Lost Birds
© Birds of the World | Cornell Lab of Ornithology [Hilary Burn]

Santa Marta Sabrewing

Campylopterus phainopeplus


Hummingbirds (Trochilidae)



(13 years)


South America


Critically Endangered


One of four hummingbirds endemic to the isolated Santa Marta Mountains of northern Colombia. This species has now been rediscovered twice within the last century: once, briefly, in 2010 (after 64 years!) and again in 2022. Ongoing work following its most recent rediscovery will soon provide additional insight into this bird’s ecology, which we await with great anticipation.

Last Documented

Prior to its most recent rediscovery in July 2022, the last photograph (of a mist-net captured individual) hailed from the northwestern corner of the Santa Marta Mountains (March 2010).

Page Editors

  • Cameron Rutt
  • Search for Lost Birds

Species News

  • Rare singing, emerald-green and iridescent-blue hummingbird unexpectedly rediscovered in Colombia

    Cameron Rutt / 1 May 2023

    An experienced local birdwatcher in Colombia rediscovered the Santa Marta Sabrewing (Campylopterus phainopeplus), a relatively large hummingbird only found in the country's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. It's only the second time the species has had a documented sighting since it was first collected in 1946. The last time was in 2010, when researchers captured the first-ever photos of the species in the wild. The Santa Marta Sabrewing is so rare and elusive that it was included as one of the top 10 most wanted lost birds by the Search for Lost Birds.

    “This sighting was a complete surprise, but a very welcome one,” said Yurgen Vega, who made the rediscovery while working with SELVA, ProCAT Colombia, and World Parrot Trust to study endemic birds in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. “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.”

    The male hummingbird was instantly recognizable by its emerald-green feathers, bright iridescent-blue throat, and curved black bill. It was perched on a branch, vocalizing and singing, which scientists think is a behavior associated with defending territory and courtship. However, Vega did not see any other hummingbirds in the area, though there have been sporadic reports of Santa Marta Sabrewing sightings during the past decade by other local birdwatchers. Researchers believe the population of Santa Marta Sabrewings in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is very small and decreasing. The species is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species, though it was historically common in the southeastern part of the mountains.

    The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the world's tallest coastal mountain massif and home to rich communities of wildlife, including 24 species of birds that are found nowhere else on the planet. It partially overlaps with five Key Biodiversity Areas, which are sites of global importance to the planet's overall health and the persistence of biodiversity. It is also an Alliance for Zero Extinction site due to the multiple species there that are found nowhere else.

    “This rediscovery is tremendous, and it makes me hopeful that we will start to better understand this mysterious and threatened bird,” said Esteban Botero-Delgadillo, Director of Conservation Science with SELVA: Research for Conservation in the Neotropics. “However, we found it in an area that is unprotected, which means that it is critically important for conservationists, local communities, and government institutions to work together to learn more about the hummingbirds and protect them and their habitat before it's too late.”

    Scientists know very little about the Santa Marta Sabrewing, except that it typically lives in humid Neotropical forests at mid-elevations between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. Ornithologists believe that the hummingbird may be migratory, moving up to even higher elevations in the páramo — an ecosystem of grass and shrubs — during the rainy season, in search of flowering plants. Much of the forest in the Santa Marta Mountains has been cleared for agriculture, and scientists estimate that only 15 percent remains.

    “Technology has made it much easier to gain and share knowledge about the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and its inhabitants,” said Diego Zárrate, Director of Conservation with ProCAT Colombia. “This is a great example of what we can learn about the biodiversity of this area when local communities and conservationists work together.”

    The rediscovery of the Santa Marta Sabrewing is being celebrated by ornithologists around the world, including those working as part of the Search for Lost Birds, a collaboration between Re:wild, American Bird Conservancy (ABC), and BirdLife International.

    “It's so incredible to see photos and video of the Santa Marta Sabrewing,” said John C. Mittermeier, Director of Threatened Species Outreach at ABC. “It's like seeing a phantom. When we announced the top 10 most wanted lost birds last year, we hoped that it would inspire birders to look for these species. And as this rediscovery shows, sometimes lost species re-emerge when we least expect it. Hopefully, rediscoveries like this will inspire conservation action.”

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  • New Research Reveals Habitat, Range and Behavior of the Santa Marta Sabrewing

    John C. Mittermeier / 25 Mar 2024

    After its unexpected rediscovery in 2022, researchers with American Bird Conservancy (ABC), Universidad Nacional de Colombia, SELVA, ProCAT Colombia, and World Parrot Trust have released new findings about one of the rarest and most poorly known bird species in the world, the Santa Marta Sabrewing. Recently posted as a preprint in bioRxiv, the study offers a glimpse into previously undocumented feeding, singing, and courtship behaviors of this Critically Endangered hummingbird species.

    “Our findings show that this amazing hummingbird may be an example of microendemism, as it seems to be restricted to a limited area within the world’s most important continental center of endemism,” said Esteban Botero-Delgadillo, lead author of the study and Director of Conservation Science with SELVA: Research for Conservation in the Neotropics. “We are excited to have the opportunity to continue studying this bird because there are still huge knowledge gaps regarding its biology and distribution. Filling these gaps will help achieve our ultimate goal of finding long-lasting conservation solutions.”

    Located in the isolated Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains of northern Colombia, little has been known about the species as it was lost to science for 64 years before being photographed once in 2010, only to become lost again before its rediscovery in 2022 by Yurgen Vega, one of the authors of the new study. "The moment when I first found the Santa Marta Sabrewing was very emotional, I really couldn't believe it. The adrenaline, the thrill of that moment of rediscovery, it's hard to fully describe just how exciting it was," said Vega.

    Just seven months after Yurgen’s rediscovery, professors Carlos Esteban Lara and Andrés M. Cuervo of Universidad Nacional de Colombia independently found other individuals in additional locations within the same area. The species is listed as a top 10 most wanted lost bird species by the Search for Lost Birds, a collaboration between ABC, Re:wild, and BirdLife International. When these birds were found again, ABC and other collaborators immediately joined to help monitor and study this extremely rare population.

    “After two years of researching the Santa Marta Sabrewing, we have finally made our main results public,” said Lara. “Unveiling the Santa Marta Sabrewing’s story was not only possible through a joint effort between academia, local, and international organizations, but also by collaboration with the local Indigenous communities who coexist with the species. We are grateful for their help as our partnership and research continue to expand, to help implement conservation actions that benefit both the local people and the birds.”

    During a period of 16 consecutive months, the team located multiple individuals of Santa Marta Sabrewing and carefully monitored their behaviors and territories. When this information was combined with reliable historical accounts, these results suggest that the species maintains year-round territories and may not be an altitudinal migrant as previously speculated. There is also strong evidence that the bird is extremely range-restricted with its presence limited to four nearby localities, all of them on the southeastern slope of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, along the Guatapurí river basin.

    The study also describes Santa Marta Sabrewing feeding habits and aspects of social and breeding behavior, including territorial and lekking displays, and vocal activity. Field observations and acoustic analyses indicate that male territories, leks, and possibly nesting females all seem to be strongly associated with the presence of riparian forests and watercourses, making the protection of these habitats vital to the bird’s conservation.

    The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the world's tallest coastal mountain massif and home to rich communities of wildlife, including 24 species of birds that are found nowhere else on the planet. Although much still remains to be discovered about the Santa Marta Sabrewing, ABC researchers were thrilled when they spotted the elusive bird on a recent expedition and successfully captured “jaw-dropping” images and video.

    “When we first highlighted the Santa Marta Sabrewing as one of the top 10 lost birds in 2021, the species was a complete enigma,” said John C. Mittermeier, coauthor and Director of the Search for Lost Birds at ABC. “Not only could no one find the sabrewing, but no one really even knew why it had become lost. Now it feels like we have cracked the code behind this amazing species and understand, for the first time, something about it and how it managed to disappear from science for most of the past hundred years. From a Lost Birds perspective, this is just about the most exciting result you can hope for!”

    These findings are a beacon of hope in an unknown territory and at the same time a call to strengthen the territorial management efforts of various actors in the habitat of the Santa Marta Sabrewing. Even so, researchers and communities understand that their presence is not assured and that it is key to create new forms of conservation that allow the well-being of the inhabitants of the area, and the care of the habitat of this species, to grow together.

    The rediscovery of the Santa Marta Sabrewing has been celebrated by ornithologists around the world, including those working as part of the Search for Lost Birds. With support from ABC and partners, the research team of Botero-Delgadillo, Lara, Vega, and others are excited to continue studying the sabrewing and developing conservation actions for the species.

    ABC and its partners have worked closely with the Indigenous communities in the region since the rediscovery of the Santa Marta Sabrewing. Upcoming work on the species will continue this collaboration, including discussions with local communities about further research, conservation measures, and if and how to arrange access for birdwatchers. While ecotourism has been an effective tool for supporting conservation in parts of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, it also has the potential to create challenges for endangered species and people living in the region if not managed carefully. Future conservation actions and ecotourism opportunities will aim to provide lasting and sustainable benefits for both the local communities and the Santa Marta Sabrewing.

    Birdwatchers interested in observing the species are encouraged to wait for more information before planning a visit. To learn how you can help support the project, visit ABC’s Lost Birds Program.

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