This past week marked my three-month anniversary for being in Costa Rica and how did I celebrate? Left the country and headed to Panama!
And I got to bring my parents, who came down to see what I’m up to down here. Before showing them Saladero, we first headed to Panama for a “vacation” from “work” marking the beginning of the second half of my internship with Saladero. This was their first time to the true neotropics of Central America, a place I’ve loved before I even first came here. Everything since has been icing on the cake. And time I share this love of mine with my parents, who’ve been right there for me through it all. Thanks, you two.
Susan and Harvey were kind enough to gift me their share of a home exchange with a lodge called Cielito Sur B&B which is situated up in the highlands below Volcán Baru National Park. This gave us a chance to check out an entirely different ecosystem and array of bird species quite different from those we have here in Saladero’s Pacific lowland tropical rainforest. And it was a huge delight..lots of hummingbirds, up there in the misty, windy, dramatically clouded, rainbow-punctuated highlands of Panama!
So after arriving by boat and meeting the parents at Golfito, we together made our way by bus to cross the Costa Rican border into Panama to renew my Visa for another three months to finish out the second half of my internship here at Saladero. I can’t believe we’re already halfway through the high season and what a high season it’s been..we’ve been busy and it’s been an absolute ball, I’m learning constantly and have such respect and awe for this place and all of the people who live and work here and who pursue this love for a land that they’re helping share with others help them realize how precious and important it is.
Nonwithstanding the eyes at half-mast on the Violet Saberwing, these large hummers were just about constantly on the move, chasing other hummers, chasing each other, and simply rocketing around the beautiful gardens that make up Cielito.
We were joined for a half day of birding with an exceptional guide named Ito and within the first hour already had more than ten Resplendent Quetzals around us, practically in the way and demanding our attention between Ito pointing out one endemic bird after another as we wandered up the hazy jungle of a road up into the cloud forest foothills below Volcán Baru.
The birds were very vocal and we had great looks at both males and females. The males look cartoon like, almost too adorably perfect with that cheeky mohawk. And their tails are just a joke. How on earth would you feel trying to fly through a thick, wet rainforest with a big sail attached to your tail feathers? Well these guys have got it down. Whatever you gotta do to attract the ladies! We even saw a young male displaying between the steep, foggy hills..he was merely “respl-” (think length of tail–not totally resplendent..at least not yet!). February marks the quetzal’s nesting season which coincides with the fruiting of a primary food source for these birds, the aguacatillo, a smaller version of our familiar avocado within the same tree family, Lauraceae.
Quetzals are altitudinal migrants that rely on different elevation forests which they occupy at different times of the year. The birds will ascend into the highland cloud forests in February to breed and forage on the aguacatillos and then descend to lower altitude forests for the rest of the year. The seasonal distribution and migration of these birds is closely tied to the fruiting Lauracea trees as the availability of ripe fruits fluctuate across not just seasons but even between years.
Our guide Ito told us how quetzals are like the farmers of the cloud forest. They eat the small aguacatillos whole and regurgitate the pit, essentially helping disperse the seeds of the tree into other areas of the forest.
The Resplendent Quetzals are a near-threatened species which are suffering population declines likely as a result of deforestation. Quetzals nest in the holes of dead rotting trees with cavities and soft wood that they can easily dig into. Trees that have had enough time to reach such an advanced state of decay to be suitable for excavation is most often in mature, uncut forests and of course lack of such forest and therefore available nest cavities limits the quetzal populations. What also becomes a factor is that these dead standing trees are most susceptible to the elements and thus it’s not uncommon for a nest to be lost in the event of a tree fall.
Climate change can also have an impact on the moist, fragile montane cloud forest environments that these birds depend upon. Prolonged dry periods can have a severe effect on this environment that supports trees and plants and wildlife of the higher altitudes that rely on year-round moisture to survive. Also, with the changing environment comes changes in the range of different species from lower altitudes as habitats and microclimates shift and cloud forests decrease, some of these species–toucans for instance–compete with the quetzal for resources and win out because they’re more aggressive.
It was phenomenal to see so many birds in one place and it to have a guide who knew exactly where to take us for these fantastic views. It was a wonderful way to spend the morning and to help introduce my parents to the wonders of Central America. In Panama, we had the chance to take full advantage of the opportunity to explore the rich verdent mountain region that is so different from the lowland rainforests, which is where we headed next! They spent a week with me here in Saladero, where I showed them their first macaws and monkeys. They kayaked every day and we snorkeled together and hiked our trails, I took them on our river tour up into the monstrous mangroves of the Rio Esquinas and they saw my guest presentation twice. They even slept in a tent cabin just like mine, under a bug with the wild forest just out their back door (or lack thereof!) without batting an eye.
It was beyond wonderful to share with them this place that’s become so quickly so dear to my heart. I think now they truly understand why.