Lost Birds

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

Hummingbird Spot by Carole Turek

American Bird Conservancy / 25 Mar 2024 / Santa Marta Sabrewing

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.