Search for the rarest hummingbird in the world: The Blue-bearded Helmetcrest

The late afternoon had been foggy with dense clouds drifting across the steep ridges, enveloping us in gray mist. Bird life had been scarce in the heavily grazed and burnt grasslands, but despite the lack of distractions, our progress had been slow above 3000 meters with the air noticeably thinner. In the evening, we reached our camp by the second lagoon and I quickly set up the tent. The fog and clouds finally lifted, revealing a shimmering tarn at the base of near vertical, rocky cliffs with a gentler rise behind camp. This wetter area near camp still harbored a patch of good habitat with a diversity of low trees, shrubs, and flowers. In the waning evening light I set out, exploring the edge of the small woodland, hearing the endemic Brown-rumped Tapaculo and the first of the critically endangered Santa Marta Wren. While I failed to see the wren, I saw a flash of a bird fly onto the top of the tallest tree at quite a distance. I could not believe it, was it really the recently rediscovered Blue-bearded Helmetcrest, the target bird of this trek, revealing itself after only a few minutes of searching. During previous visits to the site the endangered hummingbird had only ever been seen a bit higher up, along the edges of the third and fourth lagoons, including the most recent expedition in December 2016. I rushed up the slope, arriving in a small clearing completely out of breath due to the excitement and sparse air, and a careful scan revealed the bird flying among low bushes. Eventually it flew close and perched within a few meters, revealing its mottled underparts, gray collar, and greenish upperparts. It was indeed a female Blue-bearded Helmetcrest, a bird that had previously been seen by only a dozen birders.

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The first Blue-bearded Helmetcrest of the trip was a female bird during the first evening that came very close Photo Stephan Lorenz

The Blue-bearded Helmetcrest was discovered in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta as early as 1880 and was recorded for the last time in 1946 before disappearing for nearly 70 years. The species was lumped with three other distinct subspecies (now species) known as Bearded Helmetcrest, but has now been split with Blue-bearded, Green-bearded, and Buffy helmestcrests all being endemic to Colombia, plus the White-bearded Helmetcrest which is endemic to Venezuela. This rare species was feared to be extinct since several searches between 1999 and 2011 failed to locate any birds. Fortunately, it was rediscovered by ornithologists working for Proaves in March 2015 at high elevations in a remote section of the sierra. 

The IUCN and Birdlife International classify the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest as critically endangered. The population is estimated to be between 50-249 individuals, but further surveys are needed to gain a better understanding of actual population numbers. Currently, the species is only known from a single location in an area extending about 10 ha surrounded by heavily degraded habitat. Frequent fires, grazing by cattle and rooting by pigs, and potentially cutting of vegetation threaten the small patches of remaining habitat even further. The higher reaches of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are also the homeland of the Kogi and Arhuacos, which compete with the endemic bird species for living space, resulting in a complicated conservation situation. 

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Hanging on by a thread, the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest may be the most endangered hummingbird in the world, here an immature male we found during the morning of the third day Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 20th, 2017 Travel from Santa Marta to San Pedro

Our trip started in Santa Marta around three in the afternoon where we met Sebastian Ballesteros (fotonatural@live.com) who would accompany us for the next six days. After some minor errands, we finally headed out of town along the built-up coast of Roradero. We stopped outside Cienega to check a good location for the endemic Chestnut-winged Chachalaca, but were disappointed to discover that most of the habitat had recently been bulldozed. Not surprisingly we moved on without seeing any chachalacas, an unfortunate miss of the trip and not a good sign as to what is happening to the natural habitats in the region.

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Habitat alteration and degradation is widespread, here recent burns at middle elevations in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Photo Stephan Lorenz

We turned off the main highway about an hour later and started along the steep road into the mountains. Initially the road was paved, but quickly turned into a steep, winding track of gravel and dust. The views improved with each turn and we passed through some promising looking sections of dry forest. 

In the tiny village of El Mico I was surprised to find a makeshift toll gate (a piece of string and chain across the road), but apparently the small fee is used to maintain the road further up. The brief stop was also a good excuse to buy some cups of delicious mango juice. We could see the mango plantations on the low ridges and slopes all around us. 

The rough road had some difficult sections and high clearance was definitely needed. Around dusk we reached the Village of San Pedro, a series of houses stretched along a narrow ridge. The drive took a little bit more than three hours from Santa Marta. We checked into the only hotel in town and had to make do with a basement room that could have used a couple of whiffs of fresh air, but since it was the only choice in town we didn’t complain. We sorted some of our gear and went to find a restaurant that still served dinner. 

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The town of San Pedro Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 21st Hike from San Pedro (1,500 m) to First Farm Camp (2,600 m) 

We woke up very early to pack up our stuff with hopes of starting to load up by seven am. We organized our gear quickly and left the hotel to wait at the main corner in town. Our local guide and mule driver was delayed and did not arrive until 7:30 am. Finally by 8:00 am we were on the trail, or the road at this point, and started the long walk from 1,500 m to our first camp at 2,600 m. The birding started off literally a stone’s throw from town with endemic Santa Marta Brushfinches rummaging through piles of trash. The species proved to be abundant in the lower parts of the trek with up to thirty recorded in a day. Also within the first few hundred meters we heard and saw a pair of Santa Marta Antbirds (split of Long-tailed Antbird) that came in very close and allowed great views, seemingly a slightly less skulky Drymophila. A few steps further (where we ever going to make progress on the trek?) we saw a Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner very well foraging among epiphytes in loose association with White-lored Warblers, also endemic. Four Santa Marta endemics seen and we had scarcely walked a hundred yards. A bit of patient waiting and staring into a dark ravine yielded views of the bangsii subspecies of Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, likely a future split and another Santa Marta endemic, Bang’s Wood-Wren.

We followed the road for the first hour and just before reaching the trail saw a Barred Forest-falcon flash through an open area. A second individual was calling close by, but never revealed itself. As we stood on the road attempting to locate the forest-falcon a small raptor flew directly above us, disappearing behind some trees, both of us exclaimed simultaneously “Tiny Hawk”. The Tiny Hawk actually perched in plain view right above the road, but before we realized that all we saw was the bird dropping from a branch and disappearing again, an excellent start to the morning.

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Following the worn mule trail higher into the mountains Photo Stephan Lorenz

The trail started in earnest as we followed a steep mule path gauged out of the sandy slope. The track wound its way up a narrow ridge, alternately fringed by pasture and low ferny growth with a few patches of forest. Bird activity was very high and remained so throughout the day. Additional Santa Marta endemics recorded during the day included Yellow-crowned Redstart and Rusty-headed Spinetail. Santa Marta Antpittas were frequently heard with one briefly glimpsed in the bamboo-choked stretches of forest. Taller forest held Golden-breasted Fruiteaters, a range-restricted species.

We reached the highest point along the ridge and the traditional route drops down to a small river from here before climbing up to an abandoned farm. Our local guide and mule (and horse) wrangler, Rey Rojas, suggested an alternative route along the ridge towards another farm. It would avoid the descent and ascent, following a sweeping ridge towards the paramo. We agreed readily to the change since it would allow us to complete a loop. Along the final stretch for the day we added yet another Santa Marta endemic in the form of two male White-tailed Starfrontlets that showed briefly feeding on some bromeliads.

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The endemic White-tailed Starfrontlet Photo Stephan Lorenz

Once we reached camp we quickly set up our tents with the remaining light while Scaly-naped Parrots and Scarlet-fronted Parakeets screeched through the valley. The views of the steep green ridges and clouds funneling far below were astounding. After a quick dinner, Sebastian and I set off uphill for a few minutes hoping to locate a Santa Marta Screech-Owl (not officially described yet) and within minutes located a bird silently sitting in a bare, lichen-covered tree. We had great views and photographic opportunities. Apparently, Santa Marta Screech-Owls are present in nearly every patch of forest in the area and are much easier to see here than along the San Lorenzo Ridge. Full list see here (List Day 1).

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Santa Marta Screech-Owl Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 22nd Hike from Farm Camp (2,600 m) along ridge into paramo and to camp at 2nd lagoon (3,800 m)

We packed up quickly, ate a small breakfast, and hit the trail by 7 am. We climbed back up a short stretch and turned right, following a well-worn trail on top of a sweeping ridge that curved right towards the higher reaches and paramo. Not too far from camp we met three Kogis descending the trail, a man and two boys. The man stopped us and asked us many questions, where were we from, where were we going, and how many days? We assured him that we had permission and local guides, satisfied he eventually let us continue. After much scanning and listening, we finally located a pair of Santa Marta Bush-Tyrants with the birds showing close and well. This is another species that is much more difficult along the San Lorenzo ridge area, but seemed fairly common along the stunted ridge top forest along the trek. We found another individual in similar habitat further up.

Since we had some distance and, more importantly, elevation gain to cover we birded sporadically. Passing some clear-cut areas and a Kogi farm, we entered better forest where more Santa Marta Anpittas were calling. We thought we heard a Santa Marta Parakeet and after some searching located an individual perching very close and allowing several minutes of photographing the bird. We emerged from the forest onto a barren ridge and before the trail climbed higher made a brief lunch stop. Here we saw in quick succession a White-rumped Hawk soaring over the forest followed by a juvenile Black-and-chestnut Eagle that flew leisurely above us then stooped to chase a bird. Both raptors offered great views and this trek is particular excellent for birds of prey with a locally rare Cooper’s Hawk seen later.

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There are many excellent raptor watching spots along the way Photo Stephan Lorenz

The ascent started in earnest along a rocky path snaking through low shrub and bamboo thickets. The main highlights were a “Santa Marta” Rufous Antpitta (likely future split) that hopped into the trail and a pair of Santa Marta Wood-Wrens (recent split) that appeared in a small window among the dense bamboo. Once we reached the paramo at about 3000 m our progress slowed a bit. The trail was not particularly steep but wound up and down through dun-colored grasslands. Bird life was nearly absent in this overgrazed and burnt landscape except for a single Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle.

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Santa Marta Wood-Wrens are quite common and noisy above 2000 m Photo Stephan Lorenz

We descended to a larger stream, filled our water bottles, and then climbed a high ridge in front of us. Skirting a steep hill we finally spotted the first lagoon and soon thereafter the second lagoon, our camp for the next two nights.

The night was clear and very cold, making sleep difficult. I twisted and turned in my sleeping bag waiting for morning to come. (List Day 2)

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The camp at the 2nd lagoon is incredibly beautiful Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 23rd Birding around camp at 2nd lagoon and hike to 3rd and 4th lagoons, including staking out flowering tree on far end of 3rd lagoon

This was going to be our full day in Santa Marta Wren and Blue-bearded Helmetcrest habitat. With the helmetcrest already under the belt from the previous evening I was eager to get a good look at the wren. I emerged from the tent around 6:00 am and it was still bitter cold, I had shivered most of the night, twisting and turned between several body heat conserving positions without success. A few moments later we heard some wrens just behind camp and I rushed up the slope, finally getting the first glimpse of a bird that hitched up a bare tree, allowing great looks. I tracked a pair up the slope, getting repeated great views and a few photos. 

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Likely just as rare as the helmetcrest, the Santa Marta Wren makes an appearance Photo Stephan Lorenz

After a modest breakfast we were ready to hike to the 3rd lagoon by 8:00 am and started walking through the woodland, following a trail that climbed past the creek to the next higher area. Sebastian flushed a snipe from a muddy area among brush and it called as it flew right over me, based on call and its large, dark appearance it was a Jameson’s Snipe, a surprise but welcome addition to the list. A few steps further and we found the first helmetcrest of the day, an immature male that briefly perched close to us. Wow, quick success and I thought it was good sign of things to come.

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An immature male Blue-bearded Helmetcrest perched relatively close Photo Stephan Lorenz

We climbed higher and walked through a flatter area with scattered trees. Here a territorial, female Blue-bearded Helmetcrest charged us briefly by hovering right in front of us, buffy tail flared. This is a behavior that had also been noted during previous expeditions. The female perched on a rock for a moment and then shot off downhill and out if sight, two helmetcrests already without doing any serious searching.

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Lagoon Photo Stephan Lorenz

We made our way along the edge of the 3rd lagoon and the trail disappeared among a jumble of boulders and denser vegetation, slowing us down a lot. We eventually reached the far side, without any further sightings of helmetcrests, but many sightings of Santa Marta Wrens which appeared relatively common. Throughout the day, the wrens were easily visible, readily climbing into bare trees, perching on exposed rocks, or calling from the top of low shrubs. The species was not shy at all, called nearly continuously (a monotonous hummingbird-like chirping or low, scratchy call), and seemed to forage at all levels, including on the ground and on bare rock faces (almost like a Canyon Wren). I estimated between 8-10 pairs or family groups in the entire area.

We staked out a flowering tree, growing close to a creek emptying into the 3rd lagoon. Sebastian and my friend Ross Gallardy (see here for his excellent blog) had seen up to three helmetcrests feeding here as recently as December 2016. We waited awhile without any sign of the birds and I decided to explore the edge of the 4th lagoon. I climbed the steep, vegetated slope first and saw nothing and then continued to the 4th and smallest lagoon. There was some habitat, but it did not look too promising. In a marshy area I flushed a Wilson’s Snipe, clearly brighter with typical call compared to what we saw earlier. I found several more cooperative Santa Marta Wrens, but no hummingbirds. Returning to the stake-out I saw that Claudia had her binoculars up and seemed to be looking at something. I searched the tree and noticed a hummingbird feeding along the shady edge. Sebastian stood close to the hummingbird, furiously taking pictures. From the glimpse I had it seemed to be a male Blue-bearded Helmetcrest. I ran downhill, slid down a rocky slope, and dropped another two meters into dense vegetation from which I crawled out camera ready. Luckily the bird stayed for several minutes, methodically probing the small pink flowers while perching on leaves and twigs. I worked my way slowly to the side that the bird was favoring and soon had a male Blue-bearded Helmetcrest feeding unconcerned at less than two meters in front of me. I knew the earlier sightings had been a good sign.

After the bird left the area we waited for another two hours, but a female and the male came back only briefly, and did not actually feed on the flowers. Elated we eventually packed up and started the long walk back to camp. While the Santa Marta Wren and Blue-bearded Helmetcrest were the clear highlights of the day these were by no means the only birds around. Other high elevation specialties, some of them represented here by subspecies endemic to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, included Andean Tit-Spinetail, Streak-backed Canastero, Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant, Rufous-browed Conebill, Black Flowerpiercer, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, and Andean Siskin. Once we returned to camp we took a short break before staking out another area that held many flowers for the evening. No hummingbirds showed but the alpenglow on the steep cliffs and the lagoon reflecting the purple light were absolutely beautiful. (List Day 3)

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Sunset Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 24th, 2017 Birding in patch near camp and the  downhill hike to farm camp

The night had been milder and I had actually slept through most of it. We woke up right around sunrise and quickly made our way to a good vantage point near camp, overlooking most of the best habitat. Having seen all the target birds the previous day, we were mainly interested in adding some behavioral observation of this essentially unknown hummingbird and maybe getting better photographic opportunities. Nothing happened for some time until I spotted a female Blue-bearded Helmetcrest feeding on reddish flowers growing on the ground along a steeper section of the slope. The bird moved quickly between the scattered flowers and came close once in response to a flight call. Suddenly another Blue-bearded Helmetcrest, presumably the immature male from the previous day, shot in and a short chase ensued. The female flew off a long way and was lost from sight as was the other helmetcrest. It appeared as if the birds held relatively large territories, foraged over long distances, and definitely only made sporadic appearances. 

We saw nothing else despite an hour of waiting. I walked the circumference of the 2nd lagoon to look for snipes without success. We packed up all our gear and were ready to head down by 11:00 am. The walk back towards the farm took the remainder of the day with some of the steeper sections tough on our tired legs. Some of the other highlights of the day included a Brown-rumped Tapaculo that I saw very well near camp, more Santa Marta Wrens, three Andean Condors that soared above the paramo as we descended (the highest number Sebastian had seen), and  views of a Santa Marta Parakeet. We reached camp around 17:00 with an immense flock of Scaly-naped Parrots circling above. We enjoyed a large dinner and then went to bed early despite having hearing a Santa Marta Screech-Owl calling nearby. (List Day 4)

February 25th Hike from farm camp back to San Pedro and drive back to Santa Marta

The final day of the trek and we all seemed reluctant to leave the tranquility of the mountains. We started slowly, eating breakfast, packing gear, and taking photos of a female White-tailed Starfrontlet that visited a flowering bush outside he kitchen house. The wish list for the day was very short and we soon had excellent views of Santa Marta Wood-Wrens. As we climbed down we ran into a good variety of Santa Marta endemics, but despite hearing many Santa Marta Antpittas, we did not get any photo opportunities.

New species for the trek included a noisy pair of White-tipped Quetzals, Spotted Barbtail, brief but good views of a Santa Marta Warbler, Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager, and three circling Sharp-shinned “Plain-breasted” Hawks. Similar to the climb up a few days before, bird activity remained high throughout the day. We reached San Pedro before 16:00 and after unloading the mule and horse we ate a quick late lunch at a local restaurant. During the drive down we saw a Striped Cuckoo and Common Paraque and reached Santa Marta all too quickly where the adventure ended. (List Day 5)

A huge thanks to Sebastian Ballesteros and Rey Rojas for making the trip very successful and their skilled guiding got us to the right spots and birds. Also many thanks to our trusty pack horse, Pinocho and equally trusty pack mule, Cocuyo.

More Reading

Collar, N. J.; Salaman, P. 2013. The taxonomic and conservation status of the Oxypogon helmetcrests. Conservación Colombiana 19: 31-38. Available at: http://www.proaves.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/The-taxonomic-and-conservation-status-of-the-Oxypogon-helmetcrests.pdf

del Hoyo, J., Collar, N. and Sharpe, C.J. 2014. Blue-bearded Helmetcrest (Oxypogon cyanolaemus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. and de Juana, E. (eds), Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive, Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

IUCN. 2016. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-3. Available at: www.iucnredlist.org. (Accessed: 07 December 2016).

Luna, J. C.; Quevedo, A. 2012. Primera fotografía en su habitat y nuevo avistamiento del Cucarachero de Santa Marta Troglodytes monticola, especie en peligro crítico. Conservacion Colombiana 17: 31-32.

Rojas, C.J. and Vasquez, C. 2015. Rediscovery of the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest Oxypogon cyanolaemus, a hummingbird lost for almost 70 years. Conservación Colombiana 22(Marzo): 4-7.

Strewe, R.; Navarro, C. 2004. The threatened birds of the río Frío Valley, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Cotinga 22: 47-55.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. great stuff Stephan mate, welcome to the club of the few that have seen the Oxypogon in Santa Marta…
    shouldn’t your eBird lists show Emerald Toucanet (Santa Marta) (Aulacorhynchus prasinus lautus) instead just Emerald Toucanet? 😉

    Reply

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