Conservationists in Colombia have recently rediscovered one of the most elusive and mysterious creatures in the world: a singing and glittering, 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 more than a decade. Unfortunately, the bird is one of the many species in the area that is threatened by habitat loss.
The Saber Santa Marta (Campylopterus phainopeplus) was originally discovered in 1946 along the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains of Colombia. Like other types of sabrewing, it is quite large for a hummingbird. Males also have distinctive emerald green feathers, a curved black bill and an iridescent blue neck making the bird easy to spot for anyone with a trained eye (iridescent, meaning the color changes depending on the angle and amount of light viewed by ). But the bird has remained elusive since its discovery, with only one other confirmed sighting in the wild in 2010.
Its rarity has become so remarkable that a coalition of conservation organizations added it to the top 10 most sought-after birds to rediscover in 2021. The release of the list too announced the start of the group’s new Search for Lost Birds initiative, mainly led by the organization Re:wild.
The group has since funded new expeditions to look for these rarest birds, but the rediscovery of the Santa Marta sabre was nothing more than pure luck. Local birdwatcher Yurgen Vega was studying other native birds in the mountains, and he was about to leave the area when he encountered a male sabrewing perched on a branch. And the bird was courteous enough to stay there long enough for Vega to take pictures and videos of it. He even heard the bird sing.
Little is known about Santa Marta’s saber habits, although it seems to prefer higher forested areas in the mountains. There are other unverified reported sightings close to where Vega found it. So this discovery alone, and how it came about, could pave the way for new insights into the species, according to Esteban Botero-Delgadillo, director of conservation science at SELVA: Research for Conservation in the Neotropics. For example, Vega worked with SELVA and other groups as part of his birdwatching.
“Perhaps the most important conclusion we can draw from this finding is that to better understand this species, it is vital to work with the region’s rural and indigenous communities. They have the opportunity to encounter the species more frequently, so involving them in initiatives such as community monitoring programs is the most efficient way to generate valuable information that contributes to conservation,” Botero-Delgadillo told Gizmodo. “We understand the distribution of the species is still not good, so there may be other locations that need urgent attention, but the first and most important step is to determine where stable populations exist so that we can identify pressures and threats to important areas for conservation to decide.”
Unfortunately, like so many natural environments throughout South America, these forests have been steadily eroded by industrial human activity. Scientists believe the bird is critically endangered and that the population continues to decline, and that it is not the only species in the area in danger 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 harlequin toad, and a community of wildlife not found anywhere else in the world,” Lina Valencia, Andean Country coordinator at Re:wild, told Gizmodo.
So as miraculous as this rediscovery is, it’s also a reminder that, unless further effort is made, we will eventually never see this majestic bird and other similar birds again.
“I hope people reading about the Santa Marta Sabrewing feel inspired and hopeful. It is an incredible achievement to find this bird and something that was only possible through the great 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 outreach to endangered species at American Bird Conservancy. “I also hope that people see this rediscovery as a call to action for both sabers – now that the species has been found we need to act quickly to learn more about it and protect it – and other lost bird species. There are over 100 species of birds around the world that are currently lost. Hopefully we can find them all by working together.”