After years of attempts to find one of the world’s 10 most wanted bird species, the Santa Marta sabrewing has been unexpectedly rediscovered deep in the mountains of Colombia.
The tiny hummingbird had only been officially spotted twice: once when it was discovered in 1946 and again in 2010 when it landed serendipitously in a researcher’s mist net. Since then, it has been presumed by many to be extinct.
“It’s so incredible to see photos and video of the Santa Marta sabrewing,” said John Mittermeier, director of threatened species outreach at the American Bird Conservancy, in a press release. “It’s like seeing a phantom.”
The lost Santa Marta sabrewing has been a magnet for bird enthusiasts desperate to make history by confirming its existence.
Many have returned home disappointed and some may have even been teased by its elusive emerald green body and shimmery blue throat, says Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela, a Colombian ornithologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Some birders snapped photos of what appeared to be the sabrewing’s body, but without the tail, they were inconclusive.
“They may have been misidentifying it or maybe it just has such a reduced population or specific habitat that all the birdwatchers that went out there missed it,” says Ocampo-Peñuela. “It was there hiding all along!”
The rare bird was spotted perched on a branch singing by Yurgen Vega, who was studying the area’s endemic birds with the World Parrot Trust and two conservation research organisations, SELVA and ProCAT Colombia. The unlikely sighting may just secure its survival, say experts.
Little is known about the mysterious species except that it usually lives in neotropical forest at an altitude of 1200 to 1800 metres and may migrate to chilly moors during the rainy season to search for flowering plants.
The sabrewing was added to the Search for Lost Birds top 10 most wanted list last year in the hope of saving it.
The forests of the Sierra Nevada are under threat from agriculture and the sighting was made in an unprotected area.
Understanding the sabrewing’s habits and habitat should help inform conservation efforts, say conservation advocacy groups.
The Santa Marta mountains are home to at least 22 endemic bird species and a haven of biodiversity in a country that is home to more species per square kilometre than anywhere else in the world.
The confirmation that the region is home to yet another endemic species strengthens the argument that the government must work with conservationists and local communities to preserve the bird, says Esteban Botero-Delgadillo at SELVA.