The Santa Marta Mountains, as seen from El Dorado Reserve

Slubberdegullions of the
Santa Marta Mountains

A defense of colorful language as we ascend the Santa Marta Mountains in Northern Colombia.


am riding in a lifted Toyota Forerunner with Gabriel and the Professor. Our driver, who specializes in navigating the rugged climb up into Colombia’s Santa Marta mountains, is not moving much faster than an idle.

Daydreaming, I remember a strange incident just two days ago. I had yet to arrive in Colombia, and was in pole-position at some stoplight in well-paved Beaverton, Oregon, when a fifty-something pedestrian walked past my car, murmuring. I rolled down my window and heard her yelling at me. “Eat dick, Peckerhead! Go to hell Fuckface!” 

We are driving the rocky, uneven road above Minca. I am aware that by sitting in the back seat behind the driver, there is only a few feet between me and a thousand-foot, nearly vertical drop. A tangle of vines, tree ferns, giant elephant ear plants, six-foot reddish-orange bromeliad bracts and lobster claw heliconias, block my full view of the jungly expanse. They don’t help those stomach butterflies.

Gaige's Rainbow Lizard

A Gaige's Rainbow Lizard (Cnemidophorus gaigei) in the mangrove lowlands of Magdelana department in Northern Colombia.


abriel guided me in Ecuador over a decade ago. We kept in touch, sharing news of our growing kids, and when I suggested I was thinking about returning to Ecuador, we spent years throwing around the idea of a trip to northern Colombia with the Professor,a New Yorker who had also traveled with Gabriel.

We stop at a small pueblo at a bend in the road; really just an open-air home, and sit on the concrete verandah. The homeowner has planted colorful flowering plants on her property and on the steep, jungly terrain across the road. A combination of the precise elevation at which this home rests, and all those colorful flowers, make this spot a good one to wait out hummingbirds.

One such hummingbird, the Santa Marta Woodstar, is one of seven endemic hummingbirds to the Santa Marta Mountains. It exists only here, seen almost exclusively in a narrow band of elevation. It is not the only animal named for the mountain range. 13 bird species, and numerous other animals and plants, are named for the Santa Martas. This is almost unheard of anywhere else in the world—only the Indonesian islands of Buru, Sulawesi and Sumatra have similar counts of species being named for them.

Sunbaked Ferns in the Santa Marta Mountains

Sunbaked fern leaves along the trail to San Lorenzo Peak in the Santa Marta Mountains.


ut those are islands, and islands that are both close to each other, and close to a continent, are known as engines of biodiversity because they are seeded with life by the continent, and isolated enough to produce specialization. The Santa Marta mountains, on the other hand, belong to a continent.

Why is the abundant diversity so unique, so specialized?

These mountains are isolated, stuck in the northern corner of Colombia, and they rise abruptly from the Caribbean Sea to an elevation of 18,947 feet, the highest tropical coastal range in the world. This isolation, combined with the considerable altitude variation within a short distance, has created an abundance of distinct microclimates and ecological niches. As you ascend the mountains, the temperature and vegetation change, providing diverse and continually changing habitats for a wide range of species.

Corinna Daggerwing Butterfly photographed in the El Dorado Reserve of the Santa Marta Mountains

A Corinna Daggerwing butterfly (Marpesia corinna), photographed in the El Dorado Reserve in the Santa Marta Mountains.


ecause of those speedy elevation transitions, the Santa Marta Mountains encompass tropical rainforests, cloud forests, paramo grasslands, and coastal Caribbean jungle. Each of these ecosystems supports a unique set of flora and fauna adapted to—some elevation, some biome, some slope—of the mountains.

The mountains act as a natural barrier, promoting isolation and limiting gene flow between different populations. This isolation has led to the evolution of endemic species—species that are found only here. The Santa Marta Mountains are islands in the sky. 

The woodstar emerges from the jungle and begins to feed on a bright orange flowering plant. A bluish back, a magenta throat— like other woodstars, the Santa Marta is tiny. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen a woodstar whose flight is more like a cottonwood seed floating through still air, than any sort of animal. If in our future our flying machines can imitate the efficiencies of flying animals, may they fly like Santa Marta Woodstars.

Crowned Woodnymph

A Crowned Woodnymph, photographed near Minca in the mid-elevations of the Santa Marta Mountains.


ithin an hour, we arrive at the El Dorado Reserve, 3,212 protected acres, and an isolated lodge, one of the last buildings on the mountain at 5,560 feet.

Gabriel thinks he has a bird in his binoculars. As we converge around him, he calls out, “Gray-throated Leaftosser”, and suddenly I remember that woman in Beaverton, cursing at me, and I understand that I had been at the receiving end of somebody with Turret’s Syndrome. Sure—but Turret’s or not, why do people have no imagination with their cursing? 

While we scan the leaf-litter below, I can’t help the feeling that Gabriel just ripped a Captain Haddock curse word.

I grew up with The Adventures of Tintinas a kid. In this series, Captain Haddock, the salty whisky-drinking buddy to the boy journalist in the Belgian comic always had better insults—You sea gherkin! Megacycle! Slugs! Ectomorph! You miserable molecule of mildew!


Fuckface? Come on lady, you can do better. It occurs to me that if you know the names of the birds of Colombia (there are 1,958 birds in Colombia, more than any other country on Earth), you can pretty much take anyone down.

You wretched, rancid-haired Gray-throated Leaftosser! You blundering parasite! Dull-colored Grassquit!

Santa Marta Jungle Fly

An unidentified fly in the understory of high-elevation Santa Marta Mountains.


ater that evening, Gabriel reminds us that we are departing for higher elevation, toward the Cuchilla San Lorenzo peak, at four-fifteen in the morning. The professor and I are a bit incredulous at this, considering that the isolated huts we are staying in have lost their electricity, have no warm water, no lights and we have a fifteen minute walk on a pitch-black jungle path. I had learned that my headlamp’s batteries had run out, and I had packed some subpar flashlight, it’s battery minutes from dead.

“I’ll use my phone light,” I said begrudgingly while thinking: Gabriel, you Blue-throated Piping Guan! You Bearded Bellbird! 

Santa Marta Mountain School

Windows of an elementary school in the mid-elevations of the Santa Marta Mountains.


he next morning, I pack by the light of my phone and under a starry night, walk down the lodge trail to meet the crew. 

We are quiet in the truck as it ambles up an impossible road. Every once in a while, I can see distant, isolated lights below me, beyond those sheer jungle cliffs. What are those lights? Who lives in these impossible mountains?

The Professor turns to me, and says, “you know, most photographers like some combination of design, composition, value and texture. I notice you’re all about the color. You just go after the color.”

The sun is yet to rise as our driver parks the truck at the last possible point before the road narrows into a footpath. As we continue up the slope by foot, we can hear the chatter of Santa Marta Parakeets—green birds with blue, scarlet, tangerine and yellow flanked details. These high-elevation rarities are endangered, their population of about 2,000 is declining every decade.

Colombian Princess Flower

The flower stalks of endangered Colombian Princess Flower, Monochaetum magdalenense, which grows only in the Santa Marta Mountains.


n our way up, we run into a trio of Colombian birders, and I hear them using the English names for birds—including names like ‘Swainson’s Thrush’ or ‘Wilson’s Warbler.’ 

Gabriel and the Professor have been muttering about the impending name changes to the English-versions of almost 80 US and Canadian birds—many of which winter in Latin America—basically, any bird that was named after people will be changed.

The seeds of this change preceded the George Floyd era, in a time when ornithologists reconsidered the name of a duck—Oldsquaw—considered a slur by Native Americans, and McCown’s Longspur, named after a confederate general.

But when the question started to arise about what other bird names might be problematic, the American Ornithologists Union agreed that birds named after people had two basic problems. For one, the name didn’t describe the bird. And two, the names were meaningless, bland and outdated to the diverse and growing number of people in the Americas who use those names.

Blue-naped Chlorophonia in the Santa Marta Mountains

A female Blue-naped Chlorophonia (Chlorophonia cyanea) at the El Dorado Reserve in the Santa Marta Mountains.


hile Gabriel and the Professor are right—these name changes will create a mess—all those guidebooks, all that data, all those years of learning names, all those bilingual scientists and guides, who must know the scientific name, the English name, the Spanish name and, in some cases, the indigenous name, the redneck name and the hunter’s name, I instantly embraced the looming change, because I adore exotic bird names, and abhor the boring ones.

This spring, I traveled to Arizona’s Santa Rita mountains to photograph hummingbirds. I discovered the cold spring climate had kept the birds from migrating north. I changed my plans and decided to spend my days hiking, and while in the Santa Ritas, I was caught off guard by a single large, exquisitely colored hummingbird floating in the air ten feet in front of me, looking directly at me. 

Dense understory in the Santa Marta Mountains

Typical dense understory of the steep cliffsides of the Santa Marta Mountains.


hen I had last seen this bird years ago, it had a wonderful name—the Magnificent Hummingbird. But it had since been renamed back to its original 1829 name, which honored the second Duke of Rivoli, a tiny principality near Turin. This name: the uninspiring Rivoli’s Hummingbird. Rivoli, to me, sounds like a limp corporate pre-packaged ravioli brand—it suggests the colors red and beige. The Magnificent Hummingbird is black, with a purple and teal-emerald head that can’t be captured by paint or pixel. It is the bejeweled sky emperor of a jungle kingdom, not pasta.

So, Gabriel and the professor are right—but my desire for more colorful bird names is tempered by the fact that that may not actually happen. Wilson’s Warbler, for example, looks like a small Yellow Warbler with a black cap and a greenish back. Ornithologists may decide that this bird should be named the Black-capped Warbler. Please! There are already dozens of birds whose name begins with Black-capped or Black-headed. How about Little Lemon-Pistachio Warbler?

Walking up the mountain trail, I get separated from the others, while ambling slowly, looking at the plants along the trail. I wonder if the Professor is right, if I am motivated by saccharine things like color? A few years ago, I took this social media test that analyzed my social media posts and claimed it could detect my age, education and region. It said I was a twenty-something Texan with no formal education!

Sparkling Violetear in the El Dorado Reserve, Santa Marta Mountains

Sparkling Violetear (Colibri coruscans) in the Santa Marta Mountains.


t’s true that I love colorful words—orange, lime, lollipop, guava, popsicle, pistachio, summertime, sunshine, indigo, jellybean—but are playful words that conjure up bright colors the endpoint of my intellectual journey? 

In the silence of my isolation from the others, I realize that there are hummingbirds everywhere—a Tyrian Metaltail sits on a branch in a dark tangle of trees, mere feet from me.

Hummingbirds, especially those of South America, where almost all species live, have mostly sidestepped those duller names, and in fact the hummingbirds have some of the most fantastic animal names in the world.


Solitary Anole, resting in the Santa Marta Mountains

Solitary Anole (Anolis solitarius) in the El Dorado Reserve in the Santa Marta Mountains.


tried to conjure up a hummingbird name I could use to insult Gabriel and the Professor when I caught up to them, but I came up empty. May the sky emperor gods bless whatever poetry the ornithologists read who named the hummingbirds.

Just a few years ago, ornithologists renamed all seven species of an entire genus. A whole group of intensely-colored mountain-dwelling birds had their names changed from ‘hummingbird’ to ‘mountaingem.’ So what was once a Purple-throated Hummingbird suddenly became the more exquisite Purple-throated Mountaingem. 

Soon, a new hummingbird pops out of the middle story. It’s the lovely and uncommon Lazuline Sabrewing. Try to insult someone with that name!

I remember that in my first dates with Jane, a friend called her a “little firecracker.” I appreciated that because we men, amongst ourselves, have only cavemen words for women. If we could describe women, the way the hummingbird ornithologists name their species, would it spur a sort of poetry in the way we revere women?


Santa Marta Woodstar hummingbird

Santa Marta Woodstar (Chaetocercus astreans), floating like a cottonseed above garden blooms in the Santa Marta Mountains.


couldn’t wait to tell Gabriel and the Professor about my new realization. When I see them, I say, “What kind of woman would you call a Lazuline Sabrewing?”

Later, in the truck going down the mountain, I am paging through the field guide and another hummingbird name pops up. “She’s a Fiery Topaz, isn’t she?”

Gabriel can hear faint sounds in the woods like nobody I have seen before. We can be driving along and he has his window cracked, and he might blurt out, “Orange~breasted Fruiteater! Stop the car!”

Many birds have multiple calls and songs, so Gabriel must be able to register hundreds or possibly thousands of different bird sounds.

A view of the Caribbean from the San Lorenzo peak area of the Santa Marta Mountains

A view of the Caribbean from the San Lorenzo peak ridgeline.


his time, he hears a rare endemic, the kind of bird that the Professor lives for. It’s a Santa Marta Antbird.

It’s out there, but it is deep in the darkest tangles of the cliff. To locate it, to see it, to hope it moves out of the darkness for just a second, is our hope. But after twenty minutes of looking and waiting, the little brown bird pops out onto a branch.

After seeing this difficult-to-spot bird, we celebrate our victory. The professor comes up to me and says, “You know how you only like color? For me, it was the antbirds, the anthrushes, the antpittas that really lured me to these places.”

The professor is referring to the wide variety of birds that dwell on the forest floor, often specializing in following swarms of ants, living off their unfinished prey. Because the various unrelated ant bird families have evolved to chase charging ants, their evolution has necessitated dull gray, brown and black plumages.

The harbor in Piran, Slovenia

Lazuline Sabrewing (Campylopterus falcatus) photographed near Minca in the Santa Marta Mountains.

"For me, the ant birds are challenging, secretive, dull but mysterious,” he explains. “They are dull-colored. They dwell alone in the most difficult forest. Perhaps I like them because they resemble the challenges of my academic specialty.” 

Because the antbirds live on the forest floor, they must evolve to be as drab as possible, because the forest floor is ripe with predation.

“You know how they say that people look like their dogs?” I say.  

The professor thinks about this for a moment, realizing he has just described himself.

I can’t help to see the Professor’s infectious joy at the sighting of his antbird. It makes everybody want to do more, see more, and to go further.

And then we are off, rumbling down the steep mountain road. Beyond, the lush green of the mid-elevations, and beyond that the cerulean Caribbean Sea.


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