Lost Birds

An expedition for a lost bird finds dozens of other species thriving in a dense Colombian forest

© Ivan Lau Lovera

Devin Murphy / 21 Dec 2021 / Sinú Parakeet

Nearly 2,300 feet straight up. That was the climb an expedition team faced in the Murrucucú mountains in Alto Sinú in Colombia’s department of Córdoba to reach their base camp. Local guides sometimes had to carve out steps for the rest of the team to scramble up the mountain side. For stretches, the mountainside was so steep the expedition team used ropes to pull themselves up. But the climb was well worth it. 
Every morning for 10 days in late February and early March 2021, 10 members of the expedition team climbed from the base camp to a plateau with low premontane tropical forest on the northern slope of the Murrucucú in hopes of finding the Sinú Parakeet. The small green, red and blue parakeet is one of Re:wild’s top 25 most wanted lost species. There hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of the avian mountain-dweller since 1949, but the Murrucucú mountains are largely unexplored and could have been hiding the parakeet as well as other species. 

“The avifauna up there was absolutely strikingly different,” says Diego Calderón-Franco, an ornithologist leading the expedition.

Until the expedition to find the Sinú Parakeet, which included a team of local naturalists, biologists, university students and rangers from the National Parks Authority, there had never been a complete ornithological survey of Alto Sinú due to Colombia’s decades-long violent civil conflict. 
The expedition didn’t find the Sinú Parakeet, but what they did find has made them hopeful that the colorful parakeet may still live in one of the nearby mountain ranges that make up the northern part of the western Andes. 

“Even though the ecosystem we found has been somewhat disturbed, it's still preserved, supporting many different species,” says Hugo Alejandro Herrera Gómez, president of Sociedad Ornitológica de Córdoba and a leader of the expedition. “Not only does the ecosystem support birds, but also many types of life. I am very hopeful of finding the parakeet in there.”

Local communities around Alto Sinú were a critical part of the initial search and they are helping the effort to document the species in the mountains and continue the search for the Sinú Parakeet. Their local knowledge and enthusiasm for the search largely made it a success.

New bird species for Córdoba department

The expedition documented 238 species of birds during their survey. Of those about 22 had never been documented in the department of Córdoba before. The new species means there are now around 589 species of birds known to live in the department. Several of the dozens of new species were found by the local naturalists and guides on the expedition.

The expedition team focused their search on two different types of habitat with plants that they suspected may attract a species like the Sinú Parakeet. They spent hours observing the species of birds that visited fruiting palm trees, fig trees and other fruiting trees. 

“We really invested time on those not only because of the parakeet, but because we were also finding new species for Córdoba, in those places,” says Calderón-Franco. 
The very first day of the expedition, as the team was ascending to a ridge via a trail carved out of the mountainside by the local guides, Diego Calderón-Franco, the lead biologist caught a glimpse of a Sharpbill. The tiny olive-and-yellow bird is rare. It’s only been seen in Colombia four other times. Calderón-Franco frantically called to the other team members to capture a photo of the bird, but it flew away before anyone else could get in position to see it.

“​​This bird has only been found in Colombia a few times in the San Lucas mountain range in the northern, central Andes, and in the Chocó,” explains Calderón-Franco. “It is one of the rarest birds in the country.”
The team tried desperately to attract the bird by playing callbacks, or recordings of its own calls, in hopes it would respond and return. But it didn’t make another appearance.
Three days later, Johan Arley Villalba Ogaza, a field assistant and a local tour guide with Sinú Travel, was looking through photos he had taken. He asked some team members if they recognized a bird he had photographed just a few minutes earlier while climbing the ridge with the lunches for the expedition team. He showed them the photo on the screen of his camera—it was the Sharpbill. The photo was the definitive proof the expedition needed that the bird they had seen was a Sharpbill and its range included the Murrucucú mountains.

Not lost, but as equally elusive

One of the biggest sightings on the expedition practically sneaked up on the team. After a morning of surveying birds not too far from their base camp, they were heading back for lunch and were stopped in their tracks on the trail. Yulisa María Navarro Gandía, a junior researcher with Sociedad Ornitológica de Córdoba, whispered to Calderón-Franco what was causing the hold up: a Correcaminos, also known as a Roadrunner or a Ground-cuckoo.
They only saw the Ground-cuckoo, a ground-dwelling bird with a long tail and a crest on its head, for a few seconds, but that was a few seconds more than most. It’s extremely secretive and difficult for even trained ornithologists to find. Ground-cuckoos follow swarming army ants to pick off prey that escape the swarm. They eat everything from insects to snakes and other small birds.
As the bird scurried off, running along the forest floor, the team could hear it’s telltale bill-snap. The glimpse was not enough to determine exactly what species of Ground-Cuckoo the team saw—there are four species of ground-cuckoos in Colombia and a couple of those could possibly be found in the Murrucucú—but it was enough to elicit a thrill.

Curious squirrels

The Murrucucú were not only bustling with birds, the team also found many species of mammals. They saw sloths, monkeys and kinkajous to name a few. 

One mammal stopped them in their tracks. It was a dwarf squirrel with white ears. The squirrel didn’t match the description of any known species and the expedition team thinks it may be new to science, though they need more evidence to confirm it.

A sensational snake

Though birds and the Sinú Parakeet were the main objective for the expedition, Carlos Mario Bran-Castrillón and Willian Alexander Brand-Castrillón, the expedition’s herpetologists, were also searching for amphibians and reptiles. Their curiosity about and affection for snakes and amphibians infected the entire expedition team.

“The second snake we encountered was a species I had wanted to see for many years. Seeing it on a field trip was very nice,” said Carlos Mario Bran-Castrillón. “The frog species were also fascinating, particularly the glass frogs we encountered at the end of the excursion.”
The expedition’s rarest snake find was a Chocoan Lancehead. The snake is so rare, not even the herpetologists had seen one in the wild before. Chocoan Lancehead snakes are venomous snakes with beautiful brown square patterns. They spend much of their time camouflaged on the forest floor, or not far from it, waiting to ambush prey that wander within striking distance of their hiding places. The females give birth to live young, hatching clutches of eggs inside their bodies.

“Having experts in herpetology in the expedition was a plus,” says Eduar Luiz Páez Núñez, a junior researcher with Sociedad Ornitológica de Cordóba. “It was very productive to learn about Alto Sinú amphibians and snakes. The Bothrops punctatus [Chocoan Lancehead] was one of the species that drew the most attention for its color pattern and dangerousness.”

Amazing amphibians

The amphibians of the Murrucucú Mountains are as little studied as the birds. One of the frogs the team found was a tiny red frog known as Andinobates victimatus, a species only known from the neighboring Urabá region. It would be the first record of the species in the Murrucucú. The species is named in honor of the victims of the civil conflict that has caused Urabá, and the Murrucucú mountains to be underexplored.  
“I didn't expect to see the red frog; furthermore, I didn't even know it existed,” says Enith Martinez Salcedo, the camp cook from Tierralta, a town at the base of the Murrucucú. “It was a huge surprise to see it in person.”

Birds of prey

Songbirds and flycatchers weren’t the only types of birds the team saw. The Murrucucú are also home to birds of prey. 

“This mountain supports a ton of big raptors,” says Calderón-Franco. “We got Ornate Hawk-eagle, Crested Eagle, Black-and-white Hawk-eagle, Barred Hawk, big animals that are apex predator birds. That also talks about the quality of the habitat there.” 

Predators can only thrive in healthy ecosystems that can support them, and members of the expedition team were just as excited about the possibility of seeing them as they were about searching for the Sinú Parakeet. 

 “I wanted to see several species,” says Herrera Gómez. “Besides the parakeet, I had a list of about 10 species I dreamed of seeing. I remember being most excited about seeing the Ornate Hawk-eagle or Spizaetus ornatus, and it appeared twice. It was spectacular. My dream came true.”

Precocious plants

Although wildlife was the main focus of the expedition, the flora of the Murrucucú is similarly under-studied. Based on some of the plants the team saw, the Murrucucú is home to plants endemic to Colombia. 

One tree in particular stopped them in their tracks. The tree had little flowers growing directly out of its trunk, which is unusual. The team couldn’t identify it in the field, but they think it’s likely that it’s in the cocoa family. After consulting with other botanists, they think it may have been only the third time ever that the tree (Theobroma cf. cirmolinae) has been documented in Colombia.

The search continues

Although the expedition team didn’t find the Sinú Parakeet hiding in the Murrucucú, the number of unexpected discoveries they made in the forest has given them hope that the bird may still be there or living in a different underexplored part of Colombia. 

“I do have hope and I think it is possible that the parakeet is here in the Paramillo National Park,” says Daniel Alvarado, a field assistant with Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia. “We just have to keep looking for it.” 

A second expedition, organized by Sociedad Ornitologica de Córdoba and American Bird Conservancy, is hoping to set out sometime in the next year.