My San Antonio Sparrows and Brush-finches

My daily companion, the Rufous-collared sparrow

Let me say immediately that there are no House sparrows, that pest from the Old World, in San Antonio.  The nearest place to see this exotic is in the centre of Turrialba, 12 km down the mountainside.  Instead, above you see our dominant sparrow species, the very pretty Rufous-collared sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis), known locally as comemaíz, even though it has no particular fondness for corn. These are perhaps the most visible species of bird in our area, popping up on every fence post with their cheerful little song.  Only the juvenile can cause confusion, since it lacks the rufous collar and has a streaked breast.  Here’s another of Karel Straatman’s excellent photos of this species.

Juvenile Rufous-collared sparrow

If I just look outside the window, there are inevitably a couple picking around on the grass or driveway, but if you descend to Turrialba it is not frequently seen since it prefers the higher elevations.

The confusing array of sparrows that you will find in North America is not present on the slopes of the Turrialba Volcano, so if you’re looking at seedeaters, finches and sparrows in this part of Costa Rica, once you are familiar with the comemaíz, it’s a good idea to look just at pp. 298-303 of the Garrigues and Dean guide, The Birds of Costa Rica, for the finches and sparrows and pp. 294-297 for the small seedeaters.

Of the five species on pp. 298-299, only the first three concern us, and these are all found only in the high country, well above San Antonio.  Of the six species on pp. 300-301, only the second one, White-naped brush-finch (Atlapetis albinucha), and the last one, Chestnut-capped brush-finch (Buarremon brunneinucha) have shown up in my five years here.  A White-naped brush-finch hit the window here last week and I was unable to revive it.  I had seen it only once before in San Antonio, almost in the village of El Carmen, a little higher up the Pacayas road.

White-naped brush-finch, can be found in one or two places in San Antonio

White-naped brush-finch, can be found in one or two places in San Antonio

The Chestnut-capped brush-finch I have never seen here, and neither had long-time San Antonio resident and wildlife expert Jorge Fernandez until this week, when one showed up in his garden!  Many thanks to Richard Garrigues for his fine photograph of this bird.


Chestnut-capped brush-finch

Of the ground-sparrows (pp. 302-303), all save the Olive sparrow and the Stripe-headed sparrow could theoretically be found here.  In reality, however, only the Black-striped sparrow (Arremonops conirostris) (relojero, to the locals) can be counted on.

Heard everywhere but little seen, the Black-striped sparrow

It’s pretty but pretty hard to get a good look at since it likes shade and plenty of cover.  I hear it most mornings, its song being one of the most distinctive avian sounds, a long drawn-out affair that starts slowly and ends in rapid trill almost a full ten seconds later.

  • Of the rest, only the White-eared ground-sparrow (Melozone leucotis) has appeared here, and only once at that.

If we tack on the seedeaters here (pp. 294-297) for the sake of completeness, we have only two species that you can be sure of seeing in San Antonio, the Yellow-faced grassquit (Tiaris olivaceus) and the Variable seedeater (Sporophila americana).  Both of these little birds are very common, though the former much more so in our area.

The handsome male Yellow-faced grassquit

The less handsome female Yellow-faced grassquit

The male Variable seedeater cannot be mistaken since it’s just a very small all-black hedgerow bird with a white dot on the wing and none of its look-alikes are found in our area.  The female could be mistaken for the female grassquit, I suppose, but it’s much lighter in colour.  No pictures, sorry!

8 thoughts on “My San Antonio Sparrows and Brush-finches

  1. Paul, I have enjoyed your blog for quite sometime. My husband and I were in Costa Rica last winter. We added almost 100 new bird species to our life list. Next time we visit we’ll be sure to contact you. Maureen


      • Hi Paul, hope you had a nice Christmas and best wishes for 2013! We’re not sure when we’ll make it back to Costa Rica but when we do know we’ll be in touch. We look forward to your next blog post! Cheers, Maureen


      • Paul, love those raptors! We had a wonderful afternoon new year’s day at the San Pedro Riparian area in Arizona. There’s nothing like starting off the year doing something you love. Cheers, Maureen & Eric


      • But true! We were visiting all the local spots that had had rare birds on the Christmas counts. The Yellow-bellied sapsucker that was supposed to be at that location (Ed Levin Park) didn’t show but we got a Harris’s sparrow that had just become famous, plus a Red phalarope at Alviso and a Ross’s goose. My best thanks to Rob and Mary who so very kindly escorted me. I had forgotten how incredibly committed and knowledgeable true birders can be. I’ll return inspired to Costa Rica.


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