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James Currie on Rogitama Hummingbird in Colombia: Lost Relic or No?

James Currie, host of Nikon’s Birding Adventures TV, was on the scene in Colombia when remarkable news broke that a mystery hummingbird was feeding at a private nature reserve three hours north of Bogotá. At first, the species was thought to be the Bogotá Sunangel, a lost relic known to science only from a single specimen purchased by a collector in 1909 – 102 years ago! James relates the unfolding story of the sighting, filming, and eventual capture of this hummingbird for DNA purposes and proffers some ideas of what it may be.


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James Currie, host of Nikon’s Birding Adventures TV, was on the scene in Colombia when remarkable news came through that a mystery hummingbird was feeding at a private nature reserve three hours north of Bogotá. At first, the species was thought to be the Bogotá Sunangel (Heliangelus zusii), a lost relic known to science only from a single specimen purchased by a collector in 1909. Needless to say, this caused quite a stir both on the ground and on the Internet as the news caught fire. Is the species indeed a Bogotá Sunangel? A hybrid? A new species or genus? Time will tell.

In our interview, and as described in this video clip below, James relates the unfolding mystery of the sighting, filming, and eventual capture of this hummingbird and proffers his impressions of the bird’s ID.

(Full disclosure: The ABA has invited James Currie on as a guest contributor to this blog. I work part-time for Birding Adventures.)

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James, you just returned from filming a Nikon’s Birding Adventures TV (BATV) series in Colombia – which by all measures has some of the most incredible biodiversity on the planet. What regions did you visit? How would you rate your birding experience? 

Yes, ProExport Colombia sent me down there to film three episodes of BATV on the birds of Colombia. We were escorted through several parts of the country by Daniel Uribe and Sergio Ocampo of Birding Tours Colombia, a local tour operator that excels in birding trips to Colombia.

We visited Los Nevados in quest of Bearded Helmetcrest and other goodies, then Río Blanco, Montezuma and Otun Quimbaya in search of Cauca Guan and rare tanagers and lastly, to the Cali region in quest of Grayish Piculet. This was my first time birding in Colombia – the birding here is unaparalleled. I think that this is what birding in heaven must be like!

While you were there a group of Colombian ornithologists discovered a hummingbird that caused quite a stir. Some initially suspected it could be the Bogotá Sunangel-a hummingbird so rare that it has actually never been documented alive; it is only known from a single specimen that was purchased by a collector in 1909. What was your role in this find?

On our final day, we received notice that a suspected Bogotá Sunangel had been rediscovered 3 hours north of Bogotá. The hummingbird was reportedly feeding in fuchsia flowers at a private nature reserve (Rogitama Nature Preserve). Though filming had wrapped up, I extended my stay by three extra days in the hopes of documenting this find – whatever it would be.

Can you describe what the energy was like at the scene? What other professionals were involved? 

With ProExport’s support, Daniel Uribe and his brother escorted me to the reserve. The night before, I was awake all night wondering which way it would go: would I be lucky enough to find, and film, a major ornithological discovery or would the bird turn out to be something quite ordinary? I was so amped when we got there and found the bird really quickly. Immediately it was apparent that this bird was something very different.

Colombian ornithologists involved in the identification include Roberto Chávarro (ornithologist, owner Rogitama Nature Reserve), Oswaldo Cortes (Universidad Nacional), Diego Calderon (Colombia Birding), Laura Agudelo, (Colombia Birding and Sociedad Antioqueña de Ornitologia), Gary Stiles (Docente Universidad Nacional), Pablo Rodriguez (Docente Universidad UPTC), Andrea Fonseca (Biologa UPTC), and Jurgen Beckerns (Trogon Trips). Major props also go to the entire Chávarro family for creating this nature reserve and sharing it with visitors.

Did you obtain footage of this bird? How many did you see? 

Yes, see the YouTube clip above! My camerman Jeff had gone home, so all I had was a hand-held video camera but we managed to get pretty good shots of the bird in good light.

It was difficult to ascertain exactly how many birds are there. I suspect that there are at least two but as you know, hummingbirds are lightning fast so we cannot be sure. The bird looks different under varying light and distance conditions, which further complicates the ID process.

Can you describe its appearance and behavior? What was your initial impression of the bird’s ID? 

In some light conditions the bird looks almost all black. In other conditions it can appear pale grayish/green on the underside. (Unless, of course, there is more than one bird!)

The bird has a distinctive pale whitish vent/undertail coverts, a short straight bill, white spot behind the eye, a long, dark purple tail and a bluish-green gorget and green shield. It was clear that bird was highly unusual and it didn’t fit the description of other sylphs found anywhere in Colombia.

Although my opinion leans towards something sylphish or closely related to a sylph, DNA analysis will be key to revealing its identity.

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Ultimately, the hummingbird was captured by professor Gary Stiles who marked it, measured it, and captured two feathers for DNA analysis before releasing it back to the wild. What is the current thought on the bird’s ID?

Many of us spent hours and hours looking at it and it certainly appears to be something out of the ordinary—we just don’t know what yet. It may either be a new genus of sylph, a new species, a hybrid, or a color variation of Long-tailed Sylph.  It could even turn out to be a Bogotá Sunangel, although I doubt it.

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The difficulty here is that only one specimen of Bogotá Sunangel exists. Although it does not appear to be the sunangel from the official description in The Auk (read here), we have no idea how much variation there was with this species. So, in other words, we can only hypothesize at this stage.

DNA analysis is underway and we’re anxiously waiting on the results.

Where can birders stay posted about developments on this mystery bird?

I would wait for an official statement from the Colombian team or from the owner of the reserve, Roberto Chávarro.  Once we hear anything we will post developments on our Facebook page.

We look forward to you occasionally sharing Nikon’s Birding Adventures footage from around the world here on the ABA blog. Will you be sharing any more of this hummingbird footage here or on your show?

We have so much footage of Colombia that it might be tough to include this in the upcoming shows but I think we will include a little of it. Depends if my camera work makes the cut. Without my trusty camerman, I was left to my own devices for better or for worse. I learned a lot but my footage is not going to win any film awards anytime soon!

Check out some of this video footage, below:

Thanks for the update, James! Let us know what you find out.

Nikon’s Birding Adventures TV features birding hotspots around the globe. It can be viewed Mondays at 10:00 am EST and Tuesdays at 2:30 pm EST on Versus/NBC Sports, Inc. from January through June. Stay updated with James’ birding travels on Facebook or subscribe to the BATV YouTube channel.

 

Images courtesy of James Currie.

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