During a recent expedition to Alto Sinú in the Colombian department of Córdoba, led by Sociedad Ornitológica de Córdoba, Asociación Calidris (BirdLife in Colombia) and the National Natural Parks, around 30 bird species were found that were previously undocumented in the department. The expedition team, which included researchers, local naturalists and biologists, searched for the Sinu Parakeet, one of the species on Global Wildlife Conservation’s list of 25 Most Wanted Lost Species. The parakeet has not had a confirmed sighting since 1949.
The expedition was the first comprehensive ornithological survey for the Alto Sinú. Until 2016, researchers there were unable to study any species due to the decades-long civil war in Colombia, which still poses a risk to conservationists and recently led to the tragic death of bird conservationist Gonzalo Cardona Molina.
The expedition team suspected that the critically endangered Sinu Parakeet may have lived in a dense tropical forest in the Murrucucú Mountains, where it could not be documented and examined for years. Although the parakeet was not found in these efforts, the number of other rare and endangered birds the team saw gave them hope that the parakeet might live in the northern sector of the western Andes.
“It’s all good news for me,” says Diego Calderón-Franco, biologist at COLOMBIA Birding, who led the expedition. “Ornithologically, this has been one of the most productive expeditions in Colombia in recent years in an area that has not been well documented and it has shown that there is still a lot to discover. And the locals on the expedition were some of the best naturalists I have ever met. With their help, we were still able to find the Sinu parakeet. “
Sharpbill, Copyright Diego Calderon Franco, Colombia Birding, from the Surfbirds Galleries
The expedition focused on searching the tropical forests of the northern slopes of the Murrucucú Mountains at altitudes between 1,470 and 3,200 feet above sea level. During the eleven-day expedition, the team documented 238 species of birds. As a result, there are now 589 recorded bird species for Cordoba on the eBird database, an online database used by bird watchers around the world to record confirmed sightings. Before the expedition, there were 541 in eBird for Cordoba.
“This expedition wasn’t easy, but I’m glad it was made possible thanks to a good mix of biologists, conservationists, amateur bird watchers, and the local communities who have come together to carry out the most comprehensive exploration in our department’s recent history. Says Hugo Alejandro Herrera Gomez, President of the Sociedad Ornitológica de Córdoba. “For me as an avid amateur bird watcher and nature lover, this was without a doubt one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It gives me confidence that we still have time to save these amazing places and habitats. “
One of the unexpected species the expedition found was a sharpbill, a tiny, dark-spotted white-olive bird. This rare species has only been documented a few times in Colombia, with sightings in Anorí and the San Lucas Mountains in the central Andes, as well as in the Pacific Chocó. The confirmed sighting extended the known range of the Sharpbill. It had never been found in Cordoba.
The expedition team also found six other bird species that had not been documented in Cordoba for over 70 years. One of them was the Sapayoa. The little olive-yellowish bird was documented only once in 1949 in Cordoba. The Chocó screech owl and the slate throat mosquito catcher were two other species that were documented in the department decades after their last confirmed sightings. Each was only seen once in Cordoba in the 1960s.
The discoveries added to the list of new species for Cordoba didn’t stop with birds. The team found a Chocoan Lancehead, a golden brown snake that has never been documented in the department, although researchers expected to find it in Murrucucú, as the mountains connect the Chocó region with the Magdalena and Nechí areas where the snake is located is also found.
Among the rare plants the team documented was a species of cocoa tree (Theobroma cf. cirmolinae) endemic to Colombia. It is only the third time this beautiful tree has been documented in the country, with tiny yellow flowers growing straight from its trunk.
Researchers are still working to identify some species that they were able to photograph on the expedition. It is possible that the number of new species for Cordoba will change as they review records and scientific literature. The expedition’s researchers are working with other experts to determine if a tiny squirrel with brownish fur and white-tipped ears that they photographed is a new species in science.
“It is very satisfying to have completed this expedition,” says Luis Fernando Castillo, director of Asociación Calidris. “We have been thinking about this moment for three years. First we postponed the expedition due to the security situation in the region, and then we had to postpone due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally the job is done and the results are exciting. “
The researchers organized the search for the Sinu Parakeet for three years and are not giving up yet. They hope to be able to search nearby mountain ranges in the future.
The Sinu Parakeet expedition was sponsored by American Bird Conservancy, Global Wildlife Conservation, Urrá SA ESP, Vortex Colombia, COLOMBIA Birding, Café Cordoba, and Urabá Nature Tours.
Carlos Vidal, National Natural Park
“The Paramillo National Natural Park underlines the key work that local and international institutions have done jointly to undertake a scientific expedition into the highlands of the San Jerónimo Mountains in the Murrucucú massif. The results are superb as some of the species found are novel records for Cordoba, and I think this expedition was without a doubt crucial in expanding general biological knowledge of the Andean sector in southern Cordoba. We hope that over time this type of activity will continue and benefit the biodiversity and ecosystem services we have found in South Cordoba.”
Lina Valencia, Colombia Conservation Officer, Global Wildlife Conservation
“The whereabouts of the Sinu Parakeet may still be a mystery, but this expedition not only expanded the known ranges of other species, it also gave us hope that it is not too late for the Sinu Parakeet. More joint expeditions like this one that require multiple organizations and a diverse group of individuals from scientists to local community members to amateur bird watchers around the world so that we can better understand and protect the wilderness. “
John C. Mittermeier, Director of Threatened Species Outreach at American Bird Conservancy
“This expedition is a fantastic example of how searching for lost species like the Sinu Parakeet can lead to a variety of exciting discoveries and conservation benefits. Although the team did not find the Sinu Parakeet on this particular expedition, they have significantly expanded our knowledge of the biodiversity of this poorly explored part of Colombia and helped build relationships with the local community that can form a foundation for future conservation efforts. “