Everyone in Boquete knows that Pipeline Trail is the best place to spot resplendent quetzals–those glorious, almost mythical trogons with bright-red breasts and long feather-boa tails. So that’s where my husband David and I went, of course, on a recent trip to Panama.
I had the upper hand; I had spotted the rare birds before in Costa Rica and knew a little bit about them–that they have a two-toned call, like to feast on avocatillos, and hang out in forests right along the meadow’s edge.
Pipeline Road is on private property, so we had to pay a small fee to enter. But soon enough I heard the tell-tale call and knew we had entered the quetzal’s world. We couldn’t see them, but their loud, clear voices told me that they were nearby. I imagined the fantastical creatures perched high in the trees around us, delighting in their innate ability to hide.
Drawn in, David whipped out his camera and started snapping pictures. He showed me a photo of one little bird that he seemed rather proud of–but it wasn’t a quetzal.
The next day we brought an expert guide, Terry van der Vooren, with us. She took us to a different trail, though insisted it was too early in the season for quetzal; in two week’s time, she said, they would be everywhere.
Admittedly, I was a tad skeptical of her pronouncement, considering the number of quetzal we had heard the previous day. But I knew she wanted us to rejoice in all of the other pretty birds—the social flycatcher, ochraceous wren, and yellow-faced grassquit—and we did. I became especially engaged when Terry pointed out a hummingbird nest in the “y” of a tree, with a mother buzzing about.
We headed up along a tumbling stream, and it was there, at long last, that I heard the same signature call I had heard the day before. My ears perked up, but I noticed Terry’s didn’t. That’s strange, I thought. Why isn’t she reacting?
David asked, “Who’s making that sound?”
“Oh, that’s the black-headed solitaire,” said Terry.
Was she kidding me? I felt like a real dodo. After my effusive display of so-called birding expertise, we probably didn’t even hear any quetzal the day before. And now I looked like a fool to my husband.
Suddenly, Terry looked up at the sky and she cocked her ear. “That’s a quetzal in flight!” she said excitedly.
The sound didn’t resonate with me at all.
She scanned the trees around us, then frantically pointed. “There he is!,” she said. “On the trunk above us!”
I looked up, and indeed, there he was–an absolutely resplendent quetzal in all his feathery glory, perched 30 feet above us on the tree trunk. I fumbled for my camera, but couldn’t manage to get it out by the time he took flight, soaring deeper into the canopy.
No matter. I have the image of that beautiful bird–and the sound of his treble call–imprinted on my mind forevermore.
I realize how close I was to missing him; left to my own devices, I never would have recognized his song in flight. I vowed to my husband that the next time I go out looking for a specific kind of bird, I’ll be sure to hire a guide. It’s worth the cost–especially if it means saving my sense of pride.
Barbara A. Noe is senior editor of National Geographic Travel Books and writes the popular Travels on the Run series for Intelligent Travel.