January 2013. I’d taken a cup of the home-grown local café de la finca and a piece of leftover cake from dinner dessert the night before in the dark of the old house where I was staying at 5 AM. I filled my insulated coffee mug with another dose of morning fuel, and jumped in the passenger seat of the old 4-wheel-drive Isuzu Trooper with Lester, the birding guide who would lead me on today’s search for birds on this southern slope of Volcán Atitlan. It sputtered reluctantly into action, and we drove up the winding roads through the forests and cafetales – the terraced orchards of coffee bushes – passing under arching clumps of “tarrales,” the native giant bamboo, after which the Finca Los Tarrales is named.
Once, the headlights caught the pink eyeshine of a common pauraque, a night-hunting bird in the nightjar family. It would fly up the dark road ahead of us and land on the ground again, and so we scared it up another half-dozen times before it finally said adios and flew back over the car and down the road into the dark peace of the short remaining night. In a few open places on the road, pink light was growing through the haze in the east. This is the dry season, when the giant sugar plantations on the Pacific coast burn their fields, so there was lots of smoke in the air. Venus hung white above it in a clear sky.
At 6:30 we finally reached “Vesubio,” a tiny cluster of maybe a dozen whitewashed wooden houses with rusting metal roofs, all seemingly deserted. This was the end of the road, the highest point we could drive to. I guess it must be named after Mount Vesuvius in Italy, the famous volcano that buried the Roman city of Pompeii in an eruption in 79 AD. A fitting name for a place perched on the steep side of another volcano. As we started walking up toward the native forest, a wonderful sunrise behind Volcán Fuego threw a line of salmon pink light into the smoky sky, and we could see the plume of ash from its eruption, which started last week. The first sun touched the peak of Volcán Atitlan looming high above us. We were hiking up the southern slope of Atitlan, one of the more than a dozen volcanic peaks in the “cadena volcánica,” the chain of volcanoes that stretches west of Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala, towards the border with Mexico. These Guatemalan volcanoes are part of the Central American volcanic arc, a section of the Pacific “rim of fire,” where tectonic plate movement at the subduction zones of Earth’s dynamic crust spawns volcanoes all around the Pacific Ocean.
Dawn was coming quickly as it does in the tropics. “Amanecer” in Spanish has most of the same connotations as the word “dawn” in English. A beginning, a new day, with its promise, hope, and uncertainty. A little dog barked from a yard beside the trail. Lester said two families live here to keep a watch on things, but during the coffee harvest a lot of these now-shuttered houses are opened up for the coffee pickers. We climbed through the last areas of shade-grown coffee above Vesubio, and entered the lower edge of the mountain forest.
Our destination was a couple of big fig trees at 1,700 meters elevation, about 300 meters – or around a thousand feet – above us. My rule of thumb from my days in Colorado was that you could comfortably climb a thousand feet an hour, but Lester was on a mission, and we were on a faster pace than that, sweating and peeling off layers in the cool morning. We were heading for the fig-trees because that is where they often see the azure-rumped tanager, Tangara cabanisi, a rare local endemic bird, and therefore a favorite of international birding tourists intent on “getting” the species for their life lists. It is found only here, in western Guatemala in the humid broadleaf forests of the Pacific slope, below these volcanoes, and into Chiapas, Mexico, just to the northwest. Seeing this bird wasn’t my “mission,” but of course I wanted to see this rare and local species if we could. Woody vines – bejucos in Spanish – were everywhere, climbing to reach the sunlight up in the canopy. This was not an epiphyte-rich cloud forest here, but there was a diverse, shade-tolerant understory.
At about 7:30 we reached a small clearing on the narrow volcanic ridge the trail had followed, where a tree had fallen and opened a view across the steep gorge to the spreading crown of a big amate, a species of strangler fig. Azure-rumped tanagers like to feed in these trees, and Lester had seen them here yesterday morning. After we watched for half an hour, he finally heard them calling. We could see some “movimiento” in the canopy of the fig, and Lester identified the tiny, moving shapes as the rare tanager. I saw a few flits from branch to branch, and a few flashes of the sky-blue feathers for which the bird is named.
But then Lester heard an alluring call from higher up the ridge. I had heard that sound before. But where? Then I remembered: If you stand at the midpoint between the Pyramid of the Great Jaguar and the Pyramid of the Masks that faces it across the Gran Plaza of Tikal and clap your hands, you hear a sharp “chirp!” – the sound of the clap echoing from the steps of both pyramids at exactly the same time. At the time, in March, 2013, our guide said it sounds like the call of the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), a bird sacred to the Maya, whose long, green iridescent tail feathers were used for elite adornment and in rituals. Tik’al, in Mayan, means “the place of voices” – quetzal voices. There it was, that bright chirp, surprising us on the morning ridge far above the highest coffee slopes of Finca Los Tarrales.
It was a quetzal calling. Lester quickly pulled out a “vocalizador,” a small digital speaker about the size of a cell phone, through which he could play bird calls sent through Bluetooth from a birdsong database in his smartphone. It was only later that I smiled and wondered at the electronic technology savvy of this 19-year-old from the local Mayan community. The calls of the resplendent quetzal went out at intervals from the vocalizador, perched on a fallen log by the trail. The quetzal up the ridge called back, again and again. We listened to this surreal conversation between a living and a digital bird for a long time. The sweat from our fast climb evaporated and chilled me down, even after I put on a layer of fleece.
At last, suddenly, the real quetzal called, close by, and Lester’s incredibly quick and sharp eye spotted it, just above us in the dark forest understory. Then it flew in front of us and down the ridge below us. Lester stalked for a view. And then the quetzal flew back up, into the open understory in front of another fig tree, and stayed perched long enough for Lester to get the big spotting scope on it. It was a “macho,” a male, sitting on a dark branch with his back to us. He sat quietly for a couple of minutes, giving us a good view, from yellow beak and small green crest to the tips of those amazing long twin tail feathers. The tail was so long, it made the body of the bird look small.
“Wow!” I kept whispering, smiling at Lester. I had to resort to “wow,” not even knowing the word for such a feeling in Spanish. Finally he flew. Lester was calm, but smiling too. I knew he was very happy about this good luck, a quetzal revealing himself to us here this morning.
The resplendent quetzal’s habitat, in remote mountain cloud forests, kept its life history shrouded in mystery until the persistence of a scarcely-remembered American naturalist, Alexander F. Skutch, described the details from personal observation in the field. Alexander Skutch was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1904, and earned a Ph.D. in botany from Johns Hopkins University. He got a job with the United Fruit Company, which was having some problems with plant diseases in its banana plantations in Central America, and he was sent to Panama, Honduras, and Guatemala to try to sort out the problems. Guatemala was of course the original “banana republic,” a name now appropriated by a high-end clothing chain, but more appropriately referring to a kind of country with a single-product export economy, dependent on the exploitation of cheap land and labor, and with social order maintained by repressive military dictators.
Skutch fell in love with tropical nature, especially birds, and followed his passion to the end of his life. One of his many contributions to our understanding of the natural history of Central America is his study of “The Life History of the Quetzal,” published in 1944 in the ornithological journal The Condor. Skutch wrote: “In selecting the Quetzal as their national emblem, the Guatemalans made a more than usually felicitous choice, a creature at once native of the land itself, ornate as a design, and refreshingly different from the belligerent birds, beasts, and mythological fire-breathers that adorn the coats of arms of so many other nations. And the Quetzal, no less than the soaring eagle and the rampant lion, has its appropriate legend, to illustrate its nobility of spirit and reflect that of the people it represents. Every Guatemalan will proudly tell you that the Quetzal will die of a broken heart if deprived of freedom. The Quetzal is something more than the living representative of a beautiful country of the present era; its human associations stretch back into antiquity. Possibly no other feathered being of this hemisphere, the Bald Eagle and the Turkey not excepted, has a longer history.”
The depth of that human association Skutch alludes to? The resplendent quetzal was sacred to the Maya, and to the Aztecs in Mexico, namesake of the god Quetzalcoatl. A legend preserved in the post-conquest Mayan records describes the battle between the Spanish conquistador of Guatemala, Pedro de Alvarado, and the last Mayan cacique, Tecun Uman, in 1524. In Mayan belief, the quetzal was the spiritual protector of their chiefs. A quetzal would accompany them everywhere, aid them in battle, and die when they died. In the fight with Pedro de Alvarado, a quetzal hovered over Tecun Uman’s head screaming, while the Spaniard, mounted on his rearing horse, thrust his lance into the Mayan chief’s heart. At that moment, the sacred quetzal fell silent and dropped to cover Tecun Uman’s body with its soft green feathers. According to the legend, the quetzal kept a death watch through the night, and rose from the cacique’s dead body at dawn, a resurrection. But the bird was transformed – it was no longer pure green, because its breast had soaked up Tecun Uman’s blood and become a scarlet red, which all quetzals have retained to this day.
This legend is recounted in a remarkable book, Bird of Life, Bird of Death: A Naturalist’s Journey Through a Land of Political Turmoil by Jonathan Evan Maslow, published in 1986. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in quetzals or Guatemala. Maslow describes an at times hair-raising journey through Guatemala in search of the quetzal in a time of civil war, deftly blending natural history, history, political analysis, and travel-adventure. My paperback edition of the book uses another apt subtitle: “A Political Ornithology of Central America.” For me the book is an example of holistic, systems thinking, worthy of Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt’s Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, which described his travels through Mexico, was published in 1811. It was a classic Humboldtian blend of information spanning all disciplines and topics, from geology and ecology to politics and economics, much of it gathered from personal observation. Von Humboldt would like Maslow’s book.
I realized later that seeing a live quetzal reached back into my personal past in a deep “karmic” way. I grew up in northern New Mexico, and hiking around the mesas and canyons of the Pajarito Plateau, I often saw petroglyph images of the “plumed serpent,” called by the Pueblo Indians there “Awanyu.” This feathered serpent was an image borrowed from the Aztecs through trading routes reaching deep into Mexico in pre-Columbian times, an image of the god Quetzalcoatl. I didn’t know anything about this history then, but the images of the plumed serpent Awanyu were mysterious and powerful in my young imagination.
Los Tarrales is a working farm, a finca. A significant part of its income is from coffee, grown in the shade of native trees. Although the botanical diversity of a shade-coffee orchard is far less than that of a native forest, the physical structure of the habitat is not so different, and is far more “friendly” to some animal species, especially birds, than other kinds of agriculture would be. That’s why Finca Los Tarrales can market its coffee as “Coffee for Bird Lovers.” And why high-end birding tour companies like Martsam Travel bring their clients here. The mixture of habitats – native forests spilling down the slopes of the Volcán Atitlan and areas of shade-grown coffee – seem to be a paradise for both resident and migratory birds.
Los Tarrales is also a private nature reserve, Reserva Los Tarrales, officially registered as a protected area within the Guatemalan national system of protected areas. Andy Burge, the owner of Finca Los Tarrales, has been a leading proponent of such private nature reserves, which are linked in a network within Guatemala, Central America, and all of Latin America. A glance at the map of protected areas in Guatemala shows how important this chain of private nature reserves is in Guatemala’s cadena volcánica. This chain of volcanoes, and the private nature reserves on their slopes, are a critical piece of what has been called the “Mesoamerican Biodiversity Corridor” – a fraying rope perhaps, rather than a strong chain – of linked natural habitats that now conserve what is left of the biogeographical bridge between the ecosystems and species of North and South America.
In a day and a half at Los Tarrales I saw 67 species of birds. The most interesting thing about my “bird list” was that almost one-third of the species I saw are old friends – that is, birds I’ve seen before in the U.S., including some I see often in the summer in my backyard in Virginia. I saw yellow warblers, magnolia warblers, Wilson’s warblers, orchard orioles, Baltimore orioles, black vultures, turkey vultures, ruby-throated hummingbirds, western tanagers, indigo buntings, painted buntings, and American kestrels. That experience brought home in a very real way the amazing phenomenon of bird migration. Since the Ice Ages, birds have figured out – well, “evolved to take advantage of” would be a more scientifically correct way of saying this – how to exploit resources that vary dramatically by season in North America. Many birds head south for the winter, and many hang out in Central America, including at Los Tarrales, until it’s time to head north again for the summer.
But of course I also saw species new to me, Central America residents that don’t migrate to my neighborhood: the orange-fronted parakeet, white-throated magpie jay, white-bellied chachalaca, crested guan, spotted wood-quail, collared trogon, emerald toucanet, blue-crowned motmot, smoky-brown woodpecker, and black-and-white owl. Oh, I love common names of birds, especially these exotic ones I have never seen before! Those seem especially poetic and evocative.
Seeing both unfamiliar tropical birds and familiar northern birds made me appreciate that I was here, in Central America, on what writer David Rains Wallace called “The Monkey’s Bridge” in his 1997 book with that title. This “monkey’s bridge” is the biogeographic connection that brought together tropical and temperate zone species from both hemispheres of the Americas – and still continues to do so.
I also saw again a couple of Central American birds that I’d seen before. One was the common pauraque, already mentioned, which led us up the dark road to Vesubio. I had met that bird at Caracol, in Belize, which I wrote about in my March 2013 story Ecological Musings in the Maya Forest. We also saw the courtship dance competition of two male long-tailed manakins trying to impress a watching female, which I wrote about in my August 2013 story A Sunday on Cerro Guanacaure, Honduras.
After seeing the quetzal, Lester and I birded our way down through the humid forest and the shade-grown coffee. We reached the car parked at Vesubio in the sunny late morning, and wound our way down the mountain road to the finca. When we described our experience of seeing the quetzal to various people there, I began to feel how special the morning had been. Mayron, the guide for a group of life-lister birdwatchers from the U.S. staying here, said “No! Really?” He said I was the first person he had ever met who had seen a quetzal at the Finca Los Tarrales, besides Lester and his brother Josué, who had seen them before out on their bird reconnaissance trips. When I told Andy Burge, the owner of the finca, he said the same thing: “Very lucky!” Muy buena suerte.
Sometimes it is only after the fact that we realize what has been given to us. When I started out in the pre-dawn dark for Vesubio with Lester, it seemed like a small, weekend excursion. But later on that Sunday morning at Los Tarrales it finally dawned on me that today a quetzal had made contact with us and allowed us to see his resplendent plumes – a precious, unforgettable gift from an exuberant universe.
For related stories see:
- Ecological Musings in the Maya Forest. March 2013.
- A Sunday on Cerro Guanacaure, Honduras. August 2013.
Sources and related links:
- Reserva Los Tarrales
- Azure-rumped Tanager
- Resplendent Quetzal calls
- John Gould
- Alexander Skutch
- Life History of the Quetzal. Alexander Skutch. 1944.
- The Resplendent Quetzal in Aztec and Mayan Culture
- Bird of Life, Bird of Death: A Political Ornithology of Central America. Jonathan Maslow. 1987.
- Awanyu, the Plumed Serpent
- Martsam Travel birdwatching tours
- The Monkey’s Bridge: Mysteries of Evolution in Central America. David Rains Wallace. 1997.
- Long-tailed manakin courtship display video