The Sarapiqui region has long been known as one of the main stops on every birding trip to Costa Rica. Home of the La Selva research station, the fame of this rainforest reserve helped spur the development of ecotourism in Sarapiqui during the late 80s and early 90s. Several hotels that cater to birders were built in the area and thousands of aficionados of all things avian have enjoyed their first looks at stellar species like the Great Green Macaw, Sunbittern, Semiplumbeous Hawk, toucans, and Snowy Cotinga in the Sarapiqui region.
La Selva continues to be a star attraction of the area but it’s by no means the only place to watch birds in Sarapiqui. This is a good thing since the station can only be visited by prior reservation and charges an arm and a leg for rather basic accommodation. The birding is great at La Selva but when I visit Sarapiqui, I prefer the easy access to habitats around Chilamate. This village is the home of Selva Verde along with roads that pass through a variety of lowland habitats that can yield everything from a roosting Great Potoo to macaws, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Black-striped Woodcreepers. Adding to the great birding around Chilamate is a new ecotourism venture that seems destined to be one of Sarapiqui’s star birding attractions.
A few months ago, the Sarapiqui Eco-Observatory opened its “doors” to the public and boy does this place have potential! Owned by Dave Lando, an American who has worked on and off in Costa Rica since the 70s and married a local Sarapiqui girl, he and his son have reforested the property and set it up for birding. That’s right, this place is focused on birds (although they also appreciate and showcase other rainforest wildlife). You won’t find any zip-lines here and that’s how the people at the Eco-Observatory like their place.
Visitors are greeted by open gardens upon arrival. As you make your way back to the photography area, White-necked Jacobins, Green-breasted Mangos, and Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds call from short trees and visit feeders near a house. White-lined Tanagers, Cocoa Woodcreepers, and other edge species of the humid lowlands sing from the garden. It’s easy to tell where the photography area is by the presence of people taking pictures of Blue-gray Tanagers, Green Honeycreepers, Golden-hooded Tanagers, and other species that come to a fruit feeding station.
White-necked Jacobin zipping in to one of the feeders.
Near the photography area, a covered deck looks into the tops of nearby trees and rainforest canopy on the other side of the Sarapiqui River. This area in particular is the place I think of when talking about birding potential. I brought a client there for a morning of guiding last week and we had gorgeous, eye-level, scoped views of Brown-hooded Parrots shortly after arrival. Olive-throated Parakeets also flew overhead and perched in distant trees and there were occasional flybys of toucans. A Black-headed Tody Flyatcher called from one of the trees but remained unseen and we eventually scoped a male Snowy Cotinga that perched in the canopy on the other side of the river. Other notables were glimpses of a Double-toothed Kite and a very distant King Vulture. If we had arrived earlier than 8:30, I’m sure we would have seen lots more.
Overall, the birding from the treetop deck reminded me of visits to canopy towers in other parts of the world. The forest canopy may appear to be absent of birds at first but frequent scans with binoculars turn up species that seem to appear out of nowhere. As with other canopy viewing sites, a scope is also a handy tool and without it, our Snowy Cotinga would have been nothing more than a distant, snow-white dot. I suspect that early morning birding from the treetop deck could be fast and furious, especially since it’s located on a river corridor. I should also mention a main difference between the treetop deck at the Eco-Observatory and canopy towers: no steps! Since the deck is situated on top of a bluff that overlooks a riparian zone, you don’t need to climb any amount of steps to use it.
The canopy view from the treetop deck.
The only steps are those on the trail that heads down to the river. This trail provides a glimpse into the understory of remnant riparian forest and old second growth. After a short walk, it reaches a stony stream and then the Sarapiqui River. Although we didn’t turn up Sunbittern, they are regular in the area so the river is certainly worth checking. During our visit, it was also good for viewing oropendolas and toucans that fed on fruiting trees at the edge of the river and for seeing Green and Amazon Kingfishers. On the trail itself, nesting Broad-billed Motmots were nice and we also heard a Rufous Motmot. Red-crowned Ant-tanagers, Bay Wrens, White-collared Manakins, and other second growth species were also present.
The view at the river.
Broad-billed Motmots are pretty and fairly common in Costa Rica.
I suspect that the trail could turn up several, much less common species and wouldn’t be surprised if Bare-crowned Antbird or even Violaceous Quail Dove showed up. Both are a pretty rare sight when birding Costa Rica but the old second growth habitat was looking suitable for both of these species. Back up at the treetop deck, we got great looks at Rufous-tailed Jacamars before driving back up to the Central Valley.
Although this site doesn’t harbor any old-growth forest, the gardens and trails are very birdy and the treetop deck looks over at the canopy of old forest in the Tirimbina Reserve. In being connected to the forests of Tirimbina, I’m sure that the Eco-Observsatory could turn up a wide variety of lowland rainforest bird species. The treetop deck in particular seems like the perfect spot to watch for raptors that perch in and fly above nearby forest. Anything from hawk-eagles to Gray-headed Kite and Tiny Hawk is possible and on sunny days, I would be surprised to not see several raptors from that spot.
As March, 2012, the Sarapiqui Eco-Observatory charges $15 for self guided use of the trails, $20 for a guided walk on the trails, and other pricing to take pictures in the photography area. Regarding entrance fees, from what I understood, a good percentage of these fees will be used for conservation projects in the area. I will clarify that the next time I visit. And I do plan on visiting again soon to do a morning bird survey and watch for raptors!
This site is found on the main road between San Miguel and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui. They have a large, roadside sign.