Lost bird rediscovered in African mountain range

Lost bird: A black bird with a yellow upper half of its crested head sits on a hand with a forest in the background.
This is the first-ever photograph of the ‘lost bird’ – the yellow-crested helmetshrike or Prionops alberti – which researchers spotted in the mountains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Image via Matt Brady/ University of Texas at El Paso.

The University of Texas at El Paso published this original article on February 19, 2024. Edits by EarthSky.

  • No one had seen a yellow-crested helmetshrike for about two decades. The American Bird Conservancy considered it a lost bird.
  • An expedition to Africa – to the mountains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – resulted in photos of the bird.
  • One researcher said: “It was a mind-blowing experience to come across these birds. I was not prepared for how spectacular and unique they would appear in life.”

Lost bird spotted in African mountains

For the first time in two decades, scientists have captured photos of a bird long thought extinct. It’s the yellow-crested helmetshrike, or Prionops alberti, a species that the American Bird Conservancy had listed as lost. Now the bird has been found again. Scientists from the University of Texas at El Paso made the discovery during a six-week expedition to the Itombwe Massif, a mountain range in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the continent of Africa.

Its rediscovery is official. Cameron Rutt, leader of the Lost Birds project at the American Bird Conservancy, has reviewed and confirmed the photos of the helmetshrikes.

Michael Harvey, an ornithologist and UTEP assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, said:

It was a mind-blowing experience to come across these birds. We knew they might be possible here, but I was not prepared for how spectacular and unique they would appear in life.

Harvey co-led the expedition with UTEP Professor of Biological Sciences Eli Greenbaum. They were joined by ornithologist Matt Brady, as well as a group of Congolese researchers from the Centre de Recherche en Sciences Naturelles, including Chifundera Kusamba, Robert Kizungu Byamana, Chance Bahati Muhigirwa, Mwenebatu M. Aristote and Wandege M. Muninga.

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A mountainous expedition

The team trekked on foot for over 75 miles (120 km) through the depths of the Itombwe Massif, studying birds, amphibians and reptiles along the way.

While exploring the cloud forests on the slopes of a mountain, Harvey and Brady stumbled upon the helmetshrike. It’s a striking black bird with a bright yellow “helmet.” The team said they appeared as rather:

… Noisy and active groups in the midstory of the forest.

The bird is endemic to the western slopes of the Albertine Rift of Central Africa, according to Harvey. It’s a region that has been largely inaccessible due to war and security issues but has recently become safer to visit.

A fruitful expedition

In total, about 18 birds were found at three sites during the expedition. Harvey said:

This inspires hope that perhaps the species still has a reasonably healthy population in the remote forests of the region. But mining and logging as well as the clearing of forests for agriculture are making inroads deep into the forests of the Itombwe range. We are in discussions with other researchers and conservation organizations to further efforts to protect the region’s forests and the helmetshrike.

Right now is a golden opportunity to protect these tropical forests, so we don’t lose species like the helmetshrike before they are known and studied.

The expedition, which ran from December 2023 to January 2024, yielded other important discoveries. The herpetology team rediscovered the red-bellied squeaker frog, or Arthroleptis hematogaster, which had not been seen since the 1950s. The frog rediscovery has been confirmed by David Blackburn, professor at the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History.

Bottom line: During an expedition into the mountains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, researchers rediscovered a “lost bird” – a yellow-crested helmetshrike – that no one had seen in a couple of decades.

Read more: Ivory-billed woodpecker isn’t extinct (again)

February 27, 2024

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