A friend’s recent soggy — and fruitless — quest to see a Resplendent Quetzal in Panama reminded me of my own rained-out effort two years ago in Honduras.
My husband and I went with our long-time friends Michael and Anita, who know their birds. Even their son when he was three could fire off the names of all of the birds in Florida, not just pelicans and flamingos but anahingas, wood storks and roseate spoonbills and other (probably less flashy) birds I don’t even remember. I’m a haphazard birder with no particular bird identification skill, no life list, no great spotting ability and a weakness for seeking out flashy birds. Still, I love to watch any kind of bird. It’s calming.
On our quetzal quest, Michael, Anita, my husband and I stayed overnight at an inn and brewpub near Lago de Yojoa, Hondura’s largest natural lake, which lies in a depression formed by ancient volcanoes. Bird-watchers flock to the area around the lake, which is home to more than 375 species of birds. We planned to hike up the Santa Barbara mountainside with a guide to look for the gorgeous Resplendent Quetzal.
The sky was overcast. We asked the innkeeper/brew pub owner about the weather forecast. He laughed. “Can you see the top of Santa Barbara?”
“That means rain.” The innkeeper, kind of a gruff guy originally from Oregon, was an old hand at lowering expectations. It rains a lot at Lago de Yojoa. This innkeeper had the right idea when he started brewing beer for his rain-captive guests.
We crossed our fingers. Maybe there would be only a sprinkle?
Soon it did start sprinkling. Not so bad at first, but then the downpour came. It rained as we ate our dinner of tilapia from the lake and drank the inn’s beer (four kinds!) The rain pounded all night on the tin roof of our cabin, and it was still raining in the morning. No hike for us. The closest we were going to get to a bird was the incessant clacking of toucans in the forest around us. We never saw so much as a single beak from one of those 375 species of birds!
We dashed to the covered patio, where the meals were served. Rain blew in. The innkeeper appeared as we were eating blueberry pancakes. The blueberries were from a farm down the road, he told us. The pancakes were delicious, but they couldn’t distract us from the dismal scene and the disappointment.
“Hey, I want to show you something,” the innkeeper said, beckoning us to a little shed up the hill. He was dressed in coveralls and ready to head off to his day job of digging septic tanks and swimming pools.
We squeezed into the tiny building, where the innkeeper showed us the artifacts from the ancientthat he’d found while digging trenches and holes. One by one, he removed treasures from a glass case. He trilled on a 2,000-year-old pottery whistle shaped like a macaw, let us handle a large jade ax blade and showed us brightly painted pottery.
Most magnificent was a finely polished concave slab of dark marble with a rolling pin.
“Do you know what this?” he asked.
“Does it crush corn?” someone answered.
“It’s a paper maker,” he said. He explained that the marble roller squeezed and flattened tree bark pulp on the slab’s calibrated surface.
He pushed the roller. It smoothly rocked over the slab like a perpetual motion machine. A hair, plucked from my head, was placed on the slab. The roller shuddered a little as it passed over my hair. Soon the strand was flattened to a white powder.
“You can see how the Lenca made really fine paper this way,” the man said.
It was such a magnificent and stunning object that I forgot for a moment about our dashed and splashed plans to see a quetzal or any other birds. What amazing people these Lenca were.
As we packed up the car to leave, the sun came out, and now we were heading to our next destination, the spectacular Mayan ruins at Copan. (Scarlet Macaws there.) Despite coming up short in quetzal viewing, I was glad we’d come to the lake.
Anita and Michael, who lived in Honduras at that time, decided to return the following year to Lake de Yajoa in search of quetzals again. They arrived in sunshine and hoped they’d have better luck this time.
They had just visited the impressive Pulhapanzak Falls waterfall there (which we missed on our trip), when it started to rain. This time they had chosen a hotel that looked out onto the lake. The hotel’s big veranda was a pleasant place to watch the rain, but rain wasn’t what they’d come to see.
“The rest of the evening it poured, much like the last time we were here,” she said. Prospects didn’t look good.
Fortunately, the next day was beautiful with the sun out in full force.
“We went with this eccentric British tour guide named Malcolm, with a long grey beard and hair who spent half his life in India pursuing Buddhism,” Anita said. He promised us a four-hour hike, which was really eight hours over very rugged, muddy slippery terrain. The terrain was steep, and we were often using horse trails. Coming down was almost worse than going up. We all came back covered in mud. I guess that kept the mosquitoes down.
“We saw an interesting type of toucan and a few other song birds, but there wasn’t a quetzal in sight,” Anita wrote. “The guide kept saying he just saw quetzals two weeks ago.”
Two weeks ago? I’m beginning to think that this quetzal is as mythical as the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent.
Anita decided she’d probably never return. Sadly, I probably won’t return to a Central American rain forest to see the Resplendent Quetzal, either. Can I still brag about getting this close?
P.S. By the way, the friend Mary who missed seeing the Respendent Quetzal in Panama did see some other great birds, such as the oropendola, which make nests that look like airport wind socks. Dozens of the nests hang in a single tree.