Catching a Glimpse of the Quetzal
The euphoria of spotting a rare bird in its own habitat can become mildly addictive. For self-proclaimed birders—nature enthusiasts who often chronicle the species they’ve seen on long lists or in detailed notebooks—the challenge of trying to glimpse some of the world’s most beautiful but elusive creatures has a hugely rewarding payoff. Even for non-birders, it’s easy to get caught up in the birds’ game of hide and go seek. As Hernan Arauz, one of Panama’s most reputable birding guides, said, “Once you see, through a good scope or binocular, a crimson-backed tanager, a blue cotinga, or for that matter, a resplendent quetzal . . . in good light, in its own habitat, feeding, flirting, or just perching, your brain will experience a sensation that not even the finest glossy National Geographic photo can accomplish. You will know that it’s alive . . . in real time. The iridescence of its plumage will dazzle your perception, enrich your memory, and trigger the desire to see more.”
You can begin marveling at Panama’s vast bird population less than an hour outside of Panama City, at the Canopy Tower, an eco-lodge in Soberania National Park. More than 280 different species of birds have been spotted in this vicinity, and you can admire some of them right from your room’s observation deck. Of course, you’ll also want to spend some time on the ground. It’s a short ride from here to the nearby Pipeline Road, a popular hiking trail due to its accessibility and the immense number of bird species found along it—you might see mot mots, trogons, toucans, antbirds, colorful tanagers, or flycatchers. For the past several years, this trail has set the world record for 24-hour bird counts, according to the Audubon Society.
While you’re still in the city limits, you’ll also want to spend some time in the protected rainforest at the Metropolitan National Park, where you could see a mixed flock of nearly 25 birds at once. There are more than 260 bird species in this park, including lance-tailed manakins, rosy-thrush tanagers, orange-billed sparrows, rufous, green honeycreepers, and white wrens. But to spot a famed resplendent quetzal, you’ll need to travel a bit farther into western Panama.
The Aztecs and the Mayans revered the resplendent quetzal; Panama’s royalty and priests even wore its feathers during special ceremonies. Today, many birders consider it be the most beautiful bird in the Americas. The iridescent male quetzal boasts dense plumage and a long, green tail that can reach almost a meter (3 ft.) during mating season. Although the females don’t have such long tails and tend to be somewhat less vibrant than males, they share the brilliant blue, green, and red coloring of their mates.
Most of these birds live in the mountainous, tropical forest regions of Central America. The best place to see a vibrant quetzal in Panama is in the cloud forests of the Chiriqui highlands, particularly by hiking the Sendero Los Quetzales (the Quetzales Trail) on the north side of the Volcan Baru National Park and at Finca Lerida above Boquete. For an overview of Panama’s amazing bird wonderland, check out Ancon Expedition’s Highlights of Avian Panama tour. If you have time for a bit more, consider the Birds of Panama trip, which also includes a visit to the acclaimed bird Eden in Darien National Park and the Cana field station.
By the time you’ve spent a week traveling through this bird-lover’s paradise, you’ll probably have your own notebook full of excitedly scribbled lists. Happily, the birding addiction appears to have no harmful side effects. —JS
Panama Authority of Tourism (www.visitpanama.com).
Tour: Ancon Expeditions of Panama, Calle Elvira Mendez, Eldif. El Dorado 3 ( 507/269-9415; www.anconexpeditions.com). Ask for Hernan Arauz, the company’s master naturalist and birding guide.
When to Go: Dec–May.
Tocumen International Airport, followed by 1-hr. flight or approx. 5-hr. drive to Boquete.
$$ Canopy Tower, Apartado 0832-2701 WTC ( 800/930-3397; www.canopytower.com). $ Finca Lerida Ecolodge, Boquete, Chiriqui (507/720-2285; www.fincalerida.com). $–$$ Los Quetzales, Guadalupe ( 507/771-2291; www.losquetzales.com).