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It’s Quetzal Time!

Ripe Avocados Make San Gerardo de Dota a Birding Paradise


The small wild avocados, known in Spanish as aguacatillos, are ripe in San Gerardo de Dota. To us birders, that means “It’s quetzal time!” 


The resplendent quetzal is one of the trogon species found in Costa Rica. (Trogons, belonging to the Trogonidae family, take their name from the Greek word for “nibbling” due to their nesting practice of gnawing holes in trees.) It is one of the most sought-after species by birders traveling here from around the world. 


Certain times of the year are easier for spotting quetzals, notably when they are nesting and when the avocados are ripe. This is consistent with the symbiotic relationship between the quetzals and avocado trees. After feeding on the fruit, the birds regurgitate the seed and drop it into the jungle to become a new avocado tree.


First-time experience


Being an avid birder and wildlife lover, the quetzal was high on my list of the birds I wanted to see in Costa Rica. None of my previous trips to San Gerardo de Dota had been at the time of the year when the quetzals are easily seen. Nor had I ever made an overnight trip there. So when a local guide advised a friend of mine that the avocados were ripe, four of us decided to take a one-night trip to the area in hopes of making my quetzal dream come true.

Usually, San Gerardo would have hundreds of birders this time of the year, but with Costa Rica’s international borders shut down, we were hoping to have the town to ourselves. I made an online booking for a cabin, as every hotel we contacted was sold out on Saturday night. The log cabin, named Unicorn Lodge, described as having four beds and a coffee pot, filled our group’s main requirements.

We left Jacó at around 6:00 am for the drive to San Gerardo, which takes about 3.5 hours. Our car was packed with four large DSLR cameras, zoom lenses, and extra batteries and memory cards. We stopped for breakfast about three hours later at a restaurant named Soda san Gerardo, at the top of the hill where the Pan American Highway and Calle San Gerardo intersect. I got to have my favorite Costa Rican breakfast: tortilla de queso with a side of Natilla. It was awesome — one of the best I’ve had in the country. Two at my table had gallo pinto, and both raved about that meal as well.

On our way to the Unicorn Lodge, we stopped in a couple of areas known for quetzal sightings. Finally, I spotted the first quetzal of my life! Perched by the roadside was a juvenile male, with just the beginnings of his magnificent tail. He was so cooperative and sat beautifully perched so we could take his picture. It was one of my favorite birding moments ever! 


Next, we ran into a local guide named Alex. We asked him if there were a lot of birders out in the area. He responded that there were none. This is unheard of for this area when the avocados are ripe. We were happy to have such a rare opportunity to ourselves. Normally, we might have encountered up to 100 birders standing in one spot watching a single quetzal.


We then continued on to our cabin, where the key had been left in the door for us to enter. Unicorn Lodge is an absolutely beautiful place located right on the Savegre River. The double deck was an amazing spot to watch birds from, while listening to the water flowing over the rocks. We also had a fireplace, which my friends quickly lit. Within a few minutes of looking out from the deck, we spotted a gorgeous male collared trogon. I had never seen one of these birds before, so I also got to check it off my list.


Uncommon and stunning


After a short while, we headed out again to look for quetzals. We saw a few, but they were flying too far away to take pictures. While looking for the quetzals, my friend saw a male elegant euphonia. These tiny birds measure only four inches long and are easily recognizable by their powder blue cap. Their favorite food is the mistletoe berry. On previous occasions, I had only seen these uncommon and stunning birds when they were very high in the trees, making it difficult to take a good photograph. This one was hanging out in low branches very close to us. While we watched it, the female appeared, and flew back and forth to an area in the trees. I then figured out she was flying to a nest! With amazement, we watched the pair hang out near the nest for quite a while.


We were happy to have such a rare opportunity to ourselves.


We had dinner that night at Pizzeria and Restaurante Colibries. This Italian restaurant is owned by a local man named Victor. He is a very friendly host who wants to ensure all customers love their food and have a nice time. Our group ordered a large pizza and it was huge. Despite feeling starved before it was placed on the table, we could only eat less than half of the pizza. The restaurant has great prices and service, as well as an adorable German Shepherd mascot named Danger.


The next morning, we headed out at 5:30 a.m to see more quetzals. We walked up a steep hill to a viewing platform next to a massive avocado tree. When we arrived, there was a juvenile male quetzal sitting in the tree. In total, we saw two juvenile males and two adult females from the platform. A fabulous highlight was observing one of the juvenile males regurgitating the seed after eating an avocado. 

San Gerardo is an amazing area. There is much more to do than I wrote about here, but we only had a short time to visit. I highly recommend the area to anyone who loves birds, as it is paradise to me!


Read more about this magnificent area in the Howler article On the Road to Shambhala: Providencia and San Gerardo de Dota

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