It was in 1844 that English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse arrived in Jamaica for his first time. Gosse would ultimately spend 18 months on the island, where he became fascinated in studying the local birdlife he found there. After returning back to London, he went on to publish a book entitled, “The Birds of Jamaica,” in which can be found the first formal descriptions of many birds still cruising about the Caribbean landscape today. The encounters he had with one bird in particular inspired Gosse to write the following:
This exceedingly lovely little Swallow, whose plumage reflects the radiance of the Hummingbirds, is found, as I am informed by Mr. Hill, in the higher mountains formed by the limestone range of the very centre of the island, as in Manchester, and St. Ann’s. It is not until we ascend this central chain, that we meet with this sweet bird, occasionally in the more open dells, but principally confined to the singular little glens called cockpits.
In this passage Gosse speaks of the Golden Swallow, a small passerine that has only been historically known from two islands, Hispaniola and Jamaica. And while populations of this species continue to persist in several mountain ranges of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the beautiful bird that Gosse describes in his Jamaican travels has not been seen on that island for more than 25 years.
Gary Graves, Curator of Birds at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., conducted island-wide searches for the swallow from 1994 to 2012. Though his extensive census efforts across 1,281 sites did not produce a positive sighting, several large tracts of remote land remain to be thoroughly explored for any relic populations, including the Cockpit Country in Trelawny Parish and the Port Royal Mountains and the southern slope of the Blue Mountains in St. Andrew Parish.With recent financial support from the Smithsonian’s James Bond Fund, Graves approached current Cornell University graduate student, Justin Proctor, about the idea of putting together a team to survey these locations. Proctor has been intimately studying the breeding biology and natural life history characteristics of the Golden Swallows for three years in the high altitude pine forests of the Dominican Republic’s Cordillera Central, where a relatively dense population returns annually to breed in Proctor’s artificial nest-boxes.
Proctor will be joined by recent Cornell graduates Seth Inman and John Zeiger, and beginning in January of 2015, the team of three will set off from Ithaca, New York to begin a series of two, one-month expeditions into the heart of the Jamaican wilderness. The team will be drawing on the support of the Smithsonian, the Rufford Foundation, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and Cornell Outdoor Education. The primary goal of the expedition will be to conduct exhaustive surveys for Golden Swallows by accessing the remote backcountry by foot. Armed with sound recording gear, cameras, maps, backpacks, and tents, the team will attempt to survey terrain and habitats that see very little human presence. Beyond searching for the target species, the team will be conducting small mammal surveys to better understand the distribution of invasive rats and mongoose that may have been a fundamental driver in the potential extirpation of the Golden Swallows from the island. The team also plans to keep an eye out for a handful of other bird species that fall on a ‘high priority list’, while additionally incorporating an outreach component that will develop awareness around the theme of conservation of endemic birds.
For more information on the work done by Gary Graves and the history of the Golden Swallows on the island of Jamaica, read Graves’ “Historical decline and probable extinction of the Jamaican Golden Swallow Tachycineta euchrysea euchrysea,” published in Bird Conservation International, 2013. And for extensive information and multimedia on Golden Swallows in the Dominican Republic, visit: thegoldenswallow.org
Justin is a third year Masters student in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University. Originally from Springville, NY, Justin relocated to Maine for his undergraduate degree, remaining on the Downeast coast for several years afterwards in order to work with lobster populations as a certified Science Scuba Diver. After landing an internship opportunity with Cornell’s Golondrinas de Las Americas Project working with Tachycineta swallows in Canada and Argentina, Justin stayed onboard to become a veteran field leader and eventually the project coordinator. His time spent traveling and studying different swallow species convinced Justin to become more involved with burgeoning conservation efforts in Latin America, and prompted Justin to enroll as a graduate student and develop a thesis focused on using avian systems as a tool for engaging local communities in conservation efforts.
Seth spent most of his childhood in Costa Rica and is interested in conservation and environmental history across cultures and over time. During his summer breaks throughout high school and college, he worked on private sector conservation initiatives in the Galápagos Islands, Nicaragua, India, Jordan and Chile, co-founding and collaborating on this multi-media project (https://raxacollective.wordpress.com) highlighting entrepreneurial approaches to conservation. Seth recently completed a senior honors thesis that explores British conceptions of travel and wilderness in Iceland during the nineteenth century, graduating from Cornell University in May of 2014 with a high honors in History. He’s been employed by a citizen science program involving education and outreach at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the past three years, previously worked for Cornell Outdoor Education, and rowed for Cornell’s lightweight crew.
John Zeiger recently graduated from Cornell University through the Department of Natural Resources. He grew up in Ardsley, NY, a suburb near NYC, and has always been passionate about the natural world. As an undergraduate, John spent two summers assisting with Tree Swallow biological research under the direction of Dr. David Winkler. John’s enthusiasm for conservation and the outdoors are strongly measured in his leadership with the Wildlife Society at Cornell. John looks forward to making meaningful contributions to the field of conservation during the expedition to Jamaica, gaining the skills and experience needed to lead his own independent field research abroad in the future.