Conservationists in Colombia have recently rediscovered one of the most elusive and mysterious creatures in the world: a singing and shimmering, emerald-green species of hummingbird known as the Santa Marta sabrewing. The sighting is only the second ever documented since it was first identified, and the first in over a decade. Sadly, the bird is one of many species in the area threatened by habitat loss.
The Santa Marta sabrewing (Campylopterus phainopeplus) was originally discovered in 1946 along the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains of Colombia. Like other species of sabrewing, it’s rather large for a hummingbird. Males also have distinctive emerald-green feathers, a curved black bill, and a iridescent blue neck that would make the bird easy to spot for anyone with a trained eye (iridescent meaning that its color changes depending on the angle and amount of light it’s viewed through). But the bird has remained elusive since its discovery, with previously only one other confirmed sighting in the wild in 2010.
The rareness of the sabrewing has become so noteworthy that, in 2021, a coalition of conservation organizations added it to its top 10 most wanted birds to rediscover. The release of the list also heralded the start of the group’s new Search for Lost Birds initiative, led primarily by the organization Re:wild.
The group has since funded new expeditions to look for these rarest of birds, but the rediscovery of the Santa Marta sabrewing was nothing more than sheer good fortune. Local birdwatcher Yurgen Vega had been working to study other native birds in the mountains, and he was just about to leave the area when he came across a male sabrewing perched on a branch. And the bird was courteous enough to stay there long enough for Vega to take photos and videos of it. He even got to hear the bird sing.
Little is known about the Santa Marta sabrewing’s habits, though it seems to prefer higher-altitude forested areas in the mountains. There have been other, unverified reported sightings nearby where Vega found it. So this discovery alone, and how it came about, may pave the way for new insights into the species, according to Esteban Botero-Delgadillo, director of conservation science with SELVA: Research for Conservation in the Neotropics. Vega, for instance, had been working with SELVA and other groups as part of his birdwatching.
“Perhaps the main conclusion that we can draw from this finding is that, in order to better understand this species, it will be vital to work along with the rural and Indigenous communities in the region. They have the possibility of encountering the species more often, so involving them in initiatives such as community monitoring programs will be the most efficient way to generate valuable information that contributes to conservation,” Botero-Delgadillo told Gizmodo. “We still don’t understand the distribution of the species well, so it is possible that there are other locations that require urgent attention. However, the first and foremost step is to determine where stable populations occur, so that we can identify pressures and threats to determine key areas for conservation.”
Unfortunately, these forests—like so many natural environments throughout South America—have been steadily eroded by industrial human activity. Scientists believe that the bird is critically endangered and that its population is continuing to decline, and it’s not the only species in the area facing the threat of extinction.
“The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains are a unique wonderland, home to unique lost-and-found species like this bird and the starry night harlequin toad, and a community of wildlife found nowhere else in the world,” Lina Valencia, Andean countries coordinator at Re:wild, told Gizmodo.
So as wondrous as this rediscovery is, it’s also a reminder that, unless further effort is taken, we may eventually never see this majestic bird and others like it ever again.
“I hope that people reading about the Santa Marta Sabrewing feel inspired and hopeful. It is an incredible accomplishment to find this bird and something that was only possible through the amazing collaboration and long-term efforts of SELVA, ProCAT Colombia, World Parrot Trust and their local partners in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta,” said John C. Mittermeier, director of threatened species outreach at American Bird Conservancy. “I also hope that people see this rediscovery as a call to action for both the sabrewing—now that the species has been found, we need to act quickly to learn more about it and protect it—and for other lost bird species. There are more than a hundred species of birds around the world that are currently lost. Hopefully by working together we can find them all.”