– A succinct (yet unabridged and uncensored) commentary on the Cockpit Expedition for Golden Swallows, by Justin Proctor
“Why the hell didn’t I bring a change of pants on this trip?!” That was a reoccurring thought I had almost six or seven times each day while hiking through or around Jamaica’s Cockpit Country. After 6 months of off-and-on planning, I managed to dream up most of the Plan A, B, C, and D scenarios that would befall us and what gear we would need to combat/survive each of those adventures – yet, that second pair of pants just didn’t seem to hit my radar or the inside of my suitcase back in Ithaca. [We leave for the second expedition tomorrow and you can bet that I’m currently wearing TWO pairs of pants just to make sure an oversight like that doesn’t repeat itself]
So it turns out that Gary Graves was right when he said it gets hot in those limestone hills. It also turns out that Susan Koenig was just as right when she told me that you can’t just draw lines over satellite imagery of the Cockpit in a fun loop-de-loop pattern that would be ideal for hiking. And well, the rest of the people who told us to bring gloves to counteract stinging plants and razor-sharp karst; that even though it rained all the time that there was no potable water to be easily found; and that you won’t understand a damn word that anybody is saying to you – yep, they were all right too.
But life finds a way, and I think that looking back on what I see as a fairly quick, jam-packed assault on the Cockpit, we made some damn good orange juice out of the lemons we were given. Or maybe that was yam juice with a hint of rusty Nutella flaking off from the inner joints of my pocket knife. Either way, we gave it our best and left with a good taste in our mouths.
What an absolutely amazing opportunity this has been to connect my graduate thesis work on Hispaniolan Golden Swallows with the Jamaican subspecies that once pocketed the hills and glades of Cockpit Country. What a twist of good fortune that Gary Graves from the Smithsonian and I would share a common interest and be able to find a way to continue unraveling the mystery that surrounds this bird. And what total luck that I have had such great friends to accompany me in a search for something that may not even be out there.
THE TROOPS: (Left) Seth Inman. Historian, philosopher, rememberer of all things. Some say he’s a God amongst men. Others say he’s just a damn good guy. (Right) John Zeiger. Philanthropist, nurturer, rememberer of all things that somehow form a solid counter-argument to facts invented by Justin. Some say his socks could make Gods weep. Others say that he just has dirty feet.
Seth and John have done a great job of keeping Raxa Golden Swallow fans up to date and entertained with our travels, and with some outstanding video and photography to boot. The following photos are a few of my favorite memories that I hope will serve as an informative supplement to the groundwork that has already been laid.
WALKING DOWN MEMORY LANE: John explores Barbecue Bottom, which is the heart of the ‘Golden Zone’ – a geographic corner of Cockpit Country where Golden Swallows are thought to have persisted the longest. We could almost feel the bird around every corner.
SHADOWS IN THE SUN: We spent a lot of our time looking straight up, as we came to find out that a lot of aerial insectivore activity was happening high overhead. Learning quickly that the sun is even brighter through binoculars, it didn’t take our team long to become extremely fast and efficient at identifying our friends above. Pictured here is a foraging Cave Swallow (Petrochelidon fulva) silhouette that can be identified (with some practice) by shape, flight pattern, and call.
SUNSETS, SUNRISES, and EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN: We couldn’t help but fall in love with the beauty and serenity of what we were surrounded by. Camping and remote hiking for extended periods of time have their pros and cons – there’s no doubt about it – but any complaints quickly faded away when the skies lit up every morning and evening. I didn’t even mind when Seth’s head became a normal part of the landscape.
HOPE: Hispaniolan Golden Swallows commonly forage low to the ground over agricultural fields. When we spotted swallows from a long way out behaving identically over this recently planted field, there was a feeling of hope that kept us going long after we identified the culprits as Cave Swallows. It’s a good thing that they are so likeable.
IMMERSION: That’s a good word for how we felt when after we pitched our tents high up on a mountain top, we looked up to see hundreds of White-collared Swifts soaring by us. Other than the times we were physically stuck and hanging from an unforgiving web of vines while hiking in the interior, there was no other time during which I think we all felt so connected with where we were and what we were doing.
When I started a rather straightforward life history and conservation study of Hispaniolan Golden Swallows three years ago, I never considered how deep the story-line surrounding the species could be pursued. As time passed, I’ve been forced to keep thinking bigger. After trekking through one of the last great, natural landscapes of Jamaica, and looking out over the expanse where maybe the last Jamaican Golden Swallow was seen just over 25 years ago, I am moved to now begin contemplating the ever-more-evident, large-scale processes that are shaping avian communities across the Greater Antilles islands.
It’s an exciting time to be involved with ornithological research in the Caribbean. Momentum is increasing across the board, and the growing community fueling it is a devoted one. Thank you again to all of those that have supported us so far and will continue to do so for the next trip that officially kicks-off tomorrow. With a little luck, my wife won’t notice my replacement until I get back in about a month.