Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Quetzal Sighting in the Biotopo del Quetzal and Orquigonia

The Resplendent Quetzal is the National Bird of Guatemala so of course it was on our Guate List. Unfortunately they're so rare, due to their shy nature and habitat destruction, that it's not likely you'll see one while you're here. Their survival status is listed as "Near Threatened" and they've become a popular draw for bird watchers in the cloud forests of Baja Verapaz about 4 hours outside of the city. Surprise! We totally lucked out and saw 5 of them during a recent weekend in the Biotopo Quetzal. How was it? Magical. So magical that I think I felt a little of that thrill that hard core bird watchers get when they see a species on their Life List. These birds are truly gorgeous!

Ok, we were lucky but we also planned the trip specifically to see a Quetzal. During their breeding season, March-May, they group up to mate and feed on specific in-season fruit. Our friend had done her research and called a few eco-hotels in the Reserve to get confirmation that the Quetzals were in the area, appearing a little later than normal this year. They said the birds could be seen pretty reliably early in the morning, from 5:30am-7:00am, right outside this one hotel, Los Ranchitos del Quetzal. So we drove about 4 hours out to the Biotopo and took our time eating lunch at our favorite restaurant in Coban, Casa D'Acuna, and went on a short guided tour at Orquigonia. The tour guide was good, he knew exactly where to spot the miniature orchids hiding along the path through the forest.

We stayed at a nicer hotel in the Biotopo about an hour this side of Coban, Posada Montaña del Quetzal. Our cabin for 4 people was cute with a fire place and a shared seating area, 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms for about Q570. We seemed to have the whole place to ourselves and had a nice plato tipico dinner of eggs, beans and tortillas in the restaurant since that was the only vegetarian option on the menu.

Our alarms sounded at 4:30am, Hubby cursed the world and its cruelty, and we groggily shuffled up to the car for the short drive over to the spot we thought we'd have a good chance on an encounter with some Quetzals. We arrived at 5:30am and in true Guate fashion the gate was locked with no way to get in. So while hubby crashed out in the backseat of the car Mushy and I hopped the gate to see what we could see and Yaneth stood guard with binoculars near the car and under the trees with the prized Quetzal-friendly fruit. Again, in true Guate fashion a 12-year old appeared to open the gate and charge us Q40 each to come see the birds, and right on queue they appeared! First a female without the long tail feathers and then 3 males. A younger one, a "pichón" they called it without any tail feathers, and 2 adults in full feathery glory. They were gorgeous! The sun was out and their iridescent feathers glowed green and red. They took turns flying up to the fruit clusters picking and eating, chasing each other and perching on little branches where we could see them easily. For about an hour we ooood and aaaahhhd and tried to take unsuccessful photos. The clouds rolled in around 7:00am and the Quetzals melted back into the forest.

We enjoyed a well-deserved breakfast of coffee, eggs, beans and tortillas at Los Ranchitos and then made our way back to our hotel when the rain began dripping noisily through the greenery. Still quite early in the morning, and with plenty of time before check out we took a little hike to see a waterfall. The trail was well-marked and easy to follow and we even had an adventurous little creek ford. The steady drizzle of the chipi-chipi kept us cool and damp on our aventura.

A quick nap in our damp little cabina and then we hit the road back to the city. It was a quick weekend trip with a lot of driving but it was sooooooo worth it. Now that we've seen our first Quetzals in Guatemala every one we see after this will be a bonus Quetzal.

Bonus Quetzal Facts
The Resplendent Quetzal is the largest member of the trogon family
It's 14-16 inches long and the males have a 26 inch tail, it weighs about 7 ounces
Habitat is southern Mexico to western Panama
An image of the Quetzal is on the Guatemalan flag, coat of arms and on the currency
It evolved thick plumage to protect its very thin skin
Like other trogons it has large eyes that see well in the dim light of the forest
They live alone except during breeding season March - May in Guatemala
The pair carves a hole for a nest in a rotten tree and the female lays 2 pale blue eggs
Generally, the male incubates the eggs during the night and the female sits on the nest during the day for an 18 day incubation period
The parents both feed the young, until the female abandons the babies near the end and leaves it up to the male to finish rearing them until they're big enough to fend for themselves
They eat fruit, insects frogs and lizards, swallowing wild avocados whole and regurgitating the pits which helps spread seeds throughout the forest