By Ashley Harrell
October 24, 2014
Credit: Danita Delimont / Alamy

Birders are a mysterious species to many of us, with their enormous checklists, vast ornithology knowledge, and dorky binoculars. Living in Costa Rica—and encountering some of the most amazing birds on the planet—has helped me understand what the watching is all about.

We have the birds everybody loves: the brilliantly colored toucans, the scarlet and green macaws, and the frenetic hummingbirds. But we’ve also got birds that most people have never even heard of. The resplendent quetzal, the most legendary and majestic bird in all of Central America, for example. I may or may not have cried the first time I saw one of these, then I found out birders aren’t even that interested in quetzals. Why? Because there are so many other, rarer specimens to find in Costa Rica.

With so much of its space preserved in national parks and reserves, this country is a wonderland for the bird-loving set. Here are a few of the top spots.

San Gerardo de Dota

Sarapiqui Eco Observatory

Birders like to keep a record of what they’ve seen, and the Sarapiquí Eco Observatory has made that much easier. In the north-central town of La Virgin, Costa Rica, this new American-owned observatory expands over 10 acres and contains around 200 species of birds. Sought-after broad-billed motmots and golden hooded tanagers can’t resist the feeders, which are in prime position for visitor photographs.

Curi-Cancha Reserve

Not even a mile from the famous Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve in north-central Costa Rica sits the entrance to the less-explored Curi-Cancha Reserve, the best bird-stalking territory in the country. Colorful trogons, curious motmots, squawking toucans, and resplendent quetzals all soar above the well-maintained trails, which span the 237-acre reserve.

Wilson Botanical Gardens

Within the Las Cruces Research Station, up near the northwestern border with Nicaragua, the Wilson Botanical Gardens is home to rare birds like the grey-necked wood rail, snowy-bellied hummingbird, brown-billed scythebill, and more. The banana-stocked bird feeders on the decks bring these odd specimens out of hiding, and the trails around the gardens are also prime viewing territory.

Tortugero National Park

There are birds in the remote Tortugero National Park—a 47,000-acre reserve on the northeastern Caribbean coast—that you’ll likely never encounter anywhere else in the world. Visitors travel the parks’ canals by boat in search of grebes and herons, and even the rare roseate spoonbill occasionally makes an appearance.