Ornithologist David Ascanio woke up in Caracas, Venezuela on May 10 full of excitement and a little bit of anxiety. He double and triple checked that he had everything he needed for a full day’s drive to the mountains in Caripe. His checklist: 200 liters of gasoline, all the food he and a team of four would need for the following six days, cameras, recording equipment and chargers for all his digital equipment. He and his team were setting out to find the Urich’s Tyrannulet, an elusive and Endangered bird endemic to the mountains in northern Venezuela.
“Every forest has its own ‘Shrek,’” says Ascanio, of the bird which is a similar green color to the famous movie character and plain compared to other bird species that live in the same forests. “This is our Shrek. A little tiny Shrek. If the little tiny Shrek is there, all the beauty’s also there.”
The mountains in the eastern Coastal Cordillera are remote and largely inaccessible, once there Ascanio and his team had to be totally self-sufficient.
The political situation in Venezuela, which has caused unchecked inflation, gasoline shortages, and food scarcity, can make traveling anywhere in the country, let alone to remote areas, difficult and dangerous at times. Despite the challenging logistics, which included navigating police check points as they drove through the country, the team was undeterred. They drove for miles on empty highways, quieted by a gasoline shortage, until they reached Caripe in the northeastern part of the country.
Their plan was to search three different sites, all rugged mountainous forests, and get back to Caracas within the week. Due to COVID-19, Venezuela mandates lockdowns every seven days. No matter where people are when the lockdown begins, they can’t travel. The time crunch meant the team couldn’t afford any delays and would have to choose where to focus their search wisely, or risk being stranded.
The ‘Shrek’ of the cloud forest
Urich’s Tyrannulet was originally described in 1899, but in the more than 120 years since, it has only been scientifically documented a handful of times. The second time was in the 1940s, and the third time was in 2005, by none other than Ascanio and his late friend, Mark Sokol, a fellow birdwatcher and music professor.
Sixteen years ago, Ascanio was able to snap a grainy and fleeting photo of the tyrannulet, sitting on a branch in the forest canopy. It’s difficult to make out specific features of the bird clearly, and as a result a few people questioned whether it might actually be the bird. Ascanio was certain that he had seen the tyrannulet, but he also knew that he needed to return one day to confirm beyond a doubt that he had really found the bird.
“It's one of those things you keep in rear of your mind,” says Ascanio of some of the thoughts he’s had during the past 16 years. “‘When am I going to prove this? Or if somebody else finds it, will it be different to what I saw?’ You always have those doubts.”
The lack of sightings of Urich’s Tyrannulet was also nagging other ornithologists around the world.
“Urich’s Tyrannulet was one of only 16 species of birds in all of South America that no one had reported in eBird in the past 10 years, so it stood out to us as one of the most poorly known birds on the continent,” says John C. Mittermeier, director of threatened species outreach at American Bird Conservancy.
For researchers at American Bird Conservancy and Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, data from the Lab of Ornithology’s global eBird database initially helped to bring the Urich’s Tyrannulet to their attention.
“Considering that it is also Endangered and that much of the habitat in its small range has disappeared since it was last seen, trying to find the tyrannulet and confirm that it had not gone extinct was an important conservation priority for us,” explains Mittermeier.
eBird also helped to highlight the lack of information regarding what the tyrannulet looks and sounds like. The bird had no sound recordings in the database and only a single blurry photograph, taken by Ascanio in 2005.
An enchanting forest
Ascanio’s doubts about whether that blurry photo in eBird was an Urich’s Tyrannulet were quickly put to rest. On their first day in the field, the expedition team traveled from Caripe to Yucucual-Mata de Mango in Macizo Caripe in the state of Monagas, walking up into the towering and remote mountains.
Following a trail made by mules from local farms, the team found a forest that looked promising. The dense forest, with vines hanging from the canopy, and some trees bursting through the top of the canopy, looked like the forest where Ascanio had first seen the bird.
“That's how we decided to choose the spot,” explains Ascanio. “We walked into the forest, and what I was trying to do is replicate the micro-habitat that I saw over 15 years ago. What I remember, and I still have very fresh in my mind is, there were vines hanging, so the understory wasn't very bright, but it wasn't completely dark. It was a medium-sized canopy. I'm talking about trees that were maybe 20 meters, 25 meters high, so we're talking about 60, 70 feet high, but the understory was complete.”
As the team entered the forest, they were greeted by the calls of many different species of rare birds. Evening was setting in, so they quickly started searching before it became too dark. Suddenly, two Urich’s Tyrannulet’s swooped down and perched on a branch low in the canopy.
“My heart just started pumping like crazy,” says Ascanio. “I couldn’t control myself for like three minutes. I just shouted so loud, I said ‘Urich’s Tyrannulet! Urich’s Tyrannulet!’ I think I was draining all that stress around organizing a trip that seemed very difficult.”
The team was able to capture a clear photo of the bird, the first definitive photo ever. It revealed how little ornithologists know about the species. The lack of sightings during the past century has meant that, aside from capturing the greenish color of the flycatcher, most illustrations of Urich’s Tyrannulet have some inaccuracies. The bird has a pale base to its lower mandible for example, which many illustrations do not depict.
Ascanio and his team archived their observations and media in Cornell’s Macaulay Library, where it’s publicly available for research and conservation efforts.
The following day, the team was up at dawn, searching the forest again to try and record the tyrannulet’s call. They were able to find a pair of tyrannulets in a different area and capture a sharp and shrill call.
“It’s an ugly call,” laughs Ascanio, saying that it again lends itself to the bird’s Shrek-like reputation.
The brief recording, only 18 seconds long, is shrill and sounds more like a quack or a yell than a song. The staccato chirps come in bursts against the background noise of the forest.
From coffee farms to vegetable farms
Although the expedition team found Urich’s Tyrannulets quickly in the first forest they searched, they didn’t have as much luck in the other two locations. Heavy rains prevented them from venturing to a second location. And at the third location, the forest had been heavily degraded, largely cleared for farms.
“In some areas where there was once beautiful forest,” says Ascanio in despair, “there is just grassland with no trees, absolutely nothing left.”
Mountainsides, once farmed for shade-grown coffee, are now increasingly cleared to grow sun-loving crops that bring in more money, like cucumbers, red peppers and sweet peppers. Political policies in Venezuela have fueled the shift in agriculture. More than 20 years ago, the populistic government capped the retail price for coffee. As inflation caused the cost of farming coffee to increase, farmers were not allowed to raise the price of their coffee beans to keep up.
“With shade-grown coffee, because you’ve got all these trees that are planted in the area, the soil doesn’t get eroded as fast with the rain, so you can still use the same plot, sometimes over 70, 80 years,” says Ascanio. “You don’t really have pressure to move into a new plot because your soil is still producing enough, or it still has good nutrients for these coffee shrubs to grow.”
Urich’s Tyrannulets prefer to live at higher elevations than most farms, between 2,400 and 3,600 feet, but the trend at lower elevations is worrisome for the future of the elusive flycatcher, as well as other species.
“There are still a few pristine areas in the highlands, and I think it has to do with the fact that access is difficult, and second, human population density in those areas is low,” says Ascanio. “That’s what is helping the Urich’s Tyrannulet remain in some places.”
If deforestation begins affecting higher parts of the cloud forests, it could spell trouble for the tyrannulet and many other birds.
“In tropical mountains birds often become specialists of very specific habitats and altitudinal bands,” explains Ascanio.
If the tyrannulet’s preferred habitat of pristine forest with emergent trees is destroyed, it could likely lead to the bird going extinct, along with many other species. In total the expedition team counted 155 species of birds over the course of the week and encountered other sensitive species, like glass frogs.
A future for farmers and flycatchers
After a week in the mountains, Ascanio and his team made it back to Caracas safely.
“It was hard to leave, I have to say,” he says. “It was absolutely gorgeous.”
But the beauty of the mountains wasn’t the only thing that made leaving difficult. There is still a lot of uncertainty about the future for the Urich’s Tyrannulet. With so much deforestation in its limited range, it’s possible that Yucucual-Mata de Mango is one of the last remaining places where the species still survives. But Ascanio is hopeful that if the political situation in Venezuela improves, the pristine forest in the mountains could become an ecotourism destination, providing livelihoods for local communities, and thrilling birdwatchers from around the world.
Top photo: Urich's Tyrannulet. (Photo by David Ascanio)