Lost Birds

FOUND: After dodging rediscovery for nearly 16 years, a tiny bird reveals itself to expedition in Venezuela

© David Ascanio

Jordan Rutter / 3 Jun 2021

An expedition team in Venezuela, led by ornithologist David Ascanio and supported by American Bird Conservancy (ABC), rediscovered the Urich's Tyrannulet last month. There have only been three confirmed sightings of the small flycatcher since it was first described in 1899. The second sighting was in the 1940s and the third in 2005. With so few records, the Urich's Tyrannulet is one of the most poorly known birds in South America, and with its cloud forest habitat being cleared for agriculture, scientists fear this endemic species could soon be at risk of going extinct. The expedition team was able to prove its continued existence, capturing the first clear photos of the tyrannulet and the first-ever recording of its call, shedding light on its behavior and ecology.

“It's like a little tiny Shrek,” says Ascanio of the olive-green bird, which is similar in color to the popular movie character. “It's not as striking as many of the other birds in the same forest, and it has a shrill call, but if it's there it means that the forest is healthy. It's aligned with the presence of all these other wonderful forest birds and other species. I was shaking with excitement when we first saw it!”

The mountains in northeastern Venezuela where the tyrannulet lives are part of a unique ecosystem home to plants and animals found nowhere else. Among these are birds such as the White-tipped Quetzal, Handsome Fruiteater, and the Endangered Venezuelan Sylph, all of which the team observed in the forest with the tyrannulet.

For researchers at American Bird Conservancy and Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology, data from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's global eBird database initially helped to bring the Urich's Tyrannulet to their attention. “Urich's Tyrannulet was one of only sixteen species of birds in all of South America that no one had reported in eBird in the past 10 years, so it immediately stood out to us as one of the most poorly known birds on the continent,” says John C. Mittermeier, Director of Threatened Species Outreach at ABC. “Considering that it is also Endangered and that much of the habitat in its small range has disappeared since it was last seen, trying to find the tyrannulet and confirm that it had not gone extinct was an important conservation priority for us.” eBird also helped to highlight the lack of information regarding what the tyrannulet looks and sounds like. The bird had no sound recordings in the database and only a single blurry photograph, taken by Ascanio in 2005.

Thanks to Ascanio and his team's discovery, some of these knowledge gaps have now been filled. For the first time, we know for certain what the Urich's Tyrannulet looks and sounds like. Ascanio and his team have archived their observations and media in Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library, where it is publicly available for research and conservation efforts. Along with the new findings on where this bird lives, this information can help conservation groups begin taking steps needed to protect it.

Ascanio and his five-person expedition team set out on a six-day search for the tyrannulet that began May 11. Their route through the mountains traversed areas once visited by the famed naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and included the habitat of many species sought by birdwatchers, like the only nocturnal fruit-eating bird, the Oilbird.

The expedition team originally hoped to revisit the location where the last confirmed Urich's Tyrannulet sighting had been made in 2005 by Ascanio and Mark Sokol, a music professor and fellow birdwatcher. But in the years since the sighting, the forest where Ascanio and Sokol had seen the species had been almost completely clear-cut and converted to grassland.

Forced to find a new location for the bird, the team used satellite images and suggestions from local people to identify two sites that seemed potentially promising. They also received a lead on a third site from an unexpected source: Ascanio was scrolling through Instagram when he noticed a photo of a thickly forested mountainside alleged to have been taken near Yucucual in the state of Monagas, not far from a location where a specimen of Urich's Tyrannulet had been collected in 1943.  He contacted the photographer, Carlos Matheus, and after hearing a bit more about the forest, Ascanio decided to add the location to their tyrannulet search.

When the team members arrived in the mountains, they found to their dismay that one of the three sites had already been heavily degraded, with many of the forest-dwelling birds gone. At another, it rained so hard that it was impossible to search for birds. In the area around Yucucual, however, they found a beautifully forested hillside, just as in the Instagram photo. And, with luck, the weather was perfectly clear.

The forest at Yucucual, called Yucucual-Mata de Mango, resembled the one where Ascanio had originally seen the Urich's Tyrannulet in 2005. Its dense canopy, which only allowed sporadic patches of sunshine to break through, had vines hanging from trees, and was filled with raucous bird songs, another encouraging sign.

Even in this beautiful forest, however, finding the first Urich's Tyrannulets in over a decade was no easy task. The team searched for 10 hours before, suddenly and much to their delight, a pair of the small greenish-olive birds swooped down and perched on a branch in the lower part of the canopy. The next morning, the team was able to find a second pair and record their calls for the first time.

The sightings also gave ornithologists the first chance to describe some aspects of the Urich's Tyrannulet's behavior and habitat, and to accurately document what it looks like in life. The bird constantly cocks its tail, a behavior commonly seen in warblers and some other tyrant-flycatchers, and seems to only live in forests with emergent trees, those reaching above the canopy. The tyrannulet also has a pale base to its lower mandible and an ill-defined line in the lower part of the face. These details are hard to detect on museum specimens and had been missing from descriptions and illustrations of the species.

“It's amazing that these forests still harbor surprises and practically unknown species,” says Lina Valencia, Andean Country Coordinator for Re:wild, which helps scientists search for lost species around the world. “Expeditions to remote areas like Yucucual-Mata de Mango are extremely difficult, but it's really encouraging to find such a rare species like Urich's Tyrranulet.”

With so much of the forest in the area gone, Yucucual-Mata de Mango may be one of the only places left where the Urich's Tyrannulet still survives. Ascanio hopes that with the help of the local community, this forest will become a destination for birders and ecotourists, and that the habitat, the tyrannulet, and the many other unique species living there will be protected for years to come.

Expedition team members:

David Ascanio. Coauthor “Birds of Venezuela” (2017). Associate research Colección Ornitológica Phelps. Coordinator of the search team.

Pedro Cabello. Ecologist. Nature guide. Search team and field checklists manager.

Tomás Odehnal. Transportation. Food and lodging logistics. Naturalist. Field assistance.

Carlos Matheus. Nature guide. Photographer that provided details of the locations visited. Field planning considering COVID regulations and community access. Field assistance.

Thore Noernberg. Nature guide. Field assistance.