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Communing with Creatures of the Heavens

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Santa Barbara emerges from the early morning cloud shrouding its summit.

In the mist forests of Honduras resides one of the world’s most shy and spectacular creatures, the Resplendent Quetzal.

Early one steamy morning we ventured down to the shores of Lake Yojoa to do some birding and as the blush of a new day morphed into a steam of humidity, the clouds began to clear over the peak of Santa Barbara, one of the Honduran homes of the Resplendent Quetzal, a bird so beautiful it is difficult to comprehend how nature could concoct such a creature.

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Birding on the shores of Lake Yojoa in Honduras, we were rewarded with stunning views of many birds including Snail Kites – raptors that prefer to dine on freshwater snails.

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For centuries the ancient rulers of both the Maya and Aztecs regarded Resplendent Quetzals as truly sacred creatures and demanded crowns adorned with their luxurious tail feathers.  Since the penalty for killing a Quetzal was death, however, the birds used to be captured and their tail feathers removed before they were released.

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The Resplendent Quetzal is truly one of Honduras’ most iconic birds.

We left the shores of the lake to drive up to a tiny village called El Cedral, located at the trail head of our impeding trek.  There we met Lionel, our guide for the morning who had faithfully taken the step to move away from farming and guiding tourists in tiny groups to a spot he knew where the Quetzals had many food trees.  On arrival he equipped us with walking sticks, bottled water and sweets before he headed off into the local coffee fields.

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The trail headed straight uphill and meandered through coffee plantations.  It was the first time on the trip that we actually encountered leaf-cutter ants – a species of ant that is capable of carrying loads many times their own body weight and who I fondly remembered from my journey through the Amazon 16 years ago.

Mark is a biologist and I was born with an inherent curiosity of the natural world.  The combination makes for very interesting hikes where his scientific knowledge intersects my extensive experience in the conversations we shared as we hiked.  We discovered poisonous Milkweed flowers that are almost entirely dependent on pollination by Monarch butterflies.

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Honduras is the home of a vast variety of saprophytic and epiphytic plants.  On this particular walk we saw the most incredible orchids sprouting flowers from their leaves.

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We saw another tree that even bore fruit from its leaves in Honduras.  Bromeliads are everywhere.

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In some places they lined every square foot of the jungle trees.

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On our trek up the hillside of Santa Barbara, as the carefully cultivated fields of the hillside faded away, we ventured into the most magnificent amphitheatre of forest filled with an abundance of fruit trees.  It was there that we found them.

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Three male and two female Resplendent Quetzals were gathered in a single spot where they feasted on miniature avocados in between rest stops in their forest trees.  Sadly we couldn’t get to eye level of these canopy dwelling creatures to get the best shots but it was still an incredible way to spend a morning, just lying there watching them perched high up, their magnificent streamer tails flowing in the occasional breeze.

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Our new favourite thing to do.  Lie on our backs in the forest and wait for the right moment to take pics!

It was with a great deal of reluctance and heavy hearts that we eventually tore ourselves away from our morning in the forest.  Lionel definitely softened the blow by feeding us with wild forest raspberries on our return down the hill.

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We also feasted on feral cherry tomatoes and wild blackberries on our descent.  When we finally arrived back to El Cedral we were treated to a lunch at a tiny unnamed cafe in a local family’s home.  We were fed with produce literally harvested while we had been walking including fresh beetroots, carrots, wild berry juice, chips made from plantains, rice and chicken.  Here are some shots from around their home and kitchen where everything was prepared fresh for us.

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We even discovered Anis Avocadoes, which literally smell like Anis seed.  Amazing!

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Lionel wanted to show us some of the orchid specimens he had collected from the local hillside in his travel.  Largely gathered from the broken branches of forest trees he had rescued a few of them and propagated them in the garden.  He also showed us his marvellous collection of feathers that he had collected on his guiding trips.

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It is people like Lionel who will hopefully guide the course of conservation in the future of Honduras.  We hope that his love of the natural world will prompt a wider campaign to keep Honduras filled with pristine forests.  Sadly a lot of Honduras’ true forests on the northern side of the country has been decimated to plant African Palm seed, a scourge that has invaded many other countries in the world simply because palm oil has so many uses.  Thankfully, the cloud forests haven’t been knocked down for these purposes – yet.

We had such an incredible experience communing with Resplendent Quetzals, that I became hopeful they would become the poster birds for conservation efforts within Honduras.

As I’ve learned over the years, however, we simply cannot use the Quetzals alone as the reason behind the cessation of forest clearing.  We must tie the Quetzals in to a vital human need that people see every day.  Tie their conservation status in with something like drinking water and send the message that if the Quetzals go, so will your ability to swim in and drink from mountain streams.  Since a lot of Honduran people may live their lives never seeing a Quetzal, they may never fully understand what they have to lose until it is far too late.

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