Oxypogon in the Sky: A Search for One of the World’s Rarest Hummingbirds

Bird extinction is on the rise. As habitat destruction, introduced predators, and avian disease wreak havoc on birds around the world, conservationists have continued to fight back, preserving land, eradicating non-native species, and preventing the spread of diseases. Amongst the almost continual decline of species around the world, there sometimes is a glimmer of hope. In this case, that glimmer was the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest (Oxypogon cyanolaemus). Lost for nearly 60 years, this large flashy hummingbird was re-discovered a little less than two years ago in March of 2015.

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I remember seeing an article about the rediscovery of the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest while Melissa and I were on our six month birding trip. I found the news interesting, but didn’t think too much of it. After all, we were coming off of three months of birding in Southeast Asia and were about to spend three more in South America — there was no time to think about other birds! But thoughts of travelling resurfaced this past year while I was back at school. With a summer internship lined up, I started to plan a six week birding trip to Colombia in the spring of 2016. Colombia seemed like a logical choice to visit with a huge number of birds, plenty of endemics, and a few critically endangered species. As I began to plan out the itinerary, I remembered the article about the helmetcrest and its rediscovery. To be honest, the article didn’t paint a very bright picture. After all, the rediscovery only occurred because two ornithologists were in the area surveying the damage of fires that had been set by one of the local tribes.

With little details about the specifics of the location and a grim diagnosis of the remaining habitat, I put aside my desire to see this rare hummingbird and continued planning my trip. It wasn’t until July, that another article was posted about the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest and my dreams about seeing this rare hummingbird became a reality. The article detailed the account of a science writer from New York and her friend visiting Santa Marta solely to see the hummingbird. The article was very interesting, but more importantly, it confirmed that the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest was still being seen in the same area and I now had the contact information for a birding guide who could arrange access to visit the area.

Fast forward six months, I got off a bus at the Santa Marta bus terminal and met Sebastian (fotonatural@live.com), a Colombian birding guide who had made more treks to the home of the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest than anyone else (this would be his fourth trip). In the weeks prior to my arrival, Sebastian had made the necessary arrangements with a local “fixer” who would be our guide to the paramo and liason with the local Kogi Tribe.

We awoke at 0500 from our beds in San Pedro Town, packed our bags, and headed off up the road towards the start of the trail. Sebastian dropped me off at the start of the trail and then took the car back to town to find a place to park it for a few days. I headed off up the trail through the coffee plantations with the plan of slowly birding my way along the trail and eventually meeting back up with Sebastian and our local guide Rey. The morning started off well. After climbing the first steep portion of the trail though coffee plantations, the trail leveled off and entered a decent tract of forest. Along this section I found a few Santa Marta Antbirds, Santa Marta Foliage-gleaners, Santa Marta Toucanets, and could hear Santa Marta Antpitta calling in the distance. I heard an interesting call and after a little bit of tape playback, a Plain-breasted Hawk¸ came barreling in to check out the perceived intruder. By 0830, Sebastian had caught up to me and we spent the rest of the morning birding our way up to our first campsite at 2,500m.

This portion of the trail was very enjoyable. Most of the time the trail followed the top of a ridge providing spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and allowing us to see the exact path we would be taking to reach the paramo. The habitat along the first few kilometers was a mixture of forest and open farmland. In the forest sections we picked up more Santa Marta endemics in the form of Rusty-headed Spinetail, Yellow-crowned Whitestart, Santa Marta Antpitta as well as other good birds including Linded Quail-Dove, Streak-capped Spinetail, and a few dozen Golden-breasted Fruiteaters! The weather was overcast most of the day keeping bird activity high, but by late afternoon fog had arrived as we neared our camping site. After about 11 kilometers of hiking, we reached the first “top” at 2600m marking the point at which we had to steeply descend again to a river and then climb back up to our campsite site at an abandoned farmhouse. We arrived just before dusk, and as we settled in, a female White-tailed Starfrontlet visited a flowering bush beside the farm house.

After a well-deserved meal, I decided I’d hike back down the hill to a nearby forest edge to look for the endemic Santa Marta Screech-Owl. Since we had been hiking all day, Sebastian decided to stay behind and since I had been carrying all my gear, I decided I’d just go with my binoculars. No camera, no recorder, no microphone. Just me and a flashlight. As I walked away I joked that I probably would have one come close enough to pet. Well, you don’t have to be a birder to guess what happened next. After walking a few hundred meters back downhill, I not only managed to call in a Santa Marta Screech-Owl, but it happened to fly in and land 4 feet away atop a fiddle head! With no camera or recording gear all I could do is watch in awe as this owl sat next to me calling away. After a few minutes, I left the bird and ran back up to the farm house. Exhausted I grabbed my gear and Sebastian and I took off back down the hill. We were able to relocate the owl, but of course it wasn’t as cooperative this time! That’s what I get for being lazy the first time around!

Santa Marta Screech Owl

Santa Marta Screech Owl

Santa Marta Antpitta

Santa Marta Antpitta

The next morning we left at 0445 so that we could make it to the next patch of good forest by dawn. We reached the forest edge shortly before dawn and walked for light. Soon both Santa Marta and “Santa Marta” Rufous Antpittas began to call near us. Sebastian found the Rufous feeding along the trail and we were both able to get nice look. Shortly afterwards, a pair of Santa Marta Warblers began to sing and after walking uphill for about 10 minutes, we found a pair of Santa Marta Bush-Tyrants. For the next four hours, we slowly birded our way up along this very steep section of trail that runs through a very good portion of forest. By 1000 we had made our way up to the edge of the paramo. It was relief to know that we were getting closer, but we still had a few hours of hiking left.

Once we arrived to the paramo, we picked up the pace and started moving faster in the direction of our final destination at 3,700m. As we moved along a ridge and dropped into a nearby valley, you could see a few houses, one of which was new since Sebastian’s last trip a year prior. Although the Kogi has lived here for thousands of years, they are also the biggest threat to the survival of the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest. The Kogi’s own survival as a people has forced them into unsustainable farming practices that often involve illegally burning the paramo to create areas for cattle to graze. This is causing irreparable harm to the fragile ecosystem. As we made our way past the last Kogi hut, we climbed a final ridge and could finally see our destination, a series of small lagunas (lakes) with steep rocky vegetated hillsides. We officially made it to our campsite on the shores of the second laguna at 1400 and began to set up camp. Sebastian suggested we set up and then rest for the remainder of the afternoon with a plan of heading further uphill to the third laguna in the morning to search for the helmetcrest. Of course, for those that know me, this suggestion didn’t go over too well. There’s no way I just hiked for two days, to not just drop my gear, and head uphill as quickly as possible to find my target bird. Luckily, it didn’t take Sebastian much convincing and by 1430 we started the 20 minute climb up to the third laguna.

 

Santa Marta Wrens always did a great job of keeping at least one branch between us...

Santa Marta Wrens always did a great job of keeping at least one branch between us…

As we hiked up along a rocky cliff, we saw our first of many Santa Marta Wrens. Although I’ve only been talking about the helmetcrest, the Santa Marta Wren is another critically endangered species that is only found at very high altitudes within the Santa Marta mountain range. After enjoying some nice views of the wrens, we continued on our way passing a Black-backed Thornbill and some Andean Tit-spinetails. It didn’t take long to reach the third laguna which is the most reliable spot to see the helmetcrest. The terrain here is very unforgiving consisting of a steep hillside dominated by large boulders, cliffs, and thick vegetation. We scrambled up a hillside and split up to cover more ground. We both found a nice view spot and sat for the next hour scanning for the target bird. After an hour of sitting, I had seen a few interesting species including Streak-backed Canastero, Black Flowerpiercer, and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, but our main quarry had yet to be spotted. I decided to move locations and as I jumped across from boulder to boulder, a large hummingbird with a large buffy-white flash in the tail approached me, hovered for a few seconds, and took off to a nearby bush. In unison, both Sebastian and I yelled, “helmetcrest!” and just like that, I had seen one of the rarest birds in the world. The female Blue-bearded Helmetcrest sat contently on a twig for about ten minutes before flying off and not being relocated. Relieved that we had found the bird the first afternoon, we made our way back down to the campsite and enjoyed an evening of relaxing under the cold dark sky.

Our first Blue-bearded Helmetcrest (female) of the trip!

Our first Blue-bearded Helmetcrest (female) of the trip!

Waking up this morning wasn’t very pleasant. It was cold outside. And by cold I mean really, really cold. I definitely wasn’t as prepared as I should have been because I didn’t want to carry cold weather clothes with me for an entire 6 week trip just for this. Shortly after 0600 Sebastian and I headed off back uphill with the goal of finding more helmetcrests and photographing a male. The plan was to spend the entire day between the third and fourth lagunas. We spent the first part of the morning near where we had seen the female the day prior and although we saw a few more Santa Marta Wrens and a Rufous-browed Conebill (the isolated ssp is very far away from its closest neighbors near Bogota!), the helmetcrest was nowhere to be found. We decided to hike up higher along the cliff, but eventually realized we couldn’t descend due to a drop off and retraced our steps a bit in order to eventually make it to the fourth laguna. I can’t reiterate enough how difficult it was to move around the lake– it took well over an hour to get to the backside of the third laguna.

Immature male Blue-bearded Helmetcrest

Immature male Blue-bearded Helmetcrest

As we approached the stream entering the third laguna, a Blue-bearded Helmetcrest once again “charged” me, flying in close, hovering for a few seconds, and then retreating to a nearby perch. This behavior of “charging” happened numerous times over the next two days and was quite interesting. Every time I entered an area (territory?) occupied by a helmetcrest, it would approach quite closely (sometimes within a meter), hover for a few seconds and then fly off to a perch. Overall the helmetcrests were very wary and other than these initial charges, it was hard to get close to them. This second bird was a young immature male which fed on some pink flowers for a few minutes and then disappeared. We staked out the area for an hour, but after no more sightings, decided to head even higher up to the fourth laguna. By this time it was getting close to lunch time and we both staked out different sections of the fourth laguna in hopes of finding an adult male helmetcrest. After about two hours and no sightings, I got bored and decided to head back downhill to where we had seen the immature male. Upon my arrival back at the pink flowering tree, I was greeted (charged) by the same immature male helmetcrest. Over the next few hours I was able to observe two immature males and at least one female Blue-bearded Helmetcrest as they fed on the small pink flowers of a single tree. I was able to climb up a nearby hillside and sit about 10 meters away from where the helmetcrests would come in to feed. They would come in to the flowers for about five minutes at a time often clinging to the tree as they fed. After feeding they would either retreat to the thick undergrowth near the stream or disappear over the hillside. No more than one bird would come in and feed on the flowers at a time. As evening fell, we made our way back to the campsite, happy with the sightings for the day, but still a bit perplexed as to where the adult males were.

Starting the hike back down

Starting the hike back down

Today was our final morning in the paramo. We made our way directly to the pink flowering tree and sat quietly waiting for the helmetcrests to arrive. The area was in the shade and it was almost 0900 before the first female arrived and perched a few meters away. Throughout the next two hours, the same three birds from the day prior came in to feed and I was able to get some more nice pictures. By 1000, it was time to get going and we made our way back to the campsite. After a quick lunch, we packed up our tents and started the journey back down towards the abandoned farm house. We moved quickly across the paramo, but still managed to see both Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle and Andean Condor. We arrived at the edge of the forest by early afternoon and spent the remainder the afternoon and evening slowly working our way down concentrating our efforts on looking for Santa Marta Parakeet. The search was unsuccessful and we arrived back at the farm house by dusk. This time, I was prepared for my screech-owl search and headed off into the dark with all of my gear. I checked the same location that I had seen them a few days prior and was almost about to give up when a Santa Marta Screech-Owl finally started to call. It took a few minutes, but eventually I had fantastic looks as it sat a few meters away at eye level!

Santa Marta Screech-Owl!

Santa Marta Screech-Owl!

Our last morning, we started at 0430 so that we could have time to do the intital decent and climb back up to the top of the ridge on the other side. At this point we waited for dawn and then spent the first hour watching Scaly-naped Parrots fly by with the hopes that some Santa Marta Parakeets would also move through the valley. I got excited a few times when Scarlet-fronted Parakeets flew past and a small flock of Barred Parakeets threw me for a loop for a few minutes, but in the end, we had no sightings of Santa Marta Parakeets. We spent the first part of the morning slowly birding down through the forest where we encountered another pair of Santa Marta Bush-Tyrants and another pair of Santa Marta Warblers. The last highlight of the hike was a pair of Barred Forest-Faclons which called loudly close to the trail and we were able to see one of them perched. We arrived back to San Pedro Town by early afternoon, concluding our helmetcrest trek.

The five day adventure had met all of my expectations. Not only was it amazing to spend a few days in the paramo with two crictcally endangered species, but the scenery along the way had been spectacular. The forest birding during the hike up and down was second to none. While most people struggle to see birds like Santa Marta Antpitta and Santa Marta Screech-Owl on the El Dorado side, here they both were very common and approachable. Also, seeing double-digit numbers of Golden-breasted Fruiteaters was awesome! If you’re in decent shape, this is definitely a trek worth doing. By no means is it easy, but the reward at the top is unparalleled. Sebastian is a fantastic guide and our fixer, Rey, was also very enjoyable to be around. Hopefully the Kogis will realize the destruction they are causing and that the habitat around the lagunas can continue to be preserved so that many more birders can experience the excitement of seeing the Oxypogon in the sky.

Sunset at the edge of the laguna

Sunset at the edge of the laguna

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