Wednesday, May 7, 2008


I still have more to post from India--but had to jet home, meet up with my son Nick--and fly down here to Costa Rica to help him find housing--and to hang out for 10 days. Nick will be interning as a writer for the Tico Times for the next four months while shooting wildlife video footage on weekends.

We found him a room to rent in a house the day we flew in--so the next day we jumped a bus to the central mountains, two hours south of the capital. Unbroken forest blankets these low, undulating peaks, draped in clouds. This is perfect habitat for the elusive, iridescent quetzal, reputed to be the most beautiful bird in the Americas. Its feathers are metallic blue-green, with a crimson breast and white on its upper tail.

Photo credit: Steve Winter/National Geographic Image Collection

Within a few minutes we discovered a pair in a nearby tree keeping careful watch over their nest, a hollowed-out hole in a dead trunk. We spent the entire rest of the day shooting footage of their comings and goings from the nest. Wow. To even glimpse a quetzal is a spiritual moment. These birds, along with the rattlesnake, were the most revered of all creatures by the ancient Mayans. The two creatures were merged into the Plumed Serpent, Quetzal Coatl, the god of creation. Their magnificent tail feathers, measuring nearly three feet, were used to make royal clothing and ceremonial garb for priests and kings.

Back then, it was a capital offense to kill the bird. But once the conquistadors took power, quetzal feathers were traded from Mexico to the Andes, and were used as a form of currency. More recently, loss of cloud forest habitat felled for agriculture has landed the bird on the endangered species list. Climate change also plays a role: small emerald toucanets that once stuck to lower altitude have moved up the mountains with warming temperatures. They raid quetzal nests, preying on the hatchlings. I hope that forest protections here in Costa Rica can save this mystical creature.

We're headed back for the whole weekend, and hope the pair is still there!