An emerald-green hummingbird lost to science reappears in Colombia

  • In the Santa Marta Mountains of Colombia, an experienced bird watcher unexpectedly spotted a Santa Marta Hummingbird.
  • It was only the second time the critically endangered hummingbird had been documented sightings since 1946. The last bird was seen in 2010 and the species was long considered “lost to science”.
  • Ornithologists are on high alert for the Santa Marta sabrebird, which has been listed as one of the 10 most wanted lost birds by the Lost Bird Search.
  • Only about 15% of the forests in the Santa Marta Mountains are still standing, and the Santa Marta sable is found in an unprotected forest area. Experts are calling for more research and protection of this rare bird.

In the mountains of Columbia, an experienced bird watcher saw an iridescent flash of blue and green. “A hummingbird caught my eye. I took out my binoculars and was shocked to see that it was a Santa Marta saber,” said Jürgen Vega. “This sighting was a complete surprise, but a very welcome one.”

It was only the second time the critically endangered hummingbird had been documented sightings since 1946. The last bird was spotted in 2010.

“It’s like seeing a phantom,” said John C. Mittermeier, director of the endangered species division at the American Bird Conservancy.

A male Santa Marta brewer was spotted and photographed for the first time in ten years. Photo by Jürgen Vegai via Re:wild.

Vega, who discovered the bird while working with conservation organizations Selva, ProCAT Colombia and the World Parrot Trust to survey endemic birds in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region, spotted a male Santa Marta sabre-throwing (Campylopterus phainopeplus) and identified it by looking at its green feathers, iridescent blue throat, and black curved bill.

“When I first saw the hummingbird, I immediately thought of swordfishing in Santa Marta. I couldn’t believe he was there waiting for me to take out my camera and start shooting,” Vega said The Guardian. “I was almost convinced it was the species, but as I felt so overcome with emotion, I preferred to be cautious; it may have been the lazuline [Campylopterus falcatus], which is often confused with a saber in Santa Marta. But after seeing the pictures, we knew it was true.

Ornithologists are on heightened alert for the Santa Marta birds, which have been named among the top 10 most wanted lost birds by Search for Lost Birds, a collaboration between Re:wild, the American Bird Conservancy and BirdLife International. None of the most sought-after birds have been documented in the wild for at least 10 years, and all (except the sabre-toothed) are now considered lost to science. Many of these lost birds are native to areas of rich biodiversity that also urgently need protection and conservation efforts.

The Santa Marta was noted as one of the 10 most wanted lost birds last year. Illustration by Hilary Byrne|Copyright Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“When we announced the top 10 most wanted lost birds last year, we hoped it would inspire birders to look for these species,” Mittermeier said. “And as this rediscovery shows, sometimes lost species reappear when we least expect it.” We hope that such rediscoveries will inspire conservation action.”

Not much is known about swordfishing in Santa Marta. It lives in humid tropical forests at mid-elevation and is thought to be migratory, traveling to higher elevations in the paramo, an area of ​​grass and scrub, to find flowering plants to feed on during the rainy season. Researchers believe the Santa Marta sable population in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is small and declining.

The map shows forest loss since 2015 (in pink) around the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marts mountains in Colombia.

Only about 15 percent of the forests in the Santa Marta Mountains still exist, scientists estimate. The rest was cleared to make way for farming and development. The Santa Marta Sabrewing was found in a forest in the Santa Marta Mountains without protection.

“[This] means it’s critical for conservationists, local communities and government agencies to work together to learn more about hummingbirds and protect them and their habitats before it’s too late,” Esteban Botero-Delgadillo, Director of Conservation Science in SELVA: Research for Conservation in the Neotropics, it said in a statement.

Scientists now plan to search for more individuals and stable populations of the species to understand where they live and what threats they face in the wild.

“The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is so incredibly biodiverse and home to so many incredible endemic species,” said Lina Valencia, Andean Country Coordinator at Re:wild. “It is extremely exciting to have proof that the Santa Marta sable still lives in the mountains. We still have time to save him.

Banner image of Santa Marta sawbrewing by Jürgen Vegai.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough

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Animals, Biodiversity, Birds, Birds, Conservation, Critically Endangered Species, Endangered Species, Environment, Forests, Green, Happy Environment, Rediscovered Species, Rainforests, Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation


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