It’s often been said that extinction is forever, but sometimes that label can be applied prematurely.
Consider the 7.5-inch-long Tachira (TAH-chee-rah) Antpitta. It has not been seen since the mid-1950s when ornithologists first recorded and described it.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as critically endangered, and many feared it was extinct. That natural history mystery has now been solved, and the news is good.
An international team of researchers working deep in the mountainous forests of western Venezuela have rediscovered the Tachira Antpitta, a plump, short-tailed brown bird not seen since it was first recorded in the 1950s.
Last year, scientists from the Red Siskin Initiative (RSI), a conservation partnership between the Smithsonian and several scientific organizations in Venezuela, organized a team to search for the antpitta.
The team was led by Jhonathan Miranda of RSI and included colleagues Alejandro Nagy, Peter Bichier of the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Miguel Lentino and Miguel Matta of the Coleccion Ornitologica Phelps (COP). The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) provided financial support as part of its ongoing “Search for Lost Birds.”
The team set out in June 2016 knowing that several factors were likely to make the antpitta especially challenging to find if in fact it still existed.
The species inhabits dense undergrowth at altitudes of 5,000 to 7,000 feet in a rugged and hard-to-reach region of the Andes. It is difficult to see, much less identify visually. This antpitta differs in coloration only subtly from related species.
On the other hand, antpittas are easier to hear than to see, but with no recordings of their voices, nobody knew what to listen for. From personal experience, I know that antpittas are notoriously difficult to see in their preferred dense jungle habitat.
In 2011 a local guide led me on a jungle hike to see antpittas in Ecuador. We saw four different species. However, if I had been alone, I doubt I would have found even one.
Fortunately, the team searching for the Tachira Antpitta in Venezuela had one advantage. They knew where to look.
“We followed the route described in the earlier expedition’s field notebooks to locate the original site of the discovery,” Miranda said.
To reach the remote location, part of what is now El Tama National Park, the team traveled by foot on steep and narrow Andean trails, with a mule train to carry their gear. From their campsite, the team hiked two hours in the dark to reach appropriate habitat at dawn, the best time to hear the birds sing.
The first day there, Miranda and Nagy heard the distinctive song of an antpitta they had not heard before.
“We were thrilled to re-find the Tachira Antpitta during our first day in the field,” said Miranda, “and we think they persist in more places we have not yet searched.”
Over the next week, the team was able to confirm the mysterious song as that of the long-lost Tachira Antpitta. They photographed it and recorded its voice for the first time.
“The rediscovery provides hope and inspiration that we still have a chance to conserve this species,” said Daniel Lebbin, ABC’s vice president of international programs. “We hope this rediscovery will lead to improved management of and attention for protected areas like El Tama National Park.”
“Jhonathan Miranda and his RSI colleagues have resolved one of South America’s great bird mysteries, and we hope their findings will contribute to a renewed effort to conserve this species,” said Lebbin.
In the coming months, the team plans to publish the full details of their findings in a scientific journal, including how the Tachira Antpitta’s voice and appearance differ from other antpittas. Additional fieldwork is necessary to learn more about this mysterious bird.
Similar habitats can be found nearby in Colombia, and the species might also occur there. This study will help future researchers determine the species’ full range, ecology and habitat requirements, and how best to ensure its survival.