From Mexico to Panama, high in the mountainous rainforest lives one of the world’s most beautiful birds. The Resplendant Quetzal was considered divine in pre-Columbian civilizations and was believed to be an incarnation of the snake/bird god Quetzalcotl. It was a crime to kill or harm a Quetzal (punishable by death) but that rule said nothing about destroying its habitat by European Colonizers.
Costa Rica is one of the best places to see this magnificent and elusive bird, so it was high on my wish list when we went there for a birding vacation in February. If you haven’t been to Costa Rica you need to get there soon. I can’t imagine a better vacation than we had, it is clean, safe, picturesque, filled with wildlife and the people are so friendly. Costa Rica has also invested in eco-tourism in a big way. 46% of the country is protected wilderness and the Quetzals can live in peace in the cloudforest, bothered only by prying binoculars and cameras.
So off we went before sunrise – barely any light – with our guide Carlos. Carlos had a good idea where we might find our prey although there are never any guarantees. In the early morning light, a male Quetzal flew into a wild avocado tree that, thanks to Carlos’ knowledge, we were staking out. The green iridescence shimmered as it flew to the avocado tree, grabbed a fruit and then headed into the tall surrounding forest. If I had lightening reflexes I may have got the shot of a lifetime, the shimmering green bird in flight. Of course still photos don’t shimmer, but I can still dream about this.
Now the task of tracking down the Quetzal as it consumed the fruit. A few challenges – the light was still poor. Qutezals are notoriously shy and are always high in the tallest trees but I had some ammunition of my own. My main weapon was my recently purchased Nikon 500mm f5.6 PF lens – if you never heard of this – just google it. Super sharp and super light so I can handhold to get between the tree branches. I recently switched to a Nikon D7500 from my well used D7100 giving an extra stop or two of ISO. The final weapon was Topaz Denoise AI. The first image was taken at ISO 8000 – thanks to modern sensor technology, this was not a noisy mess, and Topaz Denoise added the final touch of noise reduction.
Few are fortunate to get a picture of a Quetzal without being blocked by a tangle of tree branches. This required a lot of maneuvering and is where the ability to handhold such a long lens was an asset. I was fortunate to get both the front and back view. The latter was taken a bit later, at ISO 1600, as the sun continued to rise.
Still more to come. The male Quetzal started to call and our guide told us to keep a sharp eye out for the female. The female showed up and sat a safe distance from the calling male so I got both Quetzals on the first morning of our trip. This certainly felt like a good omen for the rest of our trip.
You can see some more photographs of our incredible Costa Rica Birding Vacation here.