, an assortment of crazy-looking frogs and the worst road ever. (I’ve heard that the road has since improved, but at the time this mountain road was beyond bad). How bad, you ask? The road was one-car wide, with steep drop-offs that went straight down to the valley below. I don’t know the Spanish word for guardrail and perhaps there isn’t one, because they certainly didn’t use them. The unpaved road was half-dirt and half-rock outcropping. It was like driving across a giant boulder…with no guardrails. Much of the road was filled with ruts, and in some places the ruts were so deep that one of us (Jonesy) would have to get out and walk alongside the car in order to lighten the load.
The most unsettling part was when we came upon a goat that was also having trouble traveling on the road. The goat advised us to turn around. It was good advice and there were times I wished I had listened to it, but we pushed on. (Really, we sometimes had to literally push the Muffin when it got hung up on a high spot on the so-called road.)
By the time we arrived at the reserve it was late in the day, so we went right over to the information center and asked which trail would take us to the quetzals. The ranger handed us a map and circled an area along the trail where the birds came to feed on fruit. The ranger tried to offer us additional information, but we were (and still are) American males and the only thing we needed was the map. After all, we had been in the country for nearly a day. What could he tell us about rainforest exploration that we didn’t already know? We hiked for about a mile until we reached a fork in the trail, at which time we reluctantly broke out the map. As we studied the map in the fading light (of course, we had no flashlight, or anything else except our binoculars), we noticed the trail was dead quiet. Uh, oh.
The parking area had been filled with birders and tourists, but not a soul was to be seen on our trail. Where did everybody go? This is when we realized that the two impatient American males had read the map wrong. The quetzals, and everyone else, were in a totally different part of the Cloud Forest Reserve. We were lost and disoriented and it was getting dark. This is when Jonesy started to freak out. He screamed that we were about to spend the night alone, in the middle of a Central American rainforest. I shook him in an effort to calm him down. (BTW, if you substitute me for Jonesy, you’ll be closer to what really happened.) As we stood there, debating our next move, things appeared to get worse. There was a sudden, loud crash in the trees above our heads. I thought snakes (I always think snakes) and Jonesy thought jaguars. Like little kids in bed, peeking out from under the covers, we nervously peered over the top of the map. OMG!
To be continued.