Although the northern Quetzal subspecies (Pharomachrus mocinno mocinno) is the national bird of Guatemala we’ve been told by birders that they are easier to see and there is a much larger population in Costa Rica because the forests are better protected here.
Quetzal – Pharomachrus mocinno (costaricensis)
Spanish – Quetzal or Feníx del Bosque
Resplendent Quetzals are startling emerald jewels of the cloud forest. They shimmer from one shade to another, blending almost magically with the wet green background of their constantly misty high altitude homes. Their color seems ephemeral for a reason; quetzals are not green at all. It’s hard to believe, but quetzals are actually brown.
They are colored by melanin, the same pigment that causes tanning in humans. Highly magnified, quetzal feathers are alternately translucent and dark brown. The magic comes from melanin pigment stripes regularly spaced 5,400 angstroms apart causing interference that “traps” most colors of light but reflects green light, which bounces back to your eye.
A similar interference pattern with different spacing on Morpho butterfly wings are what make them appear blue.
The resplendent quetzal is endangered throughout its range from Southern Mexico to Northwestern Panama due to loss of its cloud forest habitat. Quetzals are particularly susceptible because they were never prolific. They don’t require a large range, but their numbers are limited by the scarcity of appropriate nesting sites.
Nesting and Breeding – The best time to see Quetzals
Quetzals rear their young in tree holes, but since their beaks are not strong enough to bore into live wood, they enlarge holes started by woodpeckers or toucans in standing dead trunks. Thin soil, heavy rainfall, strong wind, and rapid rates of decay normal in cloud forests combine with frequent mild earthquakes to make appropriate nesting trees rare and short-lived.
The optimal viewing season corresponds with the breeding season which varies from February through July over the quetzal’s range in the montane cloud forests from Southern Mexico to Panama.
In the cloud forests of Costa Rica the quetzal breeding season (and best viewing) is mid February into June or July when the wild avocado trees and other fruit from trees in the laurel family (Lauraceae) are producing. The parents chop a hole in a partially decomposed standing tree where the female lays one or two blue eggs and they both share duties incubating them.
Quetzals were important symbols to the Aztecs and the name comes from their word quetzalli for the tail-feathers they used ceremonially. The word also meant precious and beautiful. Modern scientist chose the Greek pharochromus meaning long mantle.
Where to See the Resplendent Quetzal
Quetzales in Monteverde Cloud Forest
The most famous quetzal habitat in Costa Rica and perhaps in the world is Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve in the north central region.
At the peak of the breeding season the local birdwatching guides have identified the nesting trees. Both parents share duties in nest building, incubating the eggs and care and feeding of the young. A typical territory is only a few hundred meters across so up to a thousand visitors a day are practically guaranteed sightings.
Quetzales National Park
Two other exceptionally good places to observe the birds are both alongside the Pan American highway a few km before Cerro de la Muerte. The first, a small family owned and operated reserve at Quetzal Paradise on the northern boundary of Quetzales National Park has simple cabins and a soda plus well maintained trails to well known nesting trees.
Quetzals in San Gerardo de Dota
The second is at San Gerardo de Dota and the Savegre river valley. in the heart of Los Santos forest reserve along the eastern boundary of Quetzales national park. This is one our favorite places in Costa Rica and by far the best to spot quetzals in uncrowded and beautiful surroundings (highly recommended).
Day Trip Quetzals from San José in Braulio Carrillo National Park
The Quetzal population in Costa Rica has benefited from the protection of water resources and one of the watersheds that supplies drinking water for the metropolitan area is just north of the international airport at the Barva Volcano sector of Braulio Carrillo national park.
It’s not nearly as famous as Monteverde but if you’re looking for a day trip from San José it’s much closer. In March we saw a male with one of the longest tails we’d ever seen displaying in the tree tops and when the wind whipped the clouds away we could look down the mountain and glimpse the city from the same ridge.
Additional habitat is protected from Poás Volcano and half a dozen other forests above 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) but guides and trails to see the birds are harder to come by.
The circular image was created by a technique called digiscoping which combines a limited zoom camera or phone camera with binocular or a spotting scope. It can be as simple as holding the camera lens up against the eyepiece on one side of the binoculars while aiming at the bird or other subject by looking through the other. Better results are easier to achieve with a pocket camera and a spotting scope mounted to a tripod but either way I’ve seen some amazing images.
Quetzal habitat is also excellent habitat for hummingbirds which you’re guaranteed to see by the dozens any time of year.