I sat down on the edge of my bed and stared at myself in the mirror for a few minutes. I was wearing a lime green VR headset, with a holographic projection of Costa Rica floating before me. It had been six months since I last dated someone, and after going out on three more Tinder Dates that left me sadder than when I started them, it became abundantly clear to me that love wasn’t worth all the time and effort invested. The whole idea of dating is so much easier when you can swipe left or right from your couch or sitting on the toilet, without even having to leave home. But there’s something about being able to see people face-to-face while they swipe you left while looking back at you through their own glasses, which makes it particularly painful. The digitally augmented layer has introduced all kinds of new ways to be hurt.
I looked around at the mess in my studio apartment and I could feel myself growing impatient while waiting for the simulation to load up. My place wasn’t much, but it was all I could afford on a VR streamer’s salary. I save up enough Attention Tokens and crypto tips every month to spend a weekend in my happy place; the jungle valleys of Monte Verde, Costa Rica–at least the Earth2 version of it.
It might seem like just another simulation, but it’s been painstakingly reproduced in every detail and provides a kind of safe carbon-neutral travel. With the cost of carbon credits these days, this is about as close to paradise as I’m ever going to get, the birding capital of the (virtual) world, and since I struck out again tonight I figured I should try pursuing a different kind of love. I was hoping that this would be the trip where I finally caught sight of the resplendent quetzal. The most beautiful and rare bird on Earth (and likewise on Earth2).
As my scene begins to load, I close my eyes to hydrate them and brace myself before entering total immersion. When I open them, I am standing on the forest floor, the jungle canopy high above my head. I’m wearing flowered shorts and a green t-shirt with the words “Pura Vida” printed on it, and I’ve got a pair of binoculars, a Tilly hat and my bird guide. I’ve checked off every bird in this guide, all except for one–the quetzal.
It’s difficult to convey how much a prized and elusive bird spot can mean to a dedicated birder such as myself. For almost six years I’ve been making these monthly trips, spending countless hours scouring rainforest canopies across Costa Rica for this bird, and now they seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate. I’m getting desperate to lay eyes on just one quetzal after all this effort. A bird so rare a sight that some believe they aren’t of this realm. Whether they are or are not, there are quetzals in Costa Rica that you can see, but only if they want you to, and so far they’ve eluded me.
This time I’m hoping to get lucky. Earlier in the week, I had gotten an email from my friend Rebecca, a researcher at the quetzal research center in Monte Verde. We had met a few years ago on the observation deck during a fundraiser and became fast friends. She had dedicated her life to the conservation of the species, and she uses the Earth2 simulation as a reference to study the various pressures on quetzal populations. We’ve never met IRL but we often cross paths in Earth2. She wrote to me that one of the trail cameras had spotted what looks like a quetzal in one of the lesser travelled interior river valleys. I love these heads up she sometimes sends me.
I scan back and forth with my binoculars but I see nothing. Well, what was I really expecting? I mutter to myself and walk off the path and into the jungle. I am walking for what feels like an hour when I start thinking about this bird and how much time I’ve spent searching for one, again I find myself wondering if it’s even worth it anymore. What quetzal is going to want anything to do with me? Then, even as I am thinking this, I hear a quetzal call off in the distance and follow it with my eyes, but it is only a few toucans taking flight. It must have been my imagination. I am about to give up for the day when another quetzal call comes through. This time I knew I wasn’t mistaken, it was very clear this time. I’ve only heard one twice before, but I’ll never forget it. The quetzal’s call is the most beautiful and unmistakable song I’ve ever heard, it sounds like the flute of an angel; although this one sounded a little unsure, it almost seemed to hesitate.
I am following the quetzals’ calls and taking notes on my map. Rebecca was right about this valley, it’s full of the mango fruit quetzals can’t resist. This part of bird spotting is the most exciting. The countless hours that I put in of searching and waiting seems to finally be paying off. I continue following the quetzal’s song until it stops mid-note.
I climb up a steep hill to get a better view when I have an idea–it’s the tail end of the mating season and a mating call might work. I stop moving and start clicking my tongue against the roof of my mouth, mimicking the male quetzal’s mating call. I stop to listen. It’s quiet, there’s no reply, I’m sure I’ve scared her off. I probably sounded too desperate.
Then suddenly closer now and with excitation the quetzal responds in kind. It seems just behind me, hidden in the dense undergrowth. In the corner of my eye, something moves, and I hear it call out to me. I swing around to find myself facing my friend Rebecca. She’s my quetzal.
My heart is beating so hard I’m afraid it might explode. “You found me,” she says.
“I did,” I replied.