My San Antonio Sparrows

The Emberizidae family is currently represented in Costa Rica by some 24 different species. I say currently because the closely related Cardinalidae (chiefly grosbeaks and buntings, but also the House Sparrow) have been separated. For my purposes I am following the divisions made in the latest edition of the leading Costa Rican bird guide, Garrigues & Dean’s The Birds of Costa Rica.

Of these 24 species, 6 are North American birds rarely found in the country (see pp. 338-341 in Garrigues & Dean). As far as our village of San Antonio is concerned no more than 4 species commonly occur. In order of frequency of sightings these are: 1. Rufous-collared Sparrow ( Zonotrichia capensis) 2. Black-striped Sparrow (Arremonops conirostris) 3. White-naped Brush-Finch ( Atlapetes albinucha) 4. Common Chlorospingus (Chlorospingus flavopectus). However, today’s post is prompted by the appearance, for only the second time in my more than 10 years of residence, of a White-eared Ground-Sparrow (Melozone leucotis). Turning to each of the aforementioned species, first consideration is given to the Rufous-collared Sparrow, the very common sparrow of middle and higher elevations in Costa Rica.

Rufous-collared Sparrow at nearby Las Virtudes; photo by John Beer

This is a quite pretty little bird found from SE Mexico all the way south to Patagonia. In South America it is often called the Andean Sparrow. Here the locals call it comemaíz, literally corn-eater, though it feeds principally on grass seeds. It can be seen picking around open areas of my garden almost every day. In Costa Rica it is the only sparrow with a crest.

The Black-striped Sparrow is next in order of abundance but is not seen very easily since it prefers to forage in thick undergrowth. On the other hand it is a very well-known species (even to non-birders) because of its easily recognized song, an extraordinarily long-winded affair that speeds up from a slow start of individual thin whistles to end in a rapid trilling. It can last 10 seconds or more and is frequently heard here in the garden.

Black-striped Sparrow at CATIE, Turrialba; photo by John Beer

The grey head with black stripes separates this shy sparrow from other similar species. It is not generally found above 1500 m.

By contrast the White-naped Brush-Finch is found from 900 m right up to 2000 m on the nearby Turrialba Volcano. There are several nearby spots here in San Antonio where it can reliably be found though it has appeared in my garden only very rarely. Its white/black/yellow head-and-throat pattern is distinctive, although the white head and nape stripe can barely be seen in John’s otherwise excellent pic:

White-naped Brush-Finch at Las Virtudes near Santa Cruz; photo by John Beer

Formerly called, perhaps more aptly, the Yellow-throated Brush-Finch, this bird stays low to the ground in second growth and open areas with weeds.

The fourth species in order of frequency of occurrence is the Common Chlorospingus. This and the two other Costa Rican birds of the chlorospingus genus were only very recently considered members of the Emberizidae family. If you are using an older bird guide you will find them called bush-tanagers rather than chlorospingus.

Common Chlorospingus at Bajos del Volcán, high on the Turrialba Volcano; photo by John Beer

This species ranges from middle elevations up to as high as 2200 m. It is a bird that is hard to miss on any mountain excursion. The white spot behind the eye, together with the pale yellow wash across the upper breast, is the best field mark. Usually several birds are present in a small, restless flock, frequently including other species. It is uncommon here in the village but is easier to find than most of the species under discussion because the small flocks, fluttering and calling, are often quite conspicuous.

These are the 4 most likely species of the Emberizidae family in our area, but chance encounters frequently surprise. This week I found a pair of White-eared Ground-Sparrows in a pretty woodland spot that I often visit close to the house. My only other sighting in San Antonio had been years earlier at the bottom of the village near a small religious shrine in a small copse. Photos of this very attractive species have been hard to come by and neither Larry nor John has been able so far to catch a bird out in the open. My own photography skills are virtually nil.

White-eared Ground-Sparrow in typical environment at Finca Capulin near Arenal; photo by John Beer

Locals call this bird cuatro ojos, Four Eyes, because of the white spots on each side of the eye. The yellow nape is also distinctive. Actually it can be a fairly common species but within a very small range limited to the Central Valley. We are at the extreme eastern end of its range. Here’s Larry’s only shot of the species so far:

White-eared Ground-Sparrow at Aquiares; photo by Larry Waddell

I suspect that a more thorough scouring of the Aquiares coffee fields will bring many more sightings, while I myself have also found it, without too much searching, at Cabañas El Bosque in nearby San Rafael, next to the Espino Blanco Reserve.

Several of the remaining finches and sparrows have turned up at nearby localities, but only the Sooty-faced Finch (Arremon crassirostris) has appeared, and only once, within the confines of the village of San Antonio. This is a species that should be looked for in all dark river and creek bottoms, however.

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