Wednesday, May 28, 2014

100% Lifer

The cloud forest - an ecosystem I've been fascinated by since I learned of its existence.  These verdant, moss-covered forests can be found high in tropical mountains that are constantly blanketed by cool mists and clouds.  These are hotbeds for biodiversity, filled with many endemic plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth.

Monteverde, literally meaning "green mountain", is the most famous of the Central American cloud forests, and was where I would be exposed to this incredible habitat for the first time.  Monteverde is centered around the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, but many other protected areas surround the village.  Selvatura Park is one such reserve.  Despite the occasional whir of a zip-liner overhead (people who one guide unaffectionately dubbed "the white monkeys") it was an amazing place.  Only one thing was missing - the clouds.  Apparently early April is the height of the dry season in Central America, and we had arrived the one week out of the year when clouds are few and far between.  The moss that clung to every tree was dry, and a brisk breeze blew through the treetops.

Our guide Samuel was definitely an expert, and it didn't take long for us to start spotting birds.  A few Violet Sabrewings and Purple-throated Mountain-Gems, both aptly-named species of hummingbirds, buzzed around the trail just above the parking lot (more on hummingbirds later).  Just as Samuel was asking me what bird I most wanted to see in the cloud forest, it flew out right in front of us - a Resplendent Quetzal, what has been dubbed "the most beautiful bird in the New World".  At the very least, it was the most beautiful bird I've seen.  After a few seconds of pure shock, I came to my senses and began shooting some photos, my hands still shaking.  People travel from all over the world to see this bird, and we had found one after five minutes of birding in its habitat. The bird slipped back into the forest, and we continued on our way, still shocked at the sighting.
Our first glimpse of the Resplendent Quetzal.
The nature trails around Selvatura Park are perhaps most notable for the extensive network of suspension bridges that take guests into the canopy.  This allows visitors to look down on birds that usually live thirty or more feet above the forest floor.  One of these birds was the Black Guan, a bizarre relative of the turkey and an inhabitant of high-elevation forests.  Other than the bird's bright blue facial skin, it was entirely black - allowing this hefty bird to hide in the shadows of the canopy completely unnoticed.  
One of two Black Guans we saw at Selvatura.
The grating, electric call of the bizarre Three-wattled Bellbird started to echo through the forest, and Samuel had a feeling he knew where it was perched.  The Bellbird prefers perches on snags protruding through the canopy, where it can broadcast its call for over a kilometer - it is, in fact, the loudest bird vocalization on earth.  We climbed the hill to a gap in the forest, where we could see the bird on the opposite side of a mountain cove.  Three-wattled Bellbirds are endangered, more so than the Resplendent Quetzal.  Monteverde bellbirds actually have a different dialect from birds in the neighboring mountain ranges, with distinct variations in their call types.
Three-wattled Bellbird - my only one of the trip.
While we were observing the bellbird, a little Slate-throated Redstart crept up along the trail.  These neotropical warblers show geographic variation in belly color throughout their range - from red in Mexico to the lemon-yellow seen in Costa Rica southward.  They are common residents of montane forests throughout Central America, so I saw dozens of these active birds during my four days in the cloud forest.
Slate-throated Redstart
We crossed another short bridge to find a beautiful male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem perched a few feet off the path.  These birds are endemic to northern Costa Rica and southern Nicaragua, and reside only at high elevations.  Many tropical birds (especially hummingbirds) have ridiculous names that somehow still describe them perfectly, and Purple-throated Mountain Gem is certainly one of these birds.  Nearby, we caught a glimpse of the Orange-bellied Trogon, a reclusive relative of the Resplendent Quetzal, deep within the forest.  Trogons were one of my favorite families of birds from my trip to Costa Rica, and this male really exemplifies these birds' quiet beauty.
Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

Orange-bellied Trogon
At this point, I realized that every single bird so far on this walk was a lifer.  It was like birding in a bizarre dream world, filled with names dazzling in their complexity.  A Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush (one of the greatest bird names of all time) scurried around the understory. Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, a Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Silver-throated Tanagers, and a Golden-browed Chlorophonia all foraged in the same avocado tree next to the park's largest suspension bridge.  We could see the mountains of the nearby Santa Elena reserve, along with the continental divide, from this bridge over the forest.  A Swallow-tailed Kite, another lifer, soared gracefully above the rounded peaks.
Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush.
Golden-browed Chlorophonia collecting nesting material.

Spangle-cheeked Tanager

Silver-throated Tanager
The dream began to fade to a close as the sun went down.  We kept moving down the path, nearing closer and closer to the parking lot.  We started onto one of the final suspension bridges, crossing above a small mountain stream.  The one-note whistle of the male Resplendent Quetzal came from somewhere deep in the shadows.  Samuel whistled back, just to see what would happen.  The bird flew past us, and landed somewhere just out of sight.  To my amazement, it doubled back, landing in the open just ten feet from me.  I was at eye level with what is perhaps the most awe-inspiring bird in the Americas.  I don't think I've ever had that good of a view of any bird.  I could see every detail, from the emerald shine on its crest to the subtle glint in its eye.  It was one of the most incredible experiences of my short birding career, and definitely one I'll never forget.

I couldn't have hoped for this.  This is one of those bring-you-to-tears sightings.

100% lifer: the composition of my list from Selvatura.  I had entered the bizarre and fantastical world of the cloud forest.  And there were many more birds left to see before my time there was up.

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