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Where and How to See Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow

It’s not a colorful bird and it’s not one that has some exotic, amazing appearance. But, it’s high on the list of local birders and should be even higher on the target lists of birders who visit Costa Rica because you won’t find it anywhere else. That bird is the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow.

Formerly known as Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow, studies have shown that the birds in Costa Rica should be considered a separate species. Therefore, now, we have another endemic bird! The only problem is that the bird seems to be genuinely scarce and difficult to see. But, it can be seen, a birder just has to know where and how to look for it. We can start by looking at the bird for what it is; a towhee. As in a Canyon Towhee or Abert’s Towhee but one that prefers dense, scrubby vegetation and tends to be camera shy. It likes to forage on or near the ground, usually in pairs.

Here are some ideas on where and how to see it:

  • The right elevation: Not too high nor too low, this pretty little sparrow prefers the middle elevations, like right around 1,200 meters. Higher than that and we tend to find more White-eared Ground-Sparrows. Lower and it’s just too low for the “cabanisi”.
  • Coffee fields with cover: Although the endemic bird does live in open coffee farms, I have seen it more often in coffee that also has brushy edges or trees, or some understory vegetation.

  • Brushy riparian zones: Sites like these might be even better. Given the higher degree of natural vegetation and, presumably, more food, riparian zones could play very important roles for this threatened species.
  • The Central Valley and the Orosi Valley: Check Google Earth or one of those same satellite maps in eBird that shows the Central Valley, look for brushy fields and coffee farms and check those sites. But, know that the bird may or may not be present and even if it is, it still might be hard to find probably because it has a small population. That said, this is where it lives, this is a good place to look. The same goes for the Orosi Valley, especially around Ujarras and coffee farms near there. Higher up on the way to Tapanti, it doesn’t seem to be present (or is very rare) perhaps because of competition with the White-eared.
  • Check eBird: Even better, do what modern birders do for most unfamiliar bird species and check the latest sightings on eBird. Keep in mind, though, that the bird can still be hard to find, the next tips may help.
  • Know the call: The Cabanisi makes a distinctive, sharp tick note that differs from chip calls given by small birds that share its habitat such as the Rufous-collared Sparrow, Rufous-capped Warbler, and the Blue-black Grassquit. Knowing the song also helps but it doesn’t seem to sing very often.
  • Go early!: As with most birds, this one is also more active early in the morning. Listen and watch for it at the edges of hedgerows and brushy habitats but do that before 8 or even before 7.

Come to Costa Rica and you can see this endemic and literally hundreds of other species of birds. Support this blog and learn more about where to find birds with my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

One reply on “Where and How to See Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow”

[…] The Cabanis’s Ground Sparrow is a Costa Rican endemic with much of its range in the heavily urbanized Central Valley. Given the seemingly uncommon nature of this bird with a very limited range where many areas of green space are under constant threat, natural history studies have been urgently needed. Now, thanks to years of efforts made by paper authors Roselvy Juárez, María de la Paz Angulo Irola, Ernesto M. Carman, and Luis Sandoval, crucial information needed to conserve this endemic towhee is available! See the paper here. […]

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