Rare Singing, Emerald-Green and Iridescent-Blue Hummingbird Unexpectedly Rediscovered in Colombia
(August 4, 2022) An experienced local birdwatcher in Colombia rediscovered the Santa Marta Sabrewing (Campylopterus phainopeplus), a relatively large hummingbird only found in the country's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. It's only the second time the species has had a documented sighting since it was first collected in 1946. The last time was in 2010, when researchers captured the first-ever photos of the species in the wild. The Santa Marta Sabrewing is so rare and elusive that it was included as one of the top 10 most wanted lost birds by the Search for Lost Birds.
“This sighting was a complete surprise, but a very welcome one,” said Yurgen Vega, who made the rediscovery while working with SELVA, ProCAT Colombia, and World Parrot Trust to study endemic birds in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. “As I was leaving the area where I had been working, a hummingbird caught my attention. I got out my binoculars and was shocked to see that it was a Santa Marta Sabrewing, and in an incredible stroke of luck the hummingbird perched on a branch, giving me time to take photos and video.”
The male hummingbird was instantly recognizable by its emerald-green feathers, bright iridescent-blue throat, and curved black bill. It was perched on a branch, vocalizing and singing, which scientists think is a behavior associated with defending territory and courtship. However, Vega did not see any other hummingbirds in the area, though there have been sporadic reports of Santa Marta Sabrewing sightings during the past decade by other local birdwatchers. Researchers believe the population of Santa Marta Sabrewings in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is very small and decreasing. The species is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species, though it was historically common in the southeastern part of the mountains.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the world's tallest coastal mountain massif and home to rich communities of wildlife, including 24 species of birds that are found nowhere else on the planet. It partially overlaps with five Key Biodiversity Areas, which are sites of global importance to the planet's overall health and the persistence of biodiversity. It is also an Alliance for Zero Extinction site due to the multiple species there that are found nowhere else.
“This rediscovery is tremendous, and it makes me hopeful that we will start to better understand this mysterious and threatened bird,” said Esteban Botero-Delgadillo, Director of Conservation Science with SELVA: Research for Conservation in the Neotropics. “However, we found it in an area that is unprotected, which means that it is critically important for conservationists, local communities, and government institutions to work together to learn more about the hummingbirds and protect them and their habitat before it's too late.”
Scientists know very little about the Santa Marta Sabrewing, except that it typically lives in humid Neotropical forests at mid-elevations between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. Ornithologists believe that the hummingbird may be migratory, moving up to even higher elevations in the páramo — an ecosystem of grass and shrubs — during the rainy season, in search of flowering plants. Much of the forest in the Santa Marta Mountains has been cleared for agriculture, and scientists estimate that only 15 percent remains.
“Technology has made it much easier to gain and share knowledge about the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and its inhabitants,” said Diego Zárrate, Director of Conservation with ProCAT Colombia. “This is a great example of what we can learn about the biodiversity of this area when local communities and conservationists work together.”
The rediscovery of the Santa Marta Sabrewing is being celebrated by ornithologists around the world, including those working as part of the Search for Lost Birds, a collaboration between Re:wild, American Bird Conservancy (ABC), and BirdLife International.
“It's so incredible to see photos and video of the Santa Marta Sabrewing,” said John C. Mittermeier, Director of Threatened Species Outreach at ABC. “It's like seeing a phantom. When we announced the top 10 most wanted lost birds last year, we hoped that it would inspire birders to look for these species. And as this rediscovery shows, sometimes lost species re-emerge when we least expect it. Hopefully, rediscoveries like this will inspire conservation action.”
Lina Valencia, Andean Countries Coordinator, Re:wild
“The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is so incredibly biodiverse and harbors so many amazing endemic species. It's hugely exciting to have proof that the Santa Marta Sabrewing is still living in the mountains. We still have time to save it.”
Carlos Ruiz-Guerra of Asociación Calidris, BirdLife Partner in Colombia
“Coordination with local communities and with the Parque Nacional Natural Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta may yet prove vital for the future of the species.”
Roger Safford, Senior Program Manager for Preventing Extinctions at BirdLife International
“What an inspiring rediscovery this is. The evidence suggests that it is very rare, so great credit goes to Yurgen Vega and his colleagues and supporters, for their skill and dedication in finding it. It is itself an exquisite species and its rediscovery adds weight to the arguments to conserve all the habitats of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, including the unprotected parts where the sabrewing was rediscovered.”
American Bird Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation. Find us on abcbirds.org, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@ABCbirds).
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BirdLife International is the world's largest nature conservation Partnership: a global family of over 115 national NGOs covering all continents, landscapes and seascapes. BirdLife is driven by its belief that local people, working for nature in their own places but connected nationally and internationally through the global Partnership, are the key to sustaining all life on this planet. This unique local-to-global approach delivers high impact and long-term conservation for the benefit of nature and people.
ProCAT is a national and international non-profit NGO dedicated to the research and conservation of ecosystems and species from an interdisciplinary approach. We are a team of scientist characterized by solving complex conservation questions. Our mission is to promote, encourage and develop biological resources, social and cultural development research within a framework of sustainability. With this approach we design conservation plans for species and ecosystems through an interdisciplinary approach, in search of human well-being and biodiversity conservation. You can learn more about ProCAT on procat-conservation.org, Facebook, and Twitter (@ProCATColombia).
Re:wild protects and restores the wild. We have a singular and powerful focus: the wild as the most effective solution to the interconnected climate, biodiversity and human health crises. Founded by a group of renowned conservation scientists together with Leonardo DiCaprio, Re:wild is a force multiplier that brings together Indigenous peoples, local communities, influential leaders, nongovernmental organizations, governments, companies and the public to protect and rewild at the scale and speed we need. Learn more at rewild.org.
SELVA is a not-for-profit non-governmental organization founded in Colombia by individuals who dedicate their lives to research and conservation in the Neotropics. Our mission is to generate science-based knowledge that facilitates biodiversity conservation and that ultimately helps find a balance between humans and nature. We seek to inspire sustainable change leading to the protection of our natural heritage by promoting the development of new talents and collective learning. You can find us on selva.org.co, Facebook, and Twitter (@selvaorgco).
The World Parrot Trust (WPT) brings together wildlife conservation and welfare specialists to direct effective programs to save parrots and provide technical, logistical, and funding support to our partners. WPT's approach is rooted in science, decades of first-hand experience in the field, and a deep knowledge of parrot welfare. Find us on parrots.org, Facebook, and Twitter (@ParrotTrust).