Yurgen Vega / SELVA / ProCAT
It was a remarkable day for a bird-watching scientist in Colombia.
Yurgen Vega was working in July when he spotted a striking bright blue and emerald green hummingbird flitting about in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. He realized the colorful male bird was a Santa Marta sabrewing.
The species (Campylopterus phainopeplus) was only documented twice before: It was first collected more than 75 years ago and then not seen again until 2010.
“This sighting was a complete surprise, but a very welcome one,” Vega, who made the rediscovery while studying local birds, said in a statement. “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.”
Vega was working with several research and conservation groups including SELVA, ProCAT Colombia, and World Parrot Trust.
“It was a total surprise, to be honest,” Esteban Botero-Delgadillo, director of conservation science with SELVA: Research for Conservation in the Neotropics, tells Treehugger. “We were looking for other bird species that are also endemic to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.”
The flashy bird was easy to recognize. It was large with emerald green and iridescent blue feathers and a curved black bill. The male of the species has been recorded at about 5 inches (13 centimeters). By contrast, the ruby-throated hummingbird is 2.8-3.5 inches (7-9 centimeters).
Although the newly rediscovered bird was easy to identify, researchers aren’t well-informed about the bird.
“This is a species of which we do not know much about,” Botero-Delgadillo says. “It was first described during the 18th century and the first confirmed record came from 1946 when the first specimens were collected. After almost six decades, the sabrewing was photographed again when it was incidentally captured in a bird banding station. Then, it took us 12 years to record it again.”
When Vega spotted the hummingbird, it was perched on a branch and singing. Researchers believe that birds do this as a means of courtship and defending their territory. But Vega says he didn’t see any other hummingbirds in the area.
There have been occasional reports of possible sightings of Santa Marta sabrewings over the past decade or so by local birdwatchers.
The species is listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species with population numbers decreasing.
Endemic to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, the birds were described as “fairly common” at the beginning of the 20th century, according to the IUCN.
The area is particularly rich in biodiversity and is home to at least 24 species of birds that are found nowhere else on Earth.
“It is considered the most irreplaceable ecosystem on Earth given the presence of perhaps hundreds of unique plants and animals that do not occur anywhere else,” says Botero-Delgadillo. “It is a coastal mountain range (the highest coastal mountain on the planet) that has remained relatively isolated for a very prolonged period, which has given rise to an unprecedented number of exclusive species. It is the most important continental area of endemism worldwide.”
Researchers say this rediscovery is important for many reasons.
“This finding demonstrates once and again that we still know very little about many highly threatened species that could disappear any time without us noticing it,” says Botero-Delgadillo. “For these species, urgent actions are important, but in order to direct those actions, we need to know more about the targeted species. How can we design effective conservation strategies if we do not understand what exactly needs to be done?”
"Rare Singing, Emerald Green and Iridescent Blue Hummingbird Unexpectedly Rediscovered in Colombia." Re:Wild.
"Santa Marta Sabrewing Campylopterus phainopeplus." Bird Life International.
"Ruby-Throated Hummingbird Identification." The Cornell Lab.
"Santa Marta Sabrewing." IUCN Red List.
Esteban Botero-Delgadillo, director of conservation science with SELVA: Research for Conservation in the Neotropics
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Rare Glittery Hummingbird Rediscovered in Colombia – Treehugger
Yurgen Vega / SELVA / ProCAT