A rare hummingbird has been rediscovered by a bird watcher in Colombia after being missing for more than a decade.
The Santa Marta sable, a large hummingbird found only in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in Colombia, was last seen in 2010, and scientists feared the species may be extinct as the tropical forests it inhabited have been largely cleared for agriculture.
But ornithologists are celebrating the rediscovery of Campylopterus phainopeplus after an experienced local birder caught one on camera. It is only the third time the species has been documented: the first was in 1946 and the second in 2010, when scientists took the first pictures of the species in the wild.
Yurgen Vega, who discovered the hummingbird while working with conservation organizations Selva, ProCAT Colombia and the World Parrot Trust to survey endemic birds in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, said he felt “overcome with emotion” when he saw the bird.
“The sight was a complete surprise,” he said. “When I first saw the hummingbird, I immediately thought of the Santa Marta sable. I couldn’t believe it was waiting there for me to take out my camera and start shooting. I was almost convinced it was the species, but feeling so overcome with emotion, I preferred to be cautious; it could have been the Lazuline sabre, which is often confused with the Santa Marta sabre. But when we saw the pictures, we knew it was true.”
The Santa Marta sable is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and features on the Top 10 “Most Wanted” list of the conservation organization Re:wild’s Search for Lost Birds, a worldwide effort to find species that have not been seen in more than 10 years. The bird is so rare and elusive that John C Mittermeier, the director of endangered species at the American Bird Conservancy, compared the sighting to “seeing a phantom”.
Vega the hummingbird was a male, identified by its emerald green feathers, bright blue throat and curved black bill. It was perched on a branch, vocalizing and singing, behaviorists believe is associated with courtship and defense of territory.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia is home to a wealth of wildlife, including 24 bird species found nowhere else. But scientists estimate that only 15% of the mountain forest is intact. It is hoped that the surprise sighting of the Santa Marta sable will help protect their remaining habitat, benefiting many different species found there.
“This finding confirms that we still know very little about many of the most vulnerable and rare species out there, and it is important to invest more in understanding them better,” said Esteban Botero-Delgadillo, director of conservation science at Selva: Research for conservation in the neotropics. “It is knowledge that drives action and change – it is not possible to preserve what we do not understand.
“The next step is to go out there and look for stable populations of this species, try to better understand where it occurs and what the most critical threats are in place. This of course has to involve people from local communities and local and regional environmental authorities so that we together can start a research and conservation program that can have a real effect.”