Tuesday afternoon, 2/22
We headed to Savegre Mountain Hotel in the tiny town of San Gerardo de Dota. We climbed from our lunch spot in Cartago into the mountains along the Inter-American Highway. The road leading to the town turns off at Km 80. From the highway, we dropped 3000’ in 9 km along a narrow, allegedly 2-lane road. (Luckily, we did not meet any vehicles coming up the road, so we didn’t have to test the “2-lanedeness” of the road.) At a couple of spots during the descent, Roger asked Dago to stop so he could check trees for the iconic Resplendent Quetzal. Finding this bird would be a major focus of our time at Savegre—but it was not to come easy. We pulled into the hotel grounds without having seen it.
Exiting the bus, I took a deep breath of the cool, dry mountain air. How delicious—especially after the humidity and heat of the rainforest. We live in Colorado at just about the same altitude as San Gerardo—7000+ feet above sea level. It felt like we had come home. Well, except for the magnificent tropical foliage, the myriad gloriously colored tanagers at the fruit and rice feeders, and the incredible action of the hummingbirds zooming, zipping, and duking it out at the flowers and feeders. This was the first site that had artificial feeders for hummingbirds; all other spots relied simply on the flowers in the area. In those places, you had to look hard and fast to see–and, if you were lucky—identify hummingbirds. Here, though, the hummer spotting could be accomplished while you were sipping on a cup of coffee. (In the photos below, you can see the flowers above the feeders and the dining room patio below the road that had the feeders on them. Click on any photo to see a larger version.) Oh, boy—this was gonna to be good!
Most of our group were staying the standard rooms close to the dining room. Z & I were assigned to Room 103, which was up the hill a ways. Our room was a bit chilly—what a luxury for a mountain girl!—and a bit dark. But it was large and would be just great. (We heard rumors of some very luxurious rooms—junior suites with fire places—across the road from us. But we didn’t expect to spend much time in the room, if the rest of the trip were typical. I noted the space heater for later; the beds had thick quilts on them; the water in the shower ran hot and strong. We’d be just fine.
Once we and our luggage were settled in the room, we headed back out to the feeders. Man, I could just spend the rest of my time sitting there. The fruit (and rice!) feeders featured a variety of larger birds. Y los colibríes (hummers)—ay, ay, ay! The Magnificent Hummingbird is a giant among hummers. (I know that sounds rather like an oxymoron!) At about 5” from head to tail tip, it is the largest hummer in Costa Rica’s mountains. (You can get a sense of the size of the bird in the photo below. The feeder is pretty much just your standard-issue feeder—nothing tiny that would make the bird appear bigger.) The male has a dark green body, a bright green gorget (feathers at the throat), a violet forehead, and a white spot behind the eye (center photo). These birds were also the bullies of the feeders, often defending them against all comers. (Observers have even reported Magnificent Hummingbirds tossing bumblebees from flowers they wanted to feed from. Now THAT’s a gutsy bird!) The far-right photo shows how different the gorget can look in different lights—here, due to the iridescent feathers, the gorget looks all violet rather than bright green. Don’t be fooled!
Purple-throated Mountain-gems and White-throated (formerly called Gray-tailed) Mountain-gems are believed to have diverged through natural selection from a common Mountain-gem ancestor. The geographical separation by the mountains in northern Costa Rica and the Talamanca Mountains to the south resulted in divergent evolution. The species in the north became the Purple-throated; in the Talamanca range, the White-throated species developed a white gorget and a gray tail. Females are identical, although some sources say the White-throated female has a duller bronze-green tail. Although Roger said that we had seen both Purple- and White-throated females, I couldn’t really tell them apart. (According to him, the female Purple-throated has a more rufous belly than does a female White-throated.) I certainly never saw a male Purple-throated. Neither of the 2 bird lists for the Savegre area list Purple-throated Mountain-gem, but Stiles & Skutch state “…the 2 appear together… at the N end of Talamancas or Dota area.” The bird I can identify with confidence is the White-throated male (below left; note the greenish crown) and I think this is a female White-throated Mountain-gem (below right).
By comparison, there is no doubting the identification of a Green Violet-ear. A common hummingbird of the highlands, its name says it all. The male is iridescent green with a bluish-violet mask that passes through he lower portion of the eye and “ear.” These colors show up well in the photo below on the left. The photo on the right shows the difference in size between the mega Magnificent Hummingbird (left) and the smaller Green Violet-ear (right).
We also saw a female Scintillant Hummingbird feeding on flowers. Among the smallest hummingbirds in Costa Rica, it is endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama. Looking similar to its congener Selasphorus, the Volcano Hummingbird, the male can be differentiated by its brilliant orange-red gorget. His breast, sides, and belly show more rufous and much more rufous can be seen in the tail—with no green showing in the central rectrices (feathers at the center of the tail). The female Scintillant is similar to the female Volcano Hummingbird, but again more rufous on breast, sides, and tail can often be seen. While others identified Volcano Hummingbirds at Savegre, I couldn’t differentiate them. So I didn’t count that species for myself. The photo above shows a female Scintillant Hummingbird; notice the speckled throat (indicating it is not a male) and the rufous in the tail (without the green central rectrices of a Volcano Hummingbird). As always, you can click on any photo to see a larger version.
If you’re interested in a video of one early morning’s show at the hummer feeders, you can watch a few minutes of our edited video on YouTube below. It begins with a Green Violet-ear. Large, dark Magnificent Hummingbirds (white spot behind the eye) abound. Early on, 2 very small female White-throated Mountain-gems come in (rufous throats and chests, stripe behind the eye). At about 1:30, 2 male White-throated Muntain-gems (just as tiny but with white throats) zoom in and out. You can hear the call of an Acorn Woodpecker now and then, as well as what I think is a Flame-colored Tanager singing (sounding rather like a buzzy American Robin).
Six or so from our group were on the road by the lodge, watching the feeders from above, when I noticed Roger a bit further down the road, his scope over his shoulder and his ear pressed to his cell phone. Snapping his cell phone off, he spotted our group and hollered “Want to see a quetzal?” He gestured to follow him and took off down the hill toward the river. Person of faith that I am, I sprinted after him, hollering back to the rest of the folks on the road. A few were able to keep up with his quick pace; I was sort of middlin’ on that energy level; and 3 others were slower than I was, several especially feeling the effects of the high altitude. So we spread out along the road for the race down to the river. Roger headed off with the fast folks; at each turn, he waited until he spotted me to signal which way to go; and I then waited for the third group to make sure someone had seen the correct direction before I took off again in hot pursuit of Roger What on earth we were heading into?
Pronounced “ket-SAHL,” this member of the trogon family is the national bird of Guatemala. However, it has become very rare in Guatemala. San Gerardo de Dota is one of the most reliable places in Costa Rica to find this stunning bird. The Resplendent Quetzal of Costa Rica is a subspecies found only in the mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama. The quetzal has become a bit of a tourist cliché throughout Costa Rica, appearing on posters, billboards, soap wrappers, etc… However, when you actually see one, the clichés drop from memory. It is a truly breathtaking bird. What looks like a 24”+ long tail is really not a tail at all, but 4 long uppertail coverts that stretch from its back above the base of its tail. (Its actual tail is about 8” long and is white when viewed from below.) The male is also adorned with elongated green, satin wing covert feathers that drape over the sides. The beak is smaller than other trogons and is bright yellow in the male (black in the female). The bushy crest in both the male and female results from elongated at the crown and the nape. As an aside, trogons have unusual feet. Most birds have 4 toes; the toe closest to the center of the body is called the hallux (akin to a human’s big toe). As do other trogons, the quetzals have heterodactyl toes—the 3rd and 4th toes face forward while the hallux and 2nd toes face backward. Most songbirds have anisodactyl feet—the 3 toes facing forward and the hallux, back—an arrangement that allows them to perch on branches securely. On the other hand, woodpeckers, which spend considerable amounts of time clinging to and climbing tree trunks, have good-gripping zygodactyl feet, where the 2nd and 3rd toes face forward and the 4th toe and hallux face backward. Thus endeth the Ornithology lesson. We now return you to the trip report…
After about 1.5 miles, the road leveled off alongside the Savegre. There, in the deep shadows along the river, we saw several small groups of folks, speaking in hushed tones and clustering around scopes. As we arrived, we immediately saw 3 nestboxes on a large tree. (A research project was exploring what height nesting cavity the Resplendent Quetzals might prefer.) As a guide directed our attention to the boxes, a male Resplendent Quetzal headed for the top box, paused for a few moments (for the admiring fans), and disappeared into the box—amazing 24” “tail” and all. Z snapped the photo on the right as the bird was making his exit. Well. There you have it. Definitely the most unusual cavity nester I’ve ever seen!
The female was perched on a wire nearby; once the male exited the box, he joined the female on a nearby branch (left—well, more like an impressionist’s painting than an award-winning photo). Don’t stare too hard at this one. In the dull light, the camera had a hard time figuring what to focus on. (I know, I know—a skilled craftsperson never blames her tools…) Flashes were not permitted; and with dusk gathering, all of the photos we got with our 2 point-and-shoot cameras were rather dark. But such a small price to pay for being able to spend approximately an hour watching and admiring los quetzales—truly deserving of the name “resplendent.”
In the photo below on the left, you get a sense of the overall bearing of the bird and the sweep of his tail. The photo in the middle gives a better sense of the length of the tail (which you can see below the branch he’s sitting on, at about 5 o’clock on an analog clock face). And the photo on the right shows his brilliant red breast. (Seriously–click on the photos to see a larger version. Really. I mean it.)
Because the iridescent green of its feathers is structural color caused by refraction of light on the feathers, the plumage is dull and hard to spot in the shade. But it is truly spectacular when viewed in halfway decent light. When flushed, the male drops backward off its perch to avoid damage to its tail feathers. The male usually gets top billing, because the female is considerably less spectacular. But she is still a lovely blue-green, setting her off from females in the other trogon species (typically brown or gray). In the photo below on the left, you can see the female (taken through the scope). The middle photo is the male through the scope. (Digiscoping, even with a tiny point-and-shoot camera, is amazing!) The right photo is a non-digiscoped view of the front of the female.
Leaving the breeding pair, we trudged up the hill amazed, humbled, and elated that we had had this extraordinary opportunity. Yet we were also fully aware that more than half of our group hadn’t been around to see Roger and the rest of us vanish down the road. Roger would make sure that there were other opportunities, but you just never know…
By the time we got back, it was time for dinner. And dinner—oh, my. What a stunning spread the hotel offered! All of the food was self-service, buffet-style, with at least 3 options for every dish. And the postre (dessert) table was a crime in and of itself. Just walking by it, you gained 2 or 3 pounds. Roger and I had earlier talked about how we both loved fresh fish. At Selva Verde, he mentioned to me several times that the fish at Savegre would be amazing. It did not disappoint. The first evening, we had what appeared to be breathtakingly delicious salmon. The following night—succulent, delicate rainbow trout, from Savegre’s own farmed stock. So unbelievably moist and delectable. I can almost taste it even today.
Feeling very tired, I left the group at the dinner table and headed back to the room a bit early. The room was cold—about 58o F. I turned on the space heater, put on my long underwear (hurrah to me for packing it!), and climbed under the quilt. This would be the first night of the entire trip that I wasn’t worried in the least about whether the room would be too warm for sleeping! Unfortunately, the space heater kept clicking off after 25 seconds or so. Just as I was realizing that it probably wasn’t something that I was doing wrong, Z came back to the room. He fiddled with it briefly and declared it indeed to be malfunctioning. (Always glad to have the verification.) We called the front desk and a new—and perfectly functioning—space heater was delivered to our door within minutes. We cranked it up, crawled under the heavy quilts, and settled down for a long mid-winter’s nap. And visions of quetzales danced in our heads…
Click here to read the next day’s adventures at Savegre.