‘Lost Bird’ Emerges After Two Decades, Caught on Camera for the First Time!

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The first-ever photograph of the yellow-crested helmetshrike was taken during a recent six-week expedition led by scientists at The University of Texas at El Paso. Matt Brady/The University of Texas at El Paso

Rediscovering a long-lost species isn’t just thrilling—it’s a vital step in conservation efforts. But it takes courage and determination. Recently, an intrepid international team of scientists undertook a grueling journey through 75 miles of treacherous mountain terrain to capture the first-ever recorded images of a bird once thought lost to the world. The yellow-crested helmetshrike (Prionops alberti), categorized as a ‘lost bird’ by the American Bird Conservancy due to its mysterious disappearance from scientific records for nearly two decades, proved to be an elusive target.

Undeterred by the challenge, researchers from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) joined forces with Congolese counterparts from the Centre de Recherche en Sciences Naturelles for a six-week expedition to the remote Itombwe Massif mountain range in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their mission: to explore, document, and, if luck would have it, rediscover species long absent from scientific scrutiny.

The first-ever photograph of the yellow-crested helmetshrike was taken during a recent six-week expedition led by scientists at The University of Texas at El Paso. Matt Brady/The University of Texas at El Paso

Traversing rugged terrain on foot, the team meticulously surveyed the biodiversity of the region, combing through dense forests and scaling steep slopes. Then, amidst the mist-shrouded cloud forests cloaking the mountain’s slopes, they stumbled upon the striking yellow-crested helmetshrike, adorned with its vibrant yellow ‘helmet’ and sleek black plumage. These elusive birds, known for their raucous communal foraging habits in the forest midstory, proved to be a sight to behold.

For UTEP ornithologist Michael Harvey, encountering these magnificent creatures was nothing short of awe-inspiring. “We knew they might be here, but I was not prepared for how spectacular and unique they would appear in life,” he remarked.

Endemic to the western slopes of the Albertine Rift in Central Africa, the yellow-crested helmetshrike’s rediscovery is a triumph for conservation efforts. During the expedition, a total of 18 individuals were spotted across three different sites, with their existence confirmed through meticulously captured photographs reviewed by Cameron Rutt, leading the American Bird Conservancy’s Lost Birds project.

But the expedition didn’t stop there. In a stroke of serendipity, the team also rediscovered the red-bellied squeaker frog (Arthroleptis hematogaster), unseen by scientists in the region since the 1950s. This rediscovery, confirmed by biologist David Blackburn from the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History, further underscores the importance of continued exploration and conservation efforts in safeguarding our planet’s precious biodiversity.

While the images capture a moment of exhilaration, the team’s apprehension about the future of the recently rediscovered frog and bird species remains palpable. According to the IUCN Red List, projections indicate that the helmetshrikes could potentially lose more than 90 percent of their habitat range by 2080, a dire consequence attributed to the impacts of climate change. Additionally, amphibians such as the red-bellied squeaker frog face an equally precarious fate, being among the most imperiled creatures due to the effects of climate change.

“Mining and logging as well as the clearing of forests for agriculture are making inroads deep into the forests of the Itombwe range,” Harvey said. “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 that we don’t lose species like the helmetshrike before they are known and studied.”