A bird that went unheard: new bird species found in WLT-funded reserve, Colombia SEARCH NEWS

A bird stands on the ground.

The provisionally named 'El Dorado Antpitta' was found in the WLT-supported El Dorado reserve - a safe habitat for a vast diversity of species. Credit: Juan Miguel Lara

When Nemesio Andrés Gulfo informed his ProAves colleagues that he had encountered an unusual bird out in the field in the El Dorado Reserve, the organisation’s ornithologists rushed to the site to identify it. At first, it appeared similar to the Undulated Antpitta (Grallria squamigera) which is found across the central Andes of Colombia. But the team weren’t happy with that conclusion…

To identify the adult bird more accurately, they listened to tape recordings of its song and measured its body after safely capturing and releasing it. They have since confirmed that, thanks to Nemesio and his careful observations, a unique and distinctive new species of Antpitta has been scientifically recorded.

In fact, the species is so rare that its closest relative is thought to be the Great Antpitta (Grallaria excelsa) which is known only from the Merida mountains of Venezuela, residing about 400 kilometres away from Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta where the new species was found.

The vocalisations of this large antpitta – provisionally being called the ‘El Dorado Antpitta’ – are particularly interesting and help explain why it has taken so long for the species to be recognised as distinct. According to ProAves, when listening to the bird’s song it initially seems akin to another bird species living in the El Dorado Reserve. Incredibly, around 10,000 ornithologists and birdwatchers have visited the ProAves Reserve and surrounding area since 2005, with none ever having seen or heard the species. That is with one exception: when researchers Sophie Osborn and Chad Olson saw the bird for five short minutes in 2015. Only a distant blurred photo was taken as evidence which led to the belief that what they had seen was the Undulated Antpitta.

The research team who are investigating the bird’s taxonomy include Nemesio Andrés Gulfo, Alex Cortes, Juan Carlos Luna, Paul Salaman and Thomas Donegan. They aim to publish all the evidence they have on the species over the coming year in collaboration with the University of Antioquia. This includes undertaking studies on its evolutionary relationship with other species.

Securing its future in a changing environment

To find a new species of bird is very rare nowadays. Just three new bird species were described globally in 2023. Colombia leads the world in terms of bird biodiversity – with 1,979 bird species recorded to date. And yet, new species are still being found here. This highlights the vital importance – both nationally and globally – of the 1,300 hectare El Dorado Reserve. It has already offered protection for over 20 endemic bird species and hundreds of other species of amphibians, orchids, reptiles, and many more which are restricted to the subtropical and montane forest of the reserve and region of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Deforestation continues to accelerate in the areas surrounding the Reserve, largely driven by regional property boom. The climate crisis is making the coastal plains and city of Santa Marta increasingly hot and dry. People are trying to escape by moving to the cooler areas of subtropical forest near the reserve, creating a demand for housing here. Unprotected forests in this region are being sold and cleared of trees (often without authorisation from the state) to make way for holiday homes and new farms. WLT’s support for ProAves and the El Dorado reserve is more important now than ever, to offer birds like this newly recorded antpitta a safe and secure habitat in the face of uncertainty.

Click here to find out more about the bird diversity and other species that ProAves protects in its nature reserves thanks to WLT supporters.

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