Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: On the trail of the resplendent quetzal

A A A

What do you think is the holy grail of wildlife watching? For some people undoubtedly it would be the big beasts of Africa, whereas others might say the great whales, or polar bears, or a tiger in the wild. Me, I've long held more modest ambitions: I've never seen a hawfinch.

The hawfinch is the nearest thing in Britain we have to a parrot (apart from the several real parrot species now breeding here, but that's another story); a bold-looking, pinkish-brown creature with a big bill and a fantastic scientific name, Cocothraustes cocothraustes, which has always seemed to me the bird equivalent of Humbert Humbert, or Major Major Major.

Anyway, I've never seen one, in spite of trying, and had you asked me a week ago what my own wildlife holy grail was, I suppose hawfinch was the word, being a bit of a sad geezer, which I might have come out with. But not any more.

For the past fortnight I have been in Mexico covering the UN climate change negotiations in Cancun, a 15-mile strip of colossal luxury hotels on the edge of the impossibly blue Caribbean, with the conference taking place in one of the most opulent of all, the Moon Palace, which flaunts at its entrance a giant statue of a naked woman throwing her head and arms back so that her giant breasts are pointing vertically at the sky, which can only be described, using initial capitals, as Truly Ghastly.

But there are compensations. The Tropic of Cancer is a long way north: on the coast of the Yucatan peninsula we are in the tropics here, with flame-coloured tanagers (they're birds) and giant cobalt-blue morpho butterflies fluttering around the hotel grounds, and I spent the first week of briefings and draft texts longing for a real taste of tropical wildlife which finally, last weekend, I was able to satisfy.

I went to Sian Ka'an, a national park 80 miles to the south: it covers no less than 1.6 million acres and thus protects an immense pristine area of Yucatan coastline, lakes and forest, as well as ancient sites of the Maya, one of Mexico's pre-Columbian peoples, from the ambitions of the hotel developers of Cancun, expanding steadily southwards. (Designating it has been a most enlightened decision of the Mexican government.)

In Sian Ka'an I tagged along with a Mexican birder called Hernando, and we had a local Maya guide called Ismael, and we saw sensational birds, such as a keel-billed toucan, an ocelated turkey, a tawny-winged woodcreeper, a savannah vulture and a black-headed trogon, as well as some of the beautiful North American warblers which are here for the winter. Even Hernando, who has seen 850 of Mexico's 1,153 bird species, got very excited because Ismael produced for us a bird he, Hernando, had never seen – a "lifer" in birderspeak – a Mexican ant-thrush, which Ismael brought out of the forest by imitating its call.

When we had finished I asked Hernando what his favourite Mexican bird was. He looked at me as if surprised and threw up his hands. "The quetzal, of course!" he said. "The what?" I said. "The resplendent quetzal!" he thundered, and grabbing my Mexican field guide, he found the colour plate: there at the top left-hand corner was a brilliant green bird with a red breast, about the size of a jackdaw.

It was certainly handsome, but what was remarkable was the iridescent green tail, which stretched down the whole length of the page, past the paintings of 37 other birds, to the bottom: it was five or six times the length of the bird itself. It was so long it seemed scarcely credible that it could fly (but it does). The American ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson described it as "the most spectacular bird in the New World".

But it was more than that, I discovered. The resplendent quetzal was the sacred bird of the Maya, and as I read up about it, I found it was the sacred bird of the Aztecs, too, further north: they associated the quetzal with Quetzalcoatl, their feathered snake-god. In fact it was considered divine across all of pre-Columbian Central America, a legendary creature; and it maintains its legendary status still.

And yet it was real. Most legendary birds, such as the phoenix, or theroc (the giant Asian bird of prey supposed to be able to carry off elephants) are purely mythological, yet here was one which you could actually go and see, as long as you were prepared to trek up into the cloud forests of southern Mexico, Guatemala, or Costa Rica.

And there and then I conceived a passionate desire to do that, and to set eyes on the resplendent quetzal before I die, which suddenly seemed a holy grail of wildlife-watching which was truly worthy of the name.

I don't know if I'll ever do it, but – if you can understand this – I somehow feel that merely conceiving the ambition is worthwhile in itself, as if it has made me a little bit less of a sad geezer; as if anyone who seeks the quetzal is somehow themselves sprinkled with a few grains of the iridescent green dust of its legend. So I carry within me now a newfound aspiration containing a distant vision of cloud forests, although, and I want to stress this, I by no means look down on the old one, and if you offer me the chance to see a hawfinch, I won't turn you down.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine