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On a quest for the quetzal: trekking through the high reaches of the Guatemalan cloud forests, our author is on the lookout for that bijou of birds, the mythic feathered jewel, the ever-elusive resplendent quetzal.

IN THE HALF-LIGHT OF DAWN, when the wake-up call in the Guatemalan cloud forests is a recital of contralto bird songs with the wind in the trees providing the bass notes, a presence is felt. Some describe it as mystical. Others say it's merely the feeling that comes from being an intruder in such a wet, humid greenhouse, where humans instinctively feel like trespassers being assessed by unseen creatures.

Whatever the reason, these Guatemalan high forests are eerie, a green belt of dense jungle crowning the Maya Forest--a region shared by Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize--that, along with Brazil's Matto Grosso, is considered one of the "lungs of the Americas" because their lustiness provides a large and essential portion of the Western Hemisphere's oxygen.

This forest is home to more than 350 bird species and almost 1,000 different mammals, including jaguars, pumas, tapirs, and monkeys, all thriving in a primeval wilderness overflowing with more than 1,600 plant varieties.

The name Guatemala derives from the Maya-Toltec word Goathemala, or "Land of Many Trees," and only a few minutes in one of its lush forests makes clear why the name is appropriate.

These cloud forests are ageless. Great civilizations flourished and collapsed in their foothills, but the forests lingered unsullied until modern demands began to drastically slash their vastness.

And it's here, usually at daybreak, when one of the most remarkable, eniginatic, and elusive birds in the world--the resplendent quetzal--makes a fleeting appearance to dispel one of the countless myths surrounding it: this avian Guatemalan treasure sings.

There is a belief, especially among Guatemalan Maya, most who have never seen a quetzal, that the bird their ancestors held sacred abruptly stopped singing when the first Spaniards set foot in the New World. But its song is a plaintive spurt of short whistles, much like humans use when calling a dog. When in flight, it sounds like a squawking parrot overdosed on amphetamines.

The song is unmistakable and unforgettable and in order to hear it one must trek up to the cloud forests of Guatemala, a country so steeped in quetzal lore that the bird is the national symbol and its visage graces the flag. Guatemalan currency takes its name, and even the map of the country--if you use your imagination--resembles a quetzal in profile.

The bird, a member of the trogon family, is endemic and exclusive to the cloud forests of Mesoamerica, the region reaching from the Mexican highlands of Chiapas and Oaxaca to the Panamanian isthmus. Some ornithologists consider it the most beautiful bird in the world, and because it is elusive, reclusive, temperamental, delicate, and shy with a strong distaste for captivity, it's in acute danger of extinction due to encroaching farmlands and to the slash-and-burn farming methods used in Latin America.

Quetzal watching calls for fortitude and patience. To reach the dense forest canopy that is the bird's home requires hours of tortuous uphill climbing through thick growth swarming with mosquitoes. Adding to the ordeal, the bird has a propensity to remain motionless for long periods and is so well concealed by its natural camouflage that one is fortunate to catch even the most fleeting glimpse of this feathered jewel.

On top of that, the quetzal seems to delight in its inscrutability, fluttering about in dark, moist woodlands that are dwindling by the day.

Although measures are being taken to improve its chances of survival, the bird's timidity, its need for wide-open spaces, and its delicate physiology do not adapt well to the rigors of confinement.

Jesus Estudillo Lopez, one of the foremost quetzal experts and a specialist in avian diseases, heads the conservation program at Mexico's National University. He has managed to do what once was deemed impossible: breed quetzals in captivity. Working in Chimalapas, a natural preserve between Chiapas and Oaxaca, Estudillo rates the survival of the species as "iffy" at best.

His studies have dispelled the centuries-old chimera that quetzals can't survive in captivity. Because of this fable, in 1871 Guatemala adopted the bird as a "symbol of freedom" and put its image on the national seal. The Maya, centuries before there was a Guatemala, were convinced that a confined quetzal died of loneliness.

Estudillo debunked all that. It's the quetzal's sensitive physical constitution, he has learned, that won't allow it to survive in places with humidity below 70 percent. More importantly, the bird only drinks water condensed on leaves and ferns because groundwater is rich in iron, an element lethal to the species. The water that quetzals absorb contains tannic acid, which neutralizes any iron they might ingest. Quetzals will "also die if taken off their natural diet that consists mostly of insects, worms, and dwarf avocado called aguacatillo.

In short, if a captured quetzal won't starve to death, it will die of thirst. Thus science trumps ancient myths.

Ornithologists are also studying quetzals in Costa Rica's Monteverde region, where sightings attract droves of nature lovers and birdwatchers hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive bird.

Avian experts have classified the Costa Rican quetzal as a subspecies of the resplendent quetzal of Maya lore, although scientists agree that the differences may escape the untrained eye. The quetzal of Costa Rica is generally smaller, with black specks in its tail feathers and bears a different name, Pharomachrus mocinno costaricercsis, as opposed to the Pharomachrus mocinno mocinno of Guatemala and the Yucatan.

No country in the world is as closely identified with the quetzal as is Guatemala. And some argue that the Guatemalan species is the only true quetzal because the bird, its myths, and its legends go hand-in-hand with the Maya and that civilization's influence never reached as far south as Costa Rica.

Regardless, it's the quetzal's beauty along with those ancient myths and legends that never fail to enthrall. And what myths and legends they are.

The Quiche Maya give the quetzal a prominent place in the first chapter of the Popol Vuh, the Maya tome that describes the creation of the universe by ancient gods.

Maya, Toltecs, and Aztecs considered its feathers--a commodity they reserved exclusively for royalty--to be a thousand-fold more valuable than gold or jade. Killing a quetzal was punishable by death in all three cultures.

And do you know why the male quetzal has a red breast?

Legend holds that when Pedro de Alvarado, the Spanish conquistador who subdued militant indigenous Maya tribes, killed Tecun Uman, the courageous Maya chieftain revered in Guatemala, a quetzal landed on the dying warrior's chest to forever stain its feathers with blood.

Unfortunately, this is another mesmerizing and bogus quetzal fairy tale. Experts have determined that the bird's red feathers result from pigments absorbed through its food. The other transfixing, brilliant and iridescent colors so distinctive to the quetzal result from indiscernible particles in the feather structure that fracture white light into green, blue, and gold hues that shift in the sunlight, much like the colors in a glass prism or a soap bubble.

The Maya, captivated by its beauty, referred to the bird as the "God of the Air." Its yard-long tail feathers were woven in royal ceremonial dresses, capes, and artwork. Highland hunters--and this says much for their blowgun skills because of the quetzal's lightning speed--stunned them, plucked the long feathers, and then released them.

Today, the most astonishing example of the feathers' beauty reposes half a world away in Vienna's Museum of Ethnology. It has more than 450 quetzal feathers, each measuring about a yard, all mounted on a jewel and gold-encrusted crown. The headdress is reputed to have been worn by Aztec emperor Moctezuma when first meeting Hernan Cortes at Tenochtitlan.

The headdress arrived in Europe as part of the booty sent back by Cortes after his 1519 conquest. It was later inherited by Austria's Archduke Ferdinand and, according to Mexico's current foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, remains "an archaeological piece of incalculable value for the history of our nation."

Some Mexicans consider it their country's single most important Aztec relic and negotiations between Austria and Mexico continue to this day over the return of the spectacular and priceless work of art to the Mexican capital.

In Guatemala, where the bird is firmly entrenched in the national psyche, finding this most reclusive and shyest of birds is a tricky business. Moreover, the number of Guatemalan quetzals is difficult, if not impossible, to peg because no one has done such a study. Finding quetzals there is purely luck and timing. Some people have seen bandfuls in a single day, while others have gone weeks without spotting one.

There's an old saying that every Guatemalan has seen a quetzal at least once in his lifetime, but that's a stretch. Most people freely admit that the only glimpse they have had of the fabled bird is on the national currency.

Consequently, local birdwatchers hoping to spot one make their way to the Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera, a government-operated reserve named after a naturalist who served as director of San Carlos University. It's a jungle garden in the northern highlands, some one hundred miles from Guatemala City, and was originally established as a quetzal refuge in 1976.

Commonly called "El Biotopo del Quetzal," it is a picture-perfect cloud forest riddled with waterfalls, mosses, orchids, and ferns. Reaching the top, where the quetzal is most likely to be found, requires hiking up to seventy-five hundred feet, a leg-cramping climb over well-kept trails that seem to never end.

It's a walk made interesting by its accompanying soundtrack: Howler monkeys make a racket like roaring lions when disturbed, while exotic birds chirp everywhere. Ironically, due to encroaching civilization and the popularity of the place, quetzals are seldom seen in the very reserve set aside to shelter them.

Fortunately, there are other places in Guatemala where with luck and perseverance a casual observer may catch a glimpse of the bird.

Sierra de las Minas, an unforgiving landscape where the quetzal may well be making its last stand, sprawls about ninety miles northeast of Guatemala City.

There is no easy way to reach San Jose El Olvido, in the heart of Sierra de las Minas. San Jose El Olvido is a farm that doubles as a lodge, with modest but clean and comfortable cabins for houseguests seeking a rare glimpse of the quetzal.

Rain is almost constant from May through September, the best months to observe quetzals because this is when the breeding season is in full swing and the males flaunt their brightest plumage hoping to attract females.

Quetzals are monogamous, with females choosing males who, unlike most birds, take all active part in hatching the blue eggs laid in abandoned woodpecker holes high up in the trees.

San Jose El Olvido is all that the name implies. It sits on the outskirts of Paraiso, a typical farming community, hardly a spot on the map and reachable only by fore-wheel-drive vehicles that groan and fishtail on trails made boggy with a sticky mud locals call barro de chicle, or rubber clay. From there, it's another one-hour tire-slashing ride up a haphazard trail on a hardy all-terrain vehicle to where campesinos have spotted quetzals.

Passengers, who have been instructed not to wear bright clothing, get off every few minutes to drop rocks on the trail to add traction to the tires. But that's often fruitless, leaving no choice but to leave the car and hike long, grueling, sweaty, uphill miles to where the bird may or may not be found.

Speaking with quetzal spotters is disheartening. It seems like it's always last year, or last month, or last week, or even yesterday when the birds were seen everywhere. Today, they will say, quetzals have left the area, but there may be some promising spots.

After more miles of climbing through the impenetrable and damp woods of a rain forest where plants on the ground have never known a ray of direct sunlight, the prospect of seeing a quetzal begins to seem futile and one fully understands that stalking quetzals is purely a crapshoot.

One is told to keep silent because of the creature's notorious shyness and fickleness. Whispering is the modus operandi of quetzal stalkers. Only the guide's whistles mimicking the call of the quetzal breaks the sound of heavy, breathing and of boots squishing through mud.

When one's legs begin to shake and clouds of bloodthirsty mosquitoes hunt and float all around one's throbbing head--and when even the simple act of breathing has turned into an ordeal--someone whispers, "There's one."

It takes a while to spot a male quetzal perching immobile high on a tree branch. But even that comes with glitches. Guides who have spent years pursuing the birds must pinpoint its perch with hand signals because the birds keep so flawlessly camouflaged.

It only takes one barely audible sound--perhaps a whisper or maybe a branch breaking underfoot for the quetzal to take off. There's a flash of red and luminous emerald green--and then it's gone.

The bird is lighting quick, flying in an undulating motion made bottom heavy by its impossibly long and marvelous tail feathers. Although it disappears in a second, the first sight of a quetzal in the wild is unforgettable.

It is the most bijou of birds, easy to see why it enthralled the ancients as well as today's ornithologists. The word quetzal means "beauty" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, while the Maya called the bird "Kuk," after their main god, Kukulcan.

Often days will pass before there is another chance to see the beautiful god bird in El Olvido, and visitors frequently leave disappointed.

INGUAT, the Guatemala Tourism Institute, directs visitors to locales where the bird is most likely encountered, with the caveat that nothing is certain when it comes to the quetzal.

One of these places is Los Andes, a I superb lodge cure private reserve near Santa Barbara, about 130 miles southwest of the capital. This is a sparkling, self-sufficient agrarian community providing free medical care, schooling, and housing for the seventy families living on the grounds. Coffee, tea, macadamia, and quinine fields sprawl below the cloud forest.

Extending on the slopes of the magnificent Atitlan volcano, Los Andes was originally owned by a sugar and coffee land baron who arrived in Guatemala early last century. Today, the agricultural estate is owned and operated by Olga Hazard and her brother Jim, descendents of a Briton who built the first dirt road leading to the place. Los Andes is a natural marvel at the end of a rough road skirting almost to the flanks of the volcano. Here abundant wildlife, especially birds, thrives amid the tea gardens and coffee fields.

"Tiffs may seem like a forgotten corner of Guatemala," says Olga Hazard, sitting in the spacious dining room of the hacienda, "but we're anything but forgotten by nature."

According to Hazard, Los Andes is part of one of the first cloud forests devoted to the protection of the resplendent quetzal, and birdwatchers from all over the world visit to study the bird's courtship and nesting rituals in the forest surrounding Los Andes.

Biologist Claudia Burgos, a Guatemalan expert on the quetzal, is currently conducting studies on the quetzal from here. She estimates that there may be anywhere from Fifty to sixty birds in the area.

"In the five years since Los Andes was declared a private nature reserve officially registered with the National Commission of Protected Areas (CONAP), our efforts have been focused on the preservation of Los Andes as a place in which agricultural production and human development go hand in hand with environmental conservation," says Hazard. "We hope to reach that goal in a harmonious and sustainable manner for the well-being of the present and future generations."

It was here, in the late 1960s, where Dr. Anne LaBastille worked on one of the first research projects focused exclusively on quetzals, sponsored by Cornell University. A few years later, she set up the first private natural reserve dedicated to their protection. As a result, the Guatemalan government officially declared Los Andes a national resource and natural habitat for the species.

More than 60 percent of Los Andes consists of a cloud forest, home to creatures in peril of extinction, including, of course, the resplendent quetzal.

The Hazard family is very protective of Los Andes. Although the main house can accommodate up to fifteen nature lovers who visit here to observe plants and animals, smaller numbers are preferred. Hunting and smoking are forbidden and visitors are discouraged from wandering into the cloud forest, without guides. In addition, there are bird-viewing towers set up throughout the reserve.

Guatemalan bird experts say that if one fails to see a quetzal in Los Andes, then it's best to give up.

It might take a few days, but early one morning, the birds make their appearance. A female comes out of nowhere to perch on a branch about eighty yards from a viewing tower. She sits on a branch spitting out a dwarf avocado pit. Then the male arrives, announcing himself with a flash of gold, red, and green. He perches regally on another tree as if surveying his domain.

Suddenly, there's the flapping of wings and then the birds are gone as swiftly as they appeared.

To paraphrase the old cliche about war, stalking a quetzal consists of days of utter boredom broken up by a few seconds of sheer thrill.

One will spend fruitless days under a tree where a pair of quetzals is nesting. Those days will consist of sitting immobile, in silence, avoiding sudden movement, and being tortured by mosquitoes and humidity--and still the birds won't come. After giving up in futility and starting down the trail, the taunting whistle and the squawking of quetzals is heard. The birds are too far away to be seen.

The sacred bird of the Maya mocks your efforts.

Photographs by Roberto Gluesada Arathoon and Sergio Ortiz

Based in California, Sergio Ortiz is a widely published photographer and writer and a past contributor to Americas. Roberto Quesada Arathoon is a Guatemalan engineer, nut, realist, and photographer. This is his first collaboration with Americas.
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Author:Ortiz, Sergio
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:2GUAT
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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