San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

For the birds: Sarapiquí Eco-Observatory

From the print edition

“Ready for your close-up?”

Instead of shooting movie stars, visitors are shooting birds of a different feather at the new Sarapiquí Eco-Observatory in La Virgen, 14 kilometers west of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, in north-central Costa Rica. For nature enthusiasts toting top-of-the-line digital cameras loaded with huge, high-powered lenses, this six-month-old operation offers a picture-perfect outdoor studio. 

In the midst of one of the birdiest parts of the country, the Eco-Observatory backs onto the 850-acre Tirimbina Biological Reserve rain forest, and is within a 20-minute drive of famed birding mecca, La Selva Biological Station. Not surprisingly, the observatory property is officially designated a birding hotspot by eBird, a birding website, and it also recently became a tour destination for National Geographic Expeditions.

This is also one of the wettest parts of the country, so having a spacious, covered deck where you can set up tripods for expensive camera gear is a godsend. Add in Wi-Fi for downloading photos onto computers and flash sticks, electrical outlets for recharging batteries, some comfortable seating and a wrap-around counter to rest elbows on, plus unlimited coffee and cool water, with fresh, clean restrooms nearby, and you have an ideal habitat for both birdwatchers and photographers.

Sarapiquí Eco-Observatory 3

Birdwatchers atop an observation deck.

Dorothy MacKinnon

Build it and they will come. That was the hope of father-and-son Eco-Observatory owners David and Dave Landos. David managed a citrus farm in the area 25 years ago and snapped up this property when a plantation went bankrupt. Son Dave was born in Costa Rica and lived here until he was 7, before moving to California with the family. But tropical nature was ingrained in his bones, and after completing environmental studies at Santa Clara College, he was keen to return to Costa Rica and turn the family property into a sustainable tourist operation.

The birds were already here, 215 species at the latest count. And, so far, more than 600 visitors have setup cameras and scopes on the Eco-Observatory’s viewing decks.

What sets this venue apart is the main photo set-up, designed by professional nature photographer Greg Basco, who is based in Zarcero, Alajuela. Similar to those used by professional nature photographers for National Geographic, Animal Planet and BBC nature films, the setup consists of a teepee of branches, with spikes for attaching enticing chunks of fruits.

Photographers can request different kinds of branches, moss and leaves to picturesquely frame their avian photo subjects. A swath of grass and garden beyond the arrangement provides the perfect soft, green background for close-up shots, especially in morning light.

When the light shifts in the afternoon, photographers focus their cameras on a horizontal monkey-ladder vine, behind the viewing deck. It’s a picture-perfect perch for toucans that generally arrive when the afternoon light is just right. 

As well as the main birding deck, visitors can meander through the small botanical garden, where pejibaye palms, cecropias, heliconias and an array of plants attractive to birds create a biological corridor between nearby forest patches. At the bottom of the garden is a covered patio with close-up vantage points for observing hummingbirds at feeders. 

A third viewing deck is perhaps the most spectacular, at least for birders with a scope. It overlooks the Tirimbina rain forest, with an eye-level view into the canopy. 

Local bird guide and popular bird blogger Patrick O’Donnell recently set up his scope here to scan the treetops for canopy-perched birds, such as snowy cotinga, and raptors such as hawk-eagles and gray-headed kites that frequent the sky above. He recently logged 85 species at the Eco-Observatory in three hours (you can view his trip report at

Visitors can find more potential bird models, such as broad-billed motmots, perched along a well-groomed forest trail that drops 50 meters down to the Sarapiquí River, where kingfishers and sunbitterns are regularly spotted.

If reptiles and amphibians are your preferred choice of photo subjects, you can have your pick from more than 60 species, including pit vipers, boa constrictors, pythons, poison-dart frogs and basilisk lizards that live in the neighboring Reptile Learning Center. In partnership with father-son herpetologists Pompilio Campos Sr. and Jr., the Eco-Observatory arranges four-hour photo ops, featuring your choice of eight creatures from the serpentario’s collection. Photographers can shoot away in safety, while Campos Sr. and Jr. pose the animals and share their 25-year store of reptilian lore.

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Photograher Judy Bellah.

Dorothy MacKinnon

On a recent visit to the observatory, I met Judy Bellah, a professional travel photographer from Sonoma, California, in the U.S. She was wrapping up a two-week tour of Costa Rica with a last-shot stop here. I had just asked Dave Landos how many photographer-visitors are women. “One, so far,” he said, indicating Bellah, which made a total of two. With camera, high-poweredlenses, camera bag and tripod slung over her shoulders, it’s easy to see why most nature photographers are male. 

“I have to work out at the gym to build up my arm strength to carry all this gear,” Bellah admitted.

The Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens she had rented for $600 (it would cost about $7,000 to buy), though heavy at 5 pounds, was ideal for blurring the out-of-focus background, creating a soft watercolor-like backdrop, she said. 

Like many photographers, Bellah subscribes to the purist philosophy of discovering her own photo ops in the wild, rather than relying on bird feeders. But for visitors short on time and still hoping to capture that perfect shot, the Eco-Observatory offers an excellent opportunity to get some first-rate photos, especially in the early morning when bird activity is usually at its busiest.

Accessibility is another major plus here, with no steps or slippery trails to navigate, especially for mobility-challenged birders or for would-be nature-documentarians lugging lots of gear. It’s also dry and comfortable. 

And, best of all, for bird-watchers and photographers accustomed to tucking their pant legs into their rubber boots to avoid itchy bites, there are no chiggers!

Going There

The Eco-Observatory is located in La Virgen, 14 km west of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí and is open from 7 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Birdwatchers and photographers can roam around the grounds for $15, or take a two- or three-hour guided bird-watching tour for $20 or $30. Photo sessions are $50 for a set three-hour session, 7-10 a.m.; 10 a.m.-1 p.m., or 1-4 p.m. There are also guided night walks, $20, and tree-planting tours, $15. Half-day reptile and frog photography sessions start at $250 per person. More info: 2761-0801;

Birding is Big Business…

You know there’s a profitable trend when Hollywood makes a movie about it. “The Big Year” stars Steve Martin as an amateur birder, counting as many bird species as he can in one year.

Here are a few more birding market indicators to ponder:

*Historically, birders form the largest single group of eco-tourists. A 1999 study by the Costa Rican Tourism Board estimated that 41 percent of Costa Rica’s $1 billion of tourist income that year came from birders.

*A recent National Survey on Recreation and the Environment undertaken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that birding was the fastest-growing outdoor recreational activity in the U.S., and estimated that the number of birders in the U.S. had increased by 332 percent between 1983 and 2002.

*The American Birding Association estimates that U.S. birders in 1996 (even before digital photography took off) spent about $7.6 billion on trip-related expenses, including gear, and that 49 percent of their members have gone abroad to bird, spending about $4,000 per trip.

*Decades of watching nature documentaries on television, combined with advances in affordable digital technology, have inspired millions to take up wildlife photography, spending between $10,000 and $30,000 on their equipment.

Always in the forefront of eco-tourism trends, Costa Rica is catering to this growing flock of amateur and professional wildlife photographers with more and more tours geared to nature photography in the wild, including these Costa Rica-based tour operators:

Foto Verde Tours – workshops for serious photographers with professional nature photographer Greg Basco;

Costa Rica Birding Journeys – tours for residents and visitors, limited to 4-6 people, searching photo ops in the wild with bird guide Randall Ortega;

Tropical Feathers – customized bird-watching tour dedicated to photography with guide Noel Ureña;

Horizontes Photo Safari – for all levels of photographers, from novice to expert;

Costa Rica Gateway – custom photography tours with expert guide/photographer Steven Easley;

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