Editors' Choice

The Holy Grail

by Maria Dolan

A non-birder discovers a new way of seeing in the forest.

To get to the Albergue de Montana Savegre, a recommended pitstop in our guidebook, we caught a bus from the beach that pulled us slowly up narrow, winding roads, then hitched a ride in a van that usually drove tourists from one eco-lodge to another. As we bumped down a dusty lane, we looked out at oak forest—more like my idea of Italy than my idea of Costa Rica. Except, that is, for the hot red bromeliads, perched in the crooks of tree branches like flightless birds. I saw small paths leading here and there where I thought my boyfriend Paul, who is a photographer, could take pictures. Perhaps I'd find signs of the puma rumored to still slink through this valley. The mountain air blowing in the window was crisp and fresh.

"You are here for the quetzals?" the van driver asked, and in the rear view mirror I saw his soft, round face crack a smile.

Oh yes, the quetzals. According to our guidebook, the hamlet we were approaching, San Gerardo de Dota, was one of the better spots on earth for sighting this famously colorful Central American bird. We didn't know much about them, but they sounded beautiful, and so Paul and I had cheerfully agreed that seeing them would be a worthwhile goal during our visit, when we weren't walking or reading books in our room. We were in Costa Rica to escape a leaden Seattle winter, and were drawn to anything bright and new.

"We aren't here for the quetzals," we told the driver, "but we'll watch for them."

Later, when an American birder exclaimed to us that resplendent quetzals are the "holy grail of birding" we would understand how strange our answer had been.

Now, the driver laughed. He shuttled international tour groups to this lodge every week, and he had never met anyone who wasn't here to see birds. They brought lists with them with boxes to be checked off when they'd seen the bird in question. Like Ecuador or Antarctica, Costa Rica is a birding destination, where a traveler keeping track of all the birds she's ever seen might knock off a few hundred in one two-week vacation, if she works at it. Maybe I was just lazy. Pursuing anything, particularly a bird, was too much effort for a winter getaway.

My apathy was soon tested. As we arrived a short man with rosy tanned skin and a fine beak of a nose rushed up to the window. He spoke a beautiful, accented English.

"The quetzale" he whispered urgently, the "a" a soft, falling "ahhhh." His forehead gleamed with sweat. He shook his hand in the direction of a short path. "There is one right here in a tree!"

The van driver pressed comfortably into his seat, shooing us out into the road. Down a short trail a cluster of khaki-clad travelers huddled together, their backs to us until we were almost on top of them. Then they heard us, and a woman grabbed my forearm to pull me toward a spotting scope-a sort of high-precision birders' telescope-directed at the limbs of a tree. When I tucked up to the small circle of the eyepiece I saw the deep red and sea green breast of a bird that appeared about the size of a chipmunk. It was half-hidden beneath a leaf on the branch. It looked very pretty when the leaf blew up to reveal its head, but I was feeling too nervous from the barely-contained excitement that surrounded me to concentrate. I kept thinking how many people here wanted to be standing and squinting in my spot, and I quickly gave up my place.


We had already spent several sweltering days at the beach, and the chill here at dusk was mildly shocking. In the hotel bar, layered in a suitcase-worth of beach clothes, I drank what seemed to be the only red wine in Costa Rica, Concha y Toro. Paul was drinking Imperial, a crisp local beer foreign men seemed to bond over enjoying. The room smelled pleasantly of woodsmoke from a blazing fireplace. The beach tourists had been young and lethargic, scuffing up from the sea in their sandals through skeins of heat, only to flop at the nearest table with a Coke. By contrast, guests here were nearly all middle-aged, dressed in the kind of micro fibers that make travelers look like they haven't gone anywhere, clothes that hide dirt and wrinkles. And they gabbed! It was the most English I'd heard spoken in days. Of course, there was only one topic.

On the balcony, for instance, in the waning light, five or six types of hummingbird buzzed a couple of red plastic feeders full of sugar water, making them swing. One hummingbird, called a "volcano," was somewhat smaller than my thumb. An elegant woman, perhaps in her 50's, stood just beside the window, Birds of Costa Rica open like a prayer book in her hands. She asked a birdish question I didn't quite get to no one in particular, and instantly a tall Canadian man who had been sitting with his wife stepped up to her as if he'd known her for years. There was no introduction. But they didn't acknowledge each other, like old friends, either. They just looked at the birds.

"So," the woman said, pointing at the feeder and then the book with one long finger. "We have six and seven."

"No. We don't have seven."

"But that had the purple throat?" she said, more hesitantly now, tucking strands of clean, silvery blond hair behind one ear.

"But we don't have the white," he responded, meaning, I guessed, that the bird in front of them didn't have some white markings of number 7 in the book. They looked up and down, up and down, bird-book-bird-book-bird-book reminding me of some all-natural eye exercises I once tried. They were supposed to improve my vision but instead gave me a headache.

"The Volcano is clear," she said. "We've got that."

"No we don't," he admonished. He was absurdly tall for the task of looking over her shoulder at the book; he reached his long arm over without touching her, and leafed through the pages like a white crane worrying the sand dunes for a crab.

"We have 3a, 3b, 3c here on the page. This one is actually 3b."

A little later the woman sat near us and introduced herself as Ellen. She asked if we had come to see the quetzals.

"No, we came to get away from the heat," I admitted. "We're not really birders." She let out a wheeze, then clapped her hand over her mouth. We didn't belong. "But we do like birds," I added quickly. "We saw a quetzal on our way in." I had begun to feel guilty about our sighting, about not being passionate enough about birds to appreciate our good fortune.

And then she leaned closer, eyes bright again, and told us about the quetzal being the holy grail.

Not long after this the Canadians came over and introduced themselves with the same question.

"We actually saw a quetzal on our way in today, " said Paul before I could stop him. "Have you seen a few?" The man's craggy face seemed instantly to flatten, while the woman's sprang to life.

"We got the emerald toucanet and the yellowish flycatcher this afternoon," she said briskly, and swallowed some more of her wine.

After we left the bar, I spent the rest of the evening swinging in a white rope hammock beside a garden blooming with orange canna flowers and green hummingbirds. I remembered that a birdwatching friend at home had told me a name for the birders I'd met. They were called "twitchers," birders who obsess over their sightings, and twitch off (what happened to "ticking" or "checking"? I wondered) the boxes on their Life List. Birders, I had also learned, never merely "saw" a bird. They "got" it. As in, "How was your trip to Costa Rica?" "Great! I got the resplendent quetzal and the scarlet macaw." I took this "getting" as a bad sign. Modern, formalized birdwatching had begun as an alternative to something much more sinister, that is, shooting parties bent on killing any bird that flew overhead, a habit which quickly erased entire species. But somehow the Life List seemed, if not deadly, deadening, reducing as it did an individual creature to a species name on a page. The Life List, as I imagined it, was an enormous, much-photocopied piece of paper on which the names of every known bird species had been spelled out in Latin and English. Twitchers, I thought, slept with this under their pillows, pulling it out now and then at night like a kid with a toy catalog. "I'll get you, barred antshrike," they whispered. "I'll get you if I have to spend every last vacation hour in the effort."


At the buffet breakfast, everyone carried a bird guide. Binoculars draped over collarbones like diamonds at a gala. We scooped up our food from the chafing dishes in a room cluttered with framed pictures of birds. The one above us on the wall, Paul noted, was an American Cardinal. Costa Rican women in their twenties made up the staff, and all were prone to staring off at the corners of the room when you weren't asking them something. They were wishing, I was certain, that someday the subject might change.

We had signed up for a group nature walk, and it began right after breakfast, at the foot of a hillside of apple and plum orchards, carved out of a few of acres of oak forest. The early morning mist hadn't yet burned off, and blanketed the hilltops. At first we walked slowly across a meadow and along a stream, and our guide, Marino answered the questions Paul and I had about San Gerardo, vigorously gesticulating with the hand that wasn't carrying the spotting scope. His family had been the first to settle this valley less than 100 years ago. Yes, we'd heard correctly, there were pumas here-his brother had seen one just yesterday evening while driving on the road. But all the time he was talking I noticed he wasn't looking at us, but up at trees or the sky. A bright yellow butterfly flapped across the path like a lost ribbon, and when he said nothing I pointed it out to him. "Yes," he said. "Very nice." I asked him if birders also liked to study butterflies, or if there were other things, species of flowers, insects, other creatures they wanted him to show them on these tours.

"You know Maria, not really," he said. He was extremely polite but I sensed some impatience. "The birders, they are interested in birds. Not butterflies."

Ellen and her friend Jane came along, too. While Ellen offered an occasional comment or query, Jane kept silent, and furrowed her brow constantly, as if determined not to miss something important. They were the kind of people you could imagine traveling together competently in the worst sorts of circumstances, improvising a washline across their digs in a cheap English rooming house, shutting down the advances of Turks in the bazaar with a few choice phrases from their guidebook. They seemed to know each other's birding habits and life lists well. Ellen was accessorized by a husband, but he kept almost entirely silent. He seemed to me, in this ornithocentric environment, to perch behind her like a falcon she'd tamed for a pet. He was wearing a striped French sailor sweater, and I couldn't help but think of the stripes as bars, just as a birder would. The barred spouse, I secretly renamed him.

The group wasn't unfriendly, but I couldn't seem to get a conversation going. When I asked Ellen what she did with her time back in Boston she said she was a consultant, then dropped back behind me on the trail.

Soon Marino came to a stop. We nearly stumbled onto him as he was noiselessly unscrewing and settling his scope tripod on the path. We looked up at a branch above our heads and there were a male and female quetzal sitting beside one another, one head turned to the left and the other turned right, so that they were each watching us out of one black eye. We had a clear view of them, and a hush fell over everyone, birders from Switzerland and England and the US, and even us, the clueless vacationers. I swallowed a gasp at how beautiful the birds were, now that I could really see them.

They weren't very big, but they were the blue-green I had seen only in Indian paintings, set off against the dull olive brown of moss dangling from the branch on which they perched. Their beaks were tiny, the yellow of mango flesh. The male, with his back to us, offered a perfect view of his two famous tail feathers, more than twice the length of his body and curving up to the left with a flourish, like the letter "j" in some baroque manuscript. The female's tiny head was sweetly rounded, her black eye alert and shining. Marino was conscientious about not bothering the birds, so after we all looked through the scope he asked us to keep walking. As we left they flew away too, and it looked like green lights were flickering through the forest. Under the green wings, on the breasts of the birds, we saw the scarlet flash of feathers. I looked over at Ellen, and for the first time she looked inelegant, slack-jawed at what she had seen.

There is a phrase I heard repeatedly during our days at the Albergue: "Se fue." Or, "It has fled." It, of course, being whatever bird we were just about to get a look at. This walk had quickly turned into a birding opportunity, and Paul and I simply abandoned ourselves to the fact that we would move only a few hundred feet or so over the course of the day, with unannounced hour-long pauses to stare at the sky, a tree, a promising, leafy copse.

There is something magnetic about a person, or people, obsessed. The energy behind each birder's desire to find something special entwined with the silence, and we too began to expect something big. To make myself feel useful, I began borrowing Paul's notebook-into which he jotted notes on the pictures he was taking-to make an imperfect list of the birds we saw, which I could name only because people kept calling them out. It went like this: A few of us, Marino included, would sit on a hillside staring at, say, the wild avocado tree the quetzals loved to visit. While watching, one of us might notice something rummaging in shrubbery, or high up on the branch of a tree. If it was a mole, vole, squirrel, perhaps even a jaguar, no one but Paul or I would be interested. But if it was a bird, the little group would instantly collide, intent on getting a view.

First to break free of our frantic dance, Marino grabbed his green Swarovski scope in one sun-browned hand and ran forward across the grass with it to the best possible spot. An unlikely, dainty yellow sun hat flapped unused from the belt of his Levi's. As soon as he had located the bird in the scope he drew us around like a circus barker, singing "Come and see the dark peewee! Maria, come look! Yane, here it is, the dark peewee! Have you seen the dark peewee?"

A young biologist from Arkansas who was living at the Albergue was along, too, and repeatedly offered a succinct comment to put the bird in context. "He's workin' the vegetation!" he now drawled from behind his binoculars.

Jane, one very accomplished birder, was more restrained. If she had already "gotten" the bird she wouldn't look up from her notepad as she said "yes, I've got that, but Ellen, I think the dark pee wee is new for you. Do you want to go look?"

And Ellen, who, more than any of us, went a little crazy when a bird she wanted was found, would hurl her notebook and pen onto grass or a cow pie or whatever happened to be near her, and dash toward Marino, ducking down beside him to press her eye to the scope as if the answer to life would be found on the other side.

Sometimes when one arrived at the scope the dark peewee would be waiting, framed in the eyepiece like a picture in a locket. More often you'd get there only to interrupt Marino grabbing the three-legged instrument from the ground. "No. Se fue," he'd declare briskly, and that was that. Perhaps you had crossed the ocean and risked your life on Costa Rica's calamitous roads to see the flame-throated warbler, and in fifteen seconds your only chance had come and gone.

And that was what I couldn't help but admire about the birders. My interests were so often ruled by a moment's whimsy, while these people were as focused as their birding instruments. Of course they seemed strange, like anyone with an obsession. To concentrate on one thing you must cut out, for a time, the world. I found it hard to do that. But I could see I might learn something from people who could.

After a lunch at which we sequestered ourselves in the bar, eating beans and rice while the tiny Volcano hummingbird obliged us with its bumblebee buzz, we went on a second tour. Marino had offered to take us out on another walk free-of-charge-mostly, it seemed, to help Paul, who was actually interested in relaxing or hiking-to capture some nice, sharp shots of flying things. Outside we learned that Ellen, Jane and the barred hawk-spouse had asked to join us, looking, Ellen told me, for more quetzals or something else "good." I wondered if they'd come because they thought we were lucky, having already seen quetzals twice. That made birding seem like a serious sport, the kind where you'd wear a girly old hat or maybe even marry a bird-like man if you thought it would improve your chances.

We stumbled along toward the same woods we'd been to before, a thick, cool forest. We came to a stop, for no reason I could see.

Noiselessly, Marino whipped binoculars to his eyes.

"A ruddy pigeon," he announced.

"That's a good bird," Ellen whispered excitedly. She and Jane squinted towards it, then scribbled it down into their notebooks. I saw a gray blur, but I wrote it down, too. Something good, in birding, seemed to mean a bird you hadn't seen before, or at least a bird you knew in a fresh situation, like the striped cuckoo on the nest, or the roadside hawk dive-bombing a field mouse. Of course this judgment was off-putting, like the lists and the word "getting." At the same time, birding could be courtly. A bit later, for instance, Marino produced a chunky old tape recorder I hadn't seen since the Audio-Visual room in high school, and shushed us all to silence.

"The song of the rufous-browed pepperstrike," he murmured as a scratchy tootling came out of the recorder. "What a name, eh?" He had seen the pepperstrike in the distance and wanted to draw it closer; indeed, it began calling back to the tape recorder from a nearby tree.

(This also made me feel terribly sad. I have read somewhere that some male butterflies-which of course I now understand are nothing like birds-have been known in experiments to try to mate with giant, cardboard facsimiles of their female cohorts while ignoring females of their species flitting charmingly about the very same room. Is the entire animal world that easily undone by human artifice?)

The waiting, too, seemed romantic. A birder will sit for hours in one spot where they think their desired bird will come, waiting for it, for its call, like someone waiting hopelessly for their crush to phone. "Is that him?" they wonder, as they see a flitting in the trees. (And, man or woman, it is usually the dapper male they are waiting for). Generally, the desired one se fue before they can satisfy their hunger for the sight of it.

And when you are able to find a bird for one of these questing romantics, you cannot be the hero, for the hero is always the bird. Perhaps you can be the cherished handmaiden. I, for instance, lying back on a grassy hill eating chocolate in the sun, happened to notice an unusual hawk in the sky high above where everyone else was looking. I extended my finger out toward it half-heartedly, certain I was embarrassing myself by pointing out something dull, and quickly stirred up a binocular-swinging, notebook-fluttering storm.

"I think...oh, yes. This is the Ornate Hawk Eagle," said Marino, head stretched upward. Very rare!" And for once, all the other heads turned away from the sky, and down toward me. The birders-my fellow birders?-smiled. I smiled back, and tried to look like I knew what I was doing.

The next time something was found in the scope, the yellow-faced grassquit or the flame-colored tanager or maybe even the spangle-cheeked tanager, which I imagined must look something like a pixie Las Vegas showgirl, I got my reward.

"Oh, this is very good!" announced Ellen then, and gave me an unbalancing shove toward the scope with surprisingly strong hands. She wanted me to go first. "Here, you've got to see this!"


In the end even the die-hards tired. As our search for new birds waned and the light faded, Paul rested beside his heavy backpack full of camera gear. Ellen and Jane waited for Marino to scout out a few last places for a quetzal, and I found myself wandering a dark side trail alone, staring up at each tree, surprised that I really wanted a new bird to present itself. Not just for me, I must admit, but to show the others. I wanted to find something unexpected, like a kid at work on an M.C. Escher drawing. My neck began to hurt from tilting my head back, looking up. Finally, in the pattern of leaves and branches in a tree a clue emerged: a leaf that looked sharp instead of rounded like all the others. And then the leaf resolved itself into a beak, and below the beak the other round shape was a bird, a big one-I was sure of it, now. It hunkered down on a branch in shadow, quietly watching me. I gestured to Paul, who came to stand behind my shoulder and look, and this movement brought Ellen and Jane.

"There's something up there," I said helplessly, and then Marino came and looked up through his binoculars and told me I'd found an Emerald Toucanet. An Emerald Toucanet! It was a beautiful name, sparkly and irresistible. But Jane told me she didn't need to see it through the binoculars-something else not on her list was, she thought, sitting high in the next tree, and she'd gotten a toucanet years ago. I could not help but feel, after all, that these birders were a miserable tribe, blinded to simple beauty by their typically North American hunger to acquire. I loved this bird, this unexpected gift. And then, perhaps realizing what she'd done, Jane came back to compliment me on my find. She seemed a little interested after all, and now she and Ellen began to fuss around me, brushing a leaf off the collar of my shirt, tilting their heads curiously. "That was a good spot," Ellen said. "How did you ever find it?"

"I was just wandering," I answered.

"And you're not even a birder!" Jane exclaimed. "Are you?"

I didn't think I was. But the emerald toucanet would work on me. When I got home I'd begin to see the flickers and house wrens and even the flock of tiny bushtits in my neighborhood that had always been there. I would begin, it seemed, to see birds. Like the way a colorful mobile hung above a crib develops the visual sense in a child, perhaps the bright, feathered creatures had worked on my sense of birds. Perhaps the world's first mobiles were birds, wheeling and spinning against the brightness of sky.


Maria Dolan is a freelance writer with a specialty in urban nature, adventure, and travel. And, as of 2003, motherhood. She is the co-author of Nature in the City: Seattle, author of Outside Magazine's Urban Adventure: Seattle, and writes regularly on nature and people for the Seattle Times. Her first trip abroad was to the ancestral farm in Ireland at age two. Though this was also the beginning of her legendary reliance on air sickness bags, that hasn't stopped her from world travel, now with her own, iron-stomached toddler in tow.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




Read more from Editors' Choice, Maria Dolan

« The Longest Day | Flying Carpet Home | Conversations on a Pakistani Bus »
SOLAS Awards Banner

Submit Your Writing to Travelers' Tales/Solas House
Stories for Anthologies
Book-length Manuscripts
Solas Awards Submissions
Guidelines

Go Around the World

Indie Multi-Stop Trip Planner

More Flying Carpet

Larry's Corner

details

James' Corner

details

Editors' Choice

details

Featured Stories

details

Authors

details