Last Minute Quetzal

The morning began inauspiciously, slowly motoring upstream after a leisurely breakfast, pausing along the way to photograph a kingfisher.  After spotting a family of capybara sitting close to shore the boat driver stopped the engine and we watched the animals, the adults twitched nervously and the tiny young scrambled into thicker cover. Tatters of morning mist clung to the cooler bends of the river, with the rising sun already bleaching the deep greens of the forest.  We had only planned a short hike to visit a gargantuan Brazil nut tree, which was always a worthwhile destination, and were in no hurry

We finally arrived midmorning and the forest was hushed, just the trills and tremolos of the few regular callers drifted through the dark understory. The trees along this section of the forest were truly massive, immense trunks of the distinct Brazil nut tree reached far above the canopy. These trees lack the buttress roots typical of many rainforest giants and rise straight up to 160 feet. The trail cut straight through shadowy woods with dense stands of heliconias crowding the forest floor. The Brazil nut trail, as it is appropriately known, is famous at Cristalino Lodge for hosting two special species of birds, the Musician Wren and Pavonine Quetzal, and in the last two months I had good views of the former, but not even a glimpse or squeak of the latter.

This was my last full day at the Cristalino Reserve, the morning well advanced, with a group of five people, thus I did not have high hopes. The Pavonine Quetzal (Pharomachrus pavoninus) ranges throughout the Amazon basin, favoring tall undisturbed terra firme forest. It is generally found in low densities and often difficult to find. The four other quetzal species are found further west and north in the Andes and tropical forests of Central America. While the Pavonine Quetzal lacks the long feathers of its famous cousin, the Resplendent Quetzal, it nevertheless is a stunning bird. The male’s glossy green back stands out even among the foliage of the rainforest and is offset by deep red underparts. Elongated upper tail coverts cover most of the black tail and green plumes extend over the flight feathers on perched birds. It has a relatively small head with a bright orange bill, a good field mark that differentiates it from all other quetzals, which have yellow bills. During the previous weeks I had plenty of time of studying the illustrations in field guides and was hope for a glimpse in the wild. I even wondered about the word “Pavonine”, a unique name it shares only with a cuckoo, which surprisingly enough also occurs at Cristalino Lodge, but is a real problematic one to find. Leafing through the literature, I learned that pavonine refers to a semblance of a peacock’s tail in color, design, or iridescence.

The Pavonine Quetzal prefers to remain in the canopy and is nearly impossible to detect except when vocalizing. Thus I froze on the spot when I thought I heard the distinct  “heeear chok” call of a quetzal a bit further down the trail. I couldn’t believe it and expected to find a birder around the next corner, speaker in hand,  playing the call. I informed the group of what I heard and we walked a bit further. Suddenly I realized that two birds were calling back and forth and I thought some foul play must be involved, maybe two birders calling each other, maybe a well-planned practical joke on my last day. I reached the point where I stood between the two calls and unless someone had climbed a hundred foot tree, this we the real deal.

I tried to coax one of the birds into view, but the call rang back from farther in the forest, eventually it was difficult to even hear. The second bird went quiet and we ran out of time. We walked back and I was a bit disappointed after coming so close. After the morning’s excursion and some time before lunch I was able to convince JT, one of the local guides, to give it a try. We had less than an hour to rush back upstream, search for the bird, and return. Chances were slim, but it was worth a try. In addition a famous bird photographer visiting the lodge lend me his personal recording of the species, which he said would work. As we ran towards the boat MR rounded the corner and within seconds he had grabbed his gear and was jogging behind. I never realized how fast it was possibly to motor upstream. We literally flew through the rapids and the boat edges round the turns at precarious angles. I jumped onto the sandy bank before the boat had even stopped and we marched up the trail.

Within minutes we arrived at the spot and played the call once or twice, not hearing a response we walked further. I played again and we strained our ears. There it was, a bird answered from where we had just stopped, and we rushed back, approaching carefully, checking the trees. The bird answered again, far off the trail, but a few tense moments later a large bird came flying in. I saw a flash of green and red as the bird bombed overhead across the trail, but miraculously landed on a thick horizontal branch. A nanosecond later we had the bird in our binoculars. It is a truly impressive trogon, larger than the other six species at the lodge with deeper colors and intense iridescence. We studied every feather and after it flew were able to track it down two more times as it called from the subcanopy. Incredibly we reappeared at the lodge in time for lunch with a memorable final lifer.

Pavonine Quetzal Cristalino Lodge Photo Stephan Lorenz

Pavonine Quetzal Cristalino Lodge Photo Stephan Lorenz

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