First photos taken of 'lost' African bird


Scientists have captured the first photographs of a spectacular African bird species that was feared possibly extinct.

Yellow-crested Helmetshrike had not been observed for almost two decades and was classified as a 'lost' species by the Search for Lost Birds project.

University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) scientists made the discovery in December 2023 during a six-week expedition to the Itombwe Massif, a mountain range in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The photos of the helmetshrikes have been reviewed and confirmed by Cameron Rutt, who leads Search for Lost Birds at the American Bird Conservancy.

Michael Harvey, who co-led the expedition with UTEP's Eli Greenbaum, 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."

An in-the-hand photograph of the rediscovered Yellow-crested Helmetshrike (Matt Brady / UTEP).


International expedition

Harvey and Greenbaum 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.

The team trekked by foot for more than 120 km through the depths of the Itombwe Massif, studying birds, amphibians and reptiles along the way.

While exploring the cloudforests on the slopes of a mountain, Harvey and Brady stumbled upon the helmetshrike — a striking black bird with a bright yellow 'helmet'. The team said the birds appeared in "noisy and active" groups, frequenting midstory of the forest. In total, about 18 helmetshrikes were found at three sites.

Yellow-crested Helmetshrike is endemic to the western slopes of the Albertine Rift of Central Africa, a region that has been largely inaccessible due to war and security issues but has recently become safer to visit.

Harvey explained: "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 that 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 (Arthroleptis hematogaster), which had not been seen since the 1950s.

Search for Lost Birds is a collaboration of Re:wild, American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and BirdLife International, with data support from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and its eBird platform used by birders around the world.

Several other 'lost' birds have been documented in recent years, including Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon in September 2022 and Madagascar's Dusky Tetraka in January 2023.