The Santa Marta sabrewing (Campylopterus phainopeplus) is a large hummingbird endemic to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains of Colombia. This rare and localized species has adapted to thrive in the cool, high-elevation cloud forests of this isolated mountain range. With its large size, unique adaptations, and threatened status, the Santa Marta sabrewing is one of the most fascinating hummingbirds in the world.
The Santa Marta sabrewing is one of the largest hummingbird species, reaching lengths of up to 15cm and weighing around 12-13g. As its name suggests, it has long, curved wings that allow it to hover and maneuver expertly within dense forest habitat.
The plumage of the male Santa Marta sabrewing is predominantly metallic green above and gray below, with a forked black tail. The most distinctive feature is the elongated outer primary wing feathers which exceed the tail length and give the bird its sabrewing appearance. The female is slightly duller, lacking the long wing feathers. Both sexes have a long straight black bill adapted for reaching nectar in long tubular flowers.
Range and Habitat
This species is endemic to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, an isolated mountain range that rises from the Caribbean coastline of Colombia. Here it occupies altitudes from 2400-4000m, inhabiting humid montane forests and forest borders rich in flowers and flowering shrubs.
Due to its limited range within a single mountain range, the Santa Marta sabrewing has a severely restricted global distribution of less than 5000km2. It has a fragmented population due to habitat loss, estimated at only 1000-2500 mature individuals. For these reasons, the Santa Marta sabrewing is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Ecology and Behavior
To feed, the Santa Marta sabrewing uses its specialized long bill to access nectar from tubular flowers of endemic plant species such as the Santa Marta mountain palo verde and Fagua trees. It also feeds on small arthropods.
This large hummingbird is strongly territorial, with the males using their metallic plumage and aerial displays to defend prime flower-rich territories. Courtship displays involve the male flying in U-shaped or figure-8 patterns, calling and showing off his iridescent plumage to impress females.
The Santa Marta sabrewing’s long wings allow superb maneuverability and hovering ability to claim territory and extract nectar while hovering at flowers. The wings also generate the insect-like buzzing sounds when in fast flight that give hummingbirds their name.
To breed, females build a small cup nest on a tree branch, using plant fibers and down. She lays two tiny white eggs, which she incubates alone for around 16 days. The chicks are fed by the female with regurgitated arthropods and nectar and will fledge at 18-22 days old.
Threats and Conservation
The restricted range, small population and threatened mountain forest habitat of the Santa Marta sabrewing mean it faces an uncertain future. Habitat loss from logging, agriculture and urbanization has reduced and fragmented its natural habitat. only 30% of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta’s original forest cover remains. Climate change is also a threat, as upward shifts in temperature ranges may exceed the tolerances of cloud forest ecosystems.
However, conservation efforts are underway to protect critical reserves such as El Dorado Nature Reserve inside its range. Captive breeding programs have also been established as an insurance population for this rare species. Further habitat protection, limiting deforestation and raising local environmental awareness will be key to ensuring the Santa Marta sabrewing does not slide closer towards extinction.
The need to protect rare endemic species like the Santa Marta sabrewing is clear. As one of the unique and threatened endemic plants and animals of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta ‘sky islands’, its conservation is critical for maintaining the evolutionary uniqueness and rich biodiversity of this special region. With targeted conservation management, there is hope that the Santa Marta sabrewing’s fascinating adaptations will be preserved well into the future.