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A crimson-rumped toucanet near Mashpi Lodge in Calacali, Ecuador
Photo by Hideaway Report editor

13 Exceptional Hotels for Bird-watching

February 13, 2019

If you are among the 60 million Americans who enjoy bird-watching, you’ll be happy to know that there is no shortage of luxurious retreats located in significant birding spots across the globe. Many of them have on-site naturalists or connections to guides who will train their scopes on rare species for their guests. But though the thought of vacationing amid bright feathered beings is cheering, it is also the case that 14 percent of all bird species are endangered. Many of the hotels on this list are helping with conservation efforts, which makes your patronage even more significant.

The Mark

New York City

Grab your picnic basket from the on-site Jean-Georges restaurant, hop on a custom bike from The Mark, and pedal into Central Park for a migratory extravaganza every autumn and spring. The 843-acre park has offered respite to more than 280 species, and it’s a short block’s journey from the 150-room hotel to the park’s premier birding spot, The Ramble, a set of wooded hills that offer insects and cover to woodpeckers and passerines of all kinds — chestnut-sided warblers, scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings.

Wood ducks, great egrets and belted kingfishers enjoy Rowboat Lake at The Ramble’s western edge, and a bit farther north, the park’s sprawling reservoir lures gulls, cormorants and many species of ducks, including tiny pied-billed grebes, northern shovelers with their comically large beaks and hooded mergansers with their wild crests. Overhead, Cooper’s, red-tailed and sharp-shinned hawks patrol the airways. See them on a tour with New York City Audubon, which guides birding walks throughout the year.

Pikaia Lodge

Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos

It was on Ecuador’s Galápagos archipelago that Charles Darwin collected the native finches that led him to the theory of evolution. You’ll be reminded of Darwin while dining in the Evolution restaurant or sipping in the art-filled DNA Bar at Pikaia Lodge on Santa Cruz Island. This eco-friendly hotel perches almost 1,500 feet up atop two extinct volcanoes on a former cattle ranch replanted with 9,000 native trees, which attract Darwin’s endemic passerines, along with other species like short-eared owls. Spy them on a stroll along the property’s 2 miles of hiking trails.

Among the lodge’s 14 rooms, the upstairs balcony accommodations offer the best vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the Galápagos’ unspoiled wilds (only 3 percent of the archipelago is developed). Pikai’s three private yachts offer day excursions and longer cruises to neighboring islands, where you can snap close-ups of blue-footed boobies, native penguins and frigate birds puffing their bright-red neck sacs. D.H. Lawrence called tortoises “shell-birds” in poetry, and of course tortoises are here, too. The property contains a giant tortoise reserve.

&Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge

Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

With 500 feathered species, Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is birding nirvana. In the alkaline waters of Lake Magadi within Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest caldera, tens of thousands of lesser flamingos sport their pink plumage. Crowned cranes display spiky golden hairdos. Ostriches graze the grasslands, and the forests are filled with colorful species like cinnamon-chested bee-eaters and tacazze sunbirds with their violet shoulders.

The best base camp for wildlife viewing (lions, zebras and black rhino) is the conservation-oriented &Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, on the crater’s edge, where your all-inclusive stay is organized around game drives and nature walks. The mud-and-thatch facades of the hotel’s 30 huts belie chandeliered interiors with Persian rugs and Victorian furnishings, serviced by bespoke butlers. But for birders, the grounds are even better. Early in the morning, you might catch sunbirds burying iridescent heads in nectar-filled flowers, or Fischer’s lovebirds necking in the trees.

Lodge on Little St. Simons Island

Little St. Simons Island, Georgia

On a barrier isle off the coast of Georgia protected by The Nature Conservancy, the Lodge on Little St. Simons Island offers 11,000 acres of serene, watery wilderness. Located in rustic cottages and a 1917 hunting lodge, the 16 rooms accommodate only 32 guests. As you meander shorelines, kayak tidal channels, and hike through marshes and live-oak forest, you’ll be nearly alone — except for the roseate spoonbills and wood storks, the yellow warblers and painted buntings.

Nearly 300 bird species come through, many of them rare. Wilson’s plovers nest on the beach, as do American oystercatchers, with their orange beaks and eyes. Egrets, herons anhingas and ibis roost in the island’s 16 ponds. Bald eagles overwinter. Designated as an Important Birding Area, the island hosts migration-season “birding days” when guest ornithologists lead walks. But every day, the resident naturalists help immerse guests in the out-of-doors. Summer travelers, beware: Though the mosquitoes here do not carry disease, it’s best to book in cooler, drier months when the insects aren’t hatching.

Lapa Rios

Puerto Jiménez, Costa Rica

A harpy eagle near Lapa Rios in Puerto Jiménez, Costa Rica Mdf/Wikimedia

Named for the scarlet macaws that flow through the skies like a crimson river, Lapa Rios on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast boasts a dazzling plentitude of tropical and Neotropical species. The Osa Peninsula is one of the world’s most biodiverse places. A day trip to nearby Corcovado National Park yields sightings of the Americas’ biggest and baddest raptor, the harpy eagle, along with the sloths they eat.

But you don’t have to leave the all-inclusive eco-resort to experience avian bliss. More than 320 birds inhabit or visit this 1,000-acre reserve. You’ll wake to the croaking call of the toucan while gazing out at the ocean or rainforest from your canopied bed in one of 17 open-air hillside bungalows. On a walk with a lodge naturalist, you’re likely to spot crimson-fronted or orange-chinned parakeets, black-throated trogons, Lesson’s motmots with their racket-tipped tails, the turkey-like great tinamou foraging on the forest floor and any of 32 types of flycatcher and 14 species of hummingbird. You can help preserve this birder’s heaven by planting a rainforest seedling here.

Boath House

Auldearn, Nairn, Scotland

From your accommodations at Boath House, a Georgian mansion rebuilt from ruins on a Scottish Highlands estate that dates to 1550, it’s a stone’s throw to Culbin Sands, a coastal preserve on the Moray Firth maintained by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). The area teems with waders. Oystercatchers and bar-tailed godwits probe the sands. Teals and velvet scoters paddle the dolphin-filled waters, while linnets sing from the marshes. The inn can arrange tours of nearby Cairngorms National Park, as well. There, wood grouse fan their black tails to attract females.

The viewing station at the park’s RSPB’s Loch Garten Osprey Centre is a popular attraction for guests staying in one of Boath House’s nine rooms. Each of the accommodations has its own charm. Back rooms offer vistas of swans and coots on the inn’s lake, while Room 9 is tucked into a cottage built into the estate’s walled garden. That barrier encloses 22 meadowed and wooded acres where moor hens and pheasants amble. A large edible garden produces ingredients for the Michelin-starred restaurant on the premises.

Mission Ranch

Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Farmhouse at Mission Ranch in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California - Mission Ranch
An acorn woodpecker near Mission Ranch in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California - Johnath/Wikimedia

In Carmel-by-the-Sea, the charming California town where he once was mayor, actor Clint Eastwood turned a 19th-century dairy into Mission Ranch, an elegant inn with 31 rooms on 22 oceanview acres. Accommodations feature fireplaces, whirlpool tubs and private decks. Dine on the restaurant’s patio for views of breathtaking Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a seven-minute drive from the hotel. There, docents with scopes point out nesting cormorants, western gulls and pigeon guillemots on the aptly named Bird Island and on the cliffs at Pelican Point, where the namesake hangs out, too. Grebes swim in the waters below, and killdeer roam beaches. Bewick’s wrens, yellow-bellied warblers and stellar jays hop about in the scrub, while the trees are riddled with nut-filled holes made by acorn woodpeckers.

Even closer to the ranch, Carmel River State Park boasts a bird-sanctuary lagoon that draws greater yellow legs and great blue herons. Both parks offer miles of birdy hiking trails, as does Mission Trail Nature Preserve just north of the ranch, where the 120 winged species include the California quail with its adorable crest, called a deely-bopper.

Mombo Camp

Okavango Delta, Botswana

Botswana’s vast floodplain, the Okavango Delta, is among the planet’s greatest wildlife areas. Here, guests encounter the Big Five — elephants, rhino, cape buffalo, leopards and lions — right outside their windows at Mombo Camp on Chief’s Island.

With more than 400 feathered species recorded, the birdlife is no less abundant than the mammals. Particularly in summer, the food-rich lakes attract water birds like the African jacana, balancing on water lilies with its enormous feet; the tiny African pygmy-goose, whose coloring makes it look like it has long floppy ears; the hulking goliath heron; the hammerkop, with its wedge-shaped head; and the African fish eagle, which resembles the bald eagle. The sacred ibis shows off spectacular black-and-white plumage by day, and Pel’s fishing owls feed on frogs at night. The brown firefinch whistles from the papyrus swamps, where the coppery-tailed coucal forages.

Between Mombo Camp and its offshoot, Little Mombo Camp, connected via walkway, 12 luxurious, deco-style safari tents feature four-poster beds and private plunge pools. From your poolside vantage point, you might even spy a giraffe with a yellow-billed oxpecker perched on its head.

Datai Langkawi

Langkawi, Kedah, Malaysia

A new nature center is a highlight of the renovated Datai Langkawi, set within a 10-million–year–old rainforest on the Malaysian island of Langkawi. Check into one of the 121 accommodations on the beach, among the trees or in the main building close to the pools and restaurants, and you can enjoy naturalists Irshad and Shakira Mobarak’s books and talks on native flora and fauna, or join a tour to spy on some of the island’s 260-plus bird species.

Along the trails, you’ll find great and Oriental pied hornbills with their rhino-like faces, and emerald doves and green pigeons, decked out in hues unlike any you’ve seen in the city. White-bellied sea eagles, Brahminy kites, migratory Jerdon’s bazas, with their feather crests, and other birds of prey visit. The trees harbor great slaty woodpecker, greater flameback and laced woodpecker species, while four types of kingfisher — collared, white-throated, banded and Oriental dwarf — hunt in the bay. With luck, you’ll spot jungle jewels like the blue-winged pitta or the elaborately patterned orange-breasted trogon. If that’s not enough for you, the naturalists can arrange tours to the island’s other parts, where brown-winged kingfishers and wreathed hornbills reside.

Cousine Island

Cousine, Seychelles

A luxe retreat and nature reserve in the Indian Ocean, Cousine Island offers just five accommodations, including a two-bedroom villa complete with butler and chef, tucked along secluded strands with infinity pools and indoor-outdoor showers. Many of the feathered inhabitants make their homes on the verdant cliffsides and sparkling sands of this 74-acre Seychelles isle. Among them are terns of the sooty, bridled and fairy varieties; brown and lesser noddys; thousands of nesting pairs of wedge-tailed and tropical shearwaters; and white-tailed tropicbirds.

Landlubbers abound as well. Conservation efforts have brought the Seychelles warbler back from the brink of extinction. The resident zebra doves earn their name with their elaborately striped plumage, and you’ll know you’re close to the elaborate nest of a Seychelles fody when you hear its tok-tok-tok and tchrrr warnings. A duo of conservationists leads guests on birding walks, and when you’re not looking up at the skies, there’s plenty to see under the water on the island’s extensive reef.

Hacienda de San Rafael

Seville, Spain

A sumptuous yet soothing hotel set on a 450-year-old estate, Hacienda de San Rafael offers 15 accommodations, including duplex rooms, garden casitas and a new suite in the olive grove with a private infinity pool. Located an hour’s drive from both Doñana National Park and Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park, it’s the ideal base for an exploration of avian Andalucía, a hotbed of migratory activity. The aptly named marbled ducks and red-crested pochards, hoopoes with their anvil-shaped heads, glossy ibises and rare Spanish imperial eagles are residents of the sprawling Doñana estuary.

Winter brings more than half a million waterfowl, including wigeons, shovelers, snipes and black storks; and in summer, purple herons, rufous-tailed scrub robins and vibrantly colored rollers and bee-eaters come through. Sierra de Grazalema, to the hacienda’s east, is a wellspring of raptors. Bonelli’s, short-toed, booted and golden eagles nest here, as do griffon, Egyptian and Ruppell’s griffon vultures. In spring, passerines arrive: Alpine swifts, woodchat shrikes, golden orioles. The hacienda’s proprietors pride themselves on organizing bespoke expeditions, including bird-watching on foot or horseback.

Mihir Garh

Rajasthan, India

Mihir Garh sits atop a dune in India’s Thar Desert, an hour’s drive from Jodhpur. Its nine ample suites, each more than 1,700 square feet, feature private balconies or courtyards, Jacuzzis or plunge pools, along with regional textiles and furnishings, mud-and-wattle fireplaces built by local women, and other Rajasthani touches. Here, the peacocks are wild, cattle egrets ride atop buffalo, and weaverbirds’ nests hang slinglike from trees, rivaling the retreat’s sand-castle architecture.

Though the property is closed mid-May to mid-July, that’s no concern to birders, for winter is when more than 200 species descend on the surrounding lakes and marshes. Grey and Indian herons, pied and white-throated kingfishers and wading birds like stints, sandpipers and red-wattled lapwings arrive. Green bee-eaters hunt insects in the scrub, where red-vented and yellow-vented bulbuls forage on fruit and flowers. Raptors, including tawny eagles and shikras (little banded goshawks), abound. Best of all, more than 15,000 black-and-white demoiselle cranes migrate from their breeding grounds in Mongolia and the Caucasus to the Thar each winter. Spy the black-and-white birds, along with painted storks with their hot-pink tails, on bicycle or Jeep excursions.

Mashpi Lodge

Calacali, Ecuador

Despite its urbanlike, glass-box architecture and a location only 60 miles from Quito, Mashpi Lodge’s raison d’être is an immersion in nature. It’s surrounded by more than 45,000 conservation acres, 3,200 of which are in the eco-inn’s private reserve. In the 20 rooms and three suites, windows (angled to minimize bird collisions) offer floor-to-ceiling views of an Ecuadorian cloud forest that attracts more than 400 avian species. The wraparound deck and viewing platform, zipline “sky bike” and cable car, offer canopy-top sightings of Choco toucans with their striking black-and-yellow bill, flame-faced tanagers, golden-olive woodpeckers and euphonias in eye-popping hues.

Along forest trails, club-wing manakin birds — small, ochre-headed passerines — dance for mates by day, while at night, cock-of-the-rocks bob their bulbous crimson heads for their hens. If you’re lucky, you’ll spy a rare umbrellabird waggling its long wattle in courtship. There are ample opportunities to learn more about what you’re seeing: Attend a naturalist talk; hang out by the bird and butterfly feeders, or in the Hummingbird Garden, visited by 19 species of the namesake; tour the lab; and even pitch in with the team’s extensive conservation research.

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By Betsy Andrews Hideaway Report Contributor Betsy Andrews writes for The Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine and many other publications. Her award-winning books of poetry are “New Jersey” and “The Bottom.”
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