Wonderings: why wildlife watching is not just about the animals

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel… this month, James Kay explains why wildlife watching is a pleasurable pursuit even when the animals don’t show up © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

Hundreds of feet above us, a troop of howler monkeys swung through the canopy, their progress betrayed by a fall of leaves and bursts of barking. But even with the aid of my guide’s binoculars, it was hard to catch a good glimpse of them.

We were halfway through our walking tour of Costa Rica’s most famous bosque nuboso – Spanish for cloud forest – but spotting any animals amid its giant ferns and twisted vines was proving far harder than I had expected.

They’re present, though: perched high on the backbone of the Continental Divide, Monteverde is renowned for them; its biodiversity lures a subset of travellers like moths to a flame (there are 5000 species of those alone, by the way).

My quest focused on one creature in particular: a bird with a punk hairstyle, a bright red breast and extravagant tail feathers that trail behind it in mid-air like a pair of party streamers, flashing emerald or electric blue depending on the angle of the light.

Shake your tail feather

Those tail feathers caught the eye of the Aztecs and Mayas, who considered the resplendent quetzal to be sacred, a deity on the wing. Not for the first time then, I was looking for god; but after an hour, it became clear that an act of divine intervention might be required.

The reasons why cloud forests are so full of life are also the reasons why they sometimes foil wildlife watchers; the most coveted creatures spend their time in the mist-shrouded treetops or padding unseen through the undergrowth.

A resplendent quetzal in flight The resplendent quetzal lives up to its name… if you’re lucky enough to spy one © Ondrej Prosicky / Shutterstock

A good guide can increase your chances of encountering an elusive object of desire, but in the event of a no-show, they prove their worth in other ways. Mine encouraged me to see the wood from the trees.

By pointing out how moss and lichen decorate every branch in a dozen shades of green, by explaining how tiny orchids draw their sustenance from the moist air, by showing how a fig slowly strangles its host to death, he made me realise that the forest was more exotic than anything living within it. Learning about the intricacies of that ecosystem ultimately left a deeper, richer impression than spotting a colourful product of it.

It’s the quest, not the quetzal

The quetzal didn’t materialise for me in Monteverde, but it does appear in Lonely Planet’s A-Z of Wildlife Watching, along with 300 other noteworthy species ranging from an aardvark to a zorilla (before you ask… not the Seussian result of a romance between a zebra and an ape; picture a particularly peeved-looking skunk and you’ve got the general idea).

But here’s the thing about wildlife watching as a distinct dimension of travel: although it would be silly to say the animals are beside the point (from personal experience, I strongly recommend you don’t spend hours on a zodiac, feeling increasingly seasick and sunburned, in a whale-free part of the Atlantic), the act of searching for them counts for a lot.

For me, the quest’s relationship to the quetzal is similar to the journey’s relationship to the destination – at times, the former might be more important than the latter. So although you may not see a bittern or a kinkajou or a quoll, the effort of trying will certainly expose you to the remarkable and often fragile environments where they’re found. Just as absence can sometimes make the heart grow fonder, it may lead you to value them even more. And, provided you travel responsibly, your search can play a part in safeguarding them, too.

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