By Brooks Hays
An odd-looking hummingbird called the blue-bearded helmetcrest (Oxypogon cyanolaemus) was thought to be extinct. It hadn't been seen in some 69 years.
But biologists in Colombia recently spotted the beautiful bird while exploring the high-elevation forests of the country's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, a range distinct from South America's Andes. The scientists were able to capture a photo of the hummingbird before it disappeared into the trees.
"I saw the flash of a bird screeching past me and it perched on a bush nearby," conservationist Cristian Vásquez told ProAves. "I managed to take a quick photo of it before it flew off. I then reviewed the photo in the camera and immediately recognized the strikingly-patterned hummingbird as the long-lost blue-bearded helmetcrest."
Cristian and fellow scientists Carlos Julio Rojas spotted a total of three birds while documenting the effects of dry season fires in the mountains. In addition to naturally-sparked fires, the unique high elevation habitat called "paramo" is under threat of man-made fires set by local Kogi indigenous people for agricultural purposes.
"We set up camp and for the next two days watched the area to document a total of three individuals of the helmetcrest in an area of less than 10 hectares [25 acres\ with three scattered tiny patches of forest clinging to the steep hillsides and surrounded by the remains of burnt vegetation," Cristian recalled. "And the area is really important as we also discovered the critically engendered Santa Marta wren alongside the helmetcrest."
The blue-bearded helmetcrest has never been declared extinct, but birders have long feared the worst as expedition after expedition failed to locate the elusive species. In 2014, both the International Union for Conservation of Nature and BirdLife International listed the species as critically endangered.
While the reported the rediscovery is good news, the bird's spotters admit the species' future is highly vulnerable.
"Sadly the survival of the blue-bearded helmetcrest hangs by a thread," added Carlos Julio Rojas. "The impact of brush fire is everywhere, with the charred remains of plants littered across the paramo."