A recent expedition to Alto Sinú in the Department of Córdoba, Colombia, led by Sociedad Ornitológica de Córdoba, Asociación Calidris (BirdLife in Colombia), and the National Natural Parks found approximately 30 bird species not previously documented in the department. The expedition team, which included researchers, local naturalists, and biologists, was looking for the Sinu Parakeet, one of the species on Global Wildlife Conservation’s top 25 most wanted lost species list. The parakeet hasn’t had a confirmed sighting since 1949.
The expedition was the first comprehensive ornithological survey for the Alto Sinú. Until 2016, researchers had not been able to survey species there due to Colombia’s decades-long civil conflict, 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 been living in dense tropical forest in the Murrucucú Mountains, where for years it could not be documented and studied. Although the parakeet was not found during this effort, the number of other rare and endangered birds the team saw has given them hope that the parakeet may be living in the northern sector of the Western Andes.
“It’s all good news for me,” says Diego Calderón-Franco, a biologist with COLOMBIA Birding, who led the expedition. “Ornithologically, this has been one of the most prolific expeditions in Colombia in recent years, in an area that hasn’t been well-documented, and it showed that there is still much to be discovered there. And the local people on the expedition were some of the best naturalists I have ever met. With their help, we could still 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 slope of the Murrucucú Mountains at elevations between 1,470 and 3,200 feet above sea level. During the course of the 11-day expedition, the team documented 238 bird species. As a result, there are now 589 recorded bird species for Córdoba in the eBird database, an online database that birders around the world use to record confirmed sightings. Before the expedition, there were 541 in eBird for Córdoba.
“This expedition has not been easy, but I am pleased it was possible thanks to a good mix of biologists, conservationists, amateur birders, and the local communities, who joined forces to produce the most complete exploration in the recent history of our department,” says Hugo Alejandro Herrera Gomez, President of Sociedad Ornitológica de Córdoba. “For me, as an avid amateur birder and nature-lover, this has been no doubt one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It gives me faith 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-and-olive bird. This rare species has only been documented a handful of times in Colombia, with sightings in Anorí and the San Lucas Mountains in the Central Andes, and in the Pacific Chocó. The confirmed sighting expanded the known range of the Sharpbill. It had never been found in Córdoba before.
The expedition team also found six other bird species that had not been documented in Córdoba in over 70 years. One of them was the Sapayoa. The small olive-and-yellowish bird had only been documented in Córdoba once before, in 1949. The Chocó Screech-Owl and the Slate-throated Gnatcatcher were two other species documented decades after their last confirmed sightings in the department. Each has only been seen in Córdoba once before, in the 1960s.
The discoveries adding to the list of new species for Córdoba didn’t stop with birds. The team found a Chocoan Lancehead, a gold-and-brown snake that has never been documented in the department before, though researchers expected to find it in the Murrucucú, since the mountains connect the Chocó region with the Magdalena and Nechí areas where the snake is also found.
Among the rare plants the team documented was a type of cocoa tree (Theobroma cf. cirmolinae) endemic to Colombia. It’s only the third time this beautiful tree, with tiny yellow flowers growing directly out of its trunk, has been documented in the country.
Researchers are still working to identify some species they managed to photograph on the expedition. It’s possible that as they review records and scientific literature, the number of new species for Córdoba could change. The expedition’s researchers are collaborating with other experts to determine if a small squirrel with brownish fur and white-tipped ears that they photographed is a new species to science.
“Having completed this expedition is very satisfying,” says Luis Fernando Castillo, Director of Asociación Calidris. “For three years, we have been thinking about this moment. First, we postponed the expedition due to the security situation in the area, and then we were forced to delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, the work is done and the results are exciting.”
Researchers have spent three years organizing the search for the Sinu Parakeet, and they are not giving up yet. They hope to search nearby mountain ranges in the future.
The expedition for the Sinu Parakeet was sponsored by American Bird Conservancy, Global Wildlife Conservation, Urrá SA ESP, Vortex Colombia, COLOMBIA Birding, Café Cordoba, and Urabá Nature Tours.
Carlos Vidal, Parques Nacionales Naturales
“The Paramillo National Natural Park highlights the key work that has been carried by a joint effort between local and international institutions to make a scientific expedition to the highlands of the San Jerónimo Mountains in the Murrucucú Massif. The results are outstanding, as several of the species found are novel records for Córdoba and, without any doubt, I think this expedition was vital to broaden the general biological knowledge we have on the Andean sector in the south of Córdoba. We hope this type of activities keep happening over time, benefiting the biodiversity and the ecosystem services we found in South Córdoba.”
Lina Valencia, Colombia Conservation Officer, Global Wildlife Conservation
“The whereabouts of the Sinu Parakeet may still be a mystery, but this expedition has not only expanded the known ranges of other species but has given us hope that it’s not too late for the Sinu Parakeet. More collaborative expeditions like this one, where multiple organizations and a diverse group of individuals, from scientists to local community members to amateur birders, are needed around the world so we can better understand and protect the wild.”
John C. Mittermeier, Director of Threatened Species Outreach at American Bird Conservancy
“This expedition is a fantastic example of how searches for lost species, such as the Sinu Parakeet, can lead to a wide range of exciting discoveries and benefits for conservation. Even though the team did not find the Sinu Parakeet on this particular expedition, they have added a huge amount to our knowledge of the biodiversity of this poorly studied part of Colombia, and helped to build relationships with the local community that can provide a foundation for future conservation efforts.”