Discovering Gold in the Greater Antilles (Part 2)

View of Parque Valle Nuevo from the top of the Pajon Blanco Fire Tower; Dominican Republic.

This post follows a previous piece, which you can read here.

And so we set out on an adventure of a lifetime with the underlying goal of studying a bird and using what we learned to help save that bird, while simultaneously nourishing an already burgeoning sense of local stewardship over Hispaniola’s feathered friends and the habitats they so deeply depend upon. We set the bar high from the beginning, and I can be honest in saying that I feel good about what we accomplished and where the project stands today.

Two Golden Swallow chicks have just hatched. One begs for food, one contemplates life, and one refuses to come out; Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic, 2014.

However, as opposed to trying to tackle an impossible play-by-play of what transpired over those next three years (thankfully all of that information is in my master’s thesis and can be yours for just three easy payments of $29.99), I’m going to take a slightly different approach. I’m going to share with descriptions of images (and feelings) that go through my head when somebody kindly asks me, “So how’d that Golden Swallow Project go?” Little does that person know how much weight a question like that can have, or how it causes me to temporary black-out as my mind boards a high-speed emotional (and perhaps somewhat spiritual) roller-coaster from which there is little hope for return for at least the ensuing two minutes. So let’s go for a ride.

  • My wife, Marisol, and I are inside of a rental jeep that hasn’t had a tune-up since Elvis left the planet. It’s 10pm (pitch dark), and there is a rather large gathering of people around us. Some are cheering, others look nervous. We are momentarily stopped, looking out in front of us at a raging river flowing out of a stormy valley. The road, of course, stops at one side of the river and continues again on the other side. That “other side” is our only way home, back up into the mountains after having endured a long day of re-provisioning our food supplies down in town. It’s been an intense first field season so far. There have been high highs and some low lows. We really want to get back up to the cabin where we’ve been living, because field work awaits us again at 6am the next morning. Against my better judgment, we begin moving forward and into the river. Despite the water starting to come in through the driver’s side window, the four-wheel drive seems to be working well, and a grin starts creeping onto my face. That grin disappears quickly when all four tires stop making contact with the gravelly bottom of the river and the current begins carrying us downstream.
  • Adult female Golden Swallow in the hand that will soon be measured, banded and then released; Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic.

    I successfully trap and get my first close-up look at a Golden Swallow. It’s a female, and she’s rather calm in the hand. My rule is to keep her no longer than two minutes, during which time I’ll need to take at least four different biometric measurements, describe her plumage, and place an aluminum band on her leg. That doesn’t leave much time to just admire. But a few seconds turns out to be just enough.

  • I look at one of our 200 artificial nest-boxes (we expanded considerably our first year) and realize how simple it is. Yet, at the same time, it’s the solution to everything. First, the box provides a nesting cavity for swallows in a habitat where otherwise very few natural cavities exist, which results in more nesting attempts by more pairs of swallows. Second, with the boxes attached to free-standing poles, a predator guard in the form of a metallic cone can be fashioned below the box to thwart attacks from invasive rats and mongoose (not to mention those damn feral cats!). This results in higher rates of brood survival in the face of unnatural – and overwhelming – rates of predation and subsequent nest failure. Third, the boxes are built to be temporarily opened from the side by researchers studying the breeding life history of the swallows. This provides us access to a nearly limitless wealth of data. Fourth, the boxes are tangible, visible, and accessible. These are perhaps the most important features. The box itself becomes a curiosity, a talking point, and ultimately an icon for our collective efforts to protect and care for nature. Although maybe not the long-term answer, the nest-box is invaluable for now.
  • My field crew today consists of two Dominicans, one Haitian, two Argentinians, one Cuban, and one Venezuelan. It wasn’t necessarily easy, but we got them all here. Cross-culture-pollination is the bread and butter of great science and conservation work. Amazing how quickly good solutions come in an environment like this.
  • The Hispaniolan Woodpecker field team (led by Josh LaPergola, Cornell University) and the Hispaniolan Golden Swallow field team combine forces; Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic, 2014. (photo by Marisol Mata)

    Josh LaPergola – the legend that studies Hispaniolan Woodpeckers in Jarabacoa – has come to visit me up in Valle Nuevo. He’s brought his entire field crew along with him in an attempt to help me piece together the riddle of why there are so few woodpeckers (and thus cavities that my swallows can use to nest in) in the high-altitude pine forests where I am working. We spent the last two days hard at work, so this evening I’m treating the group to a dip in the upper pool of Aguas Blancas, one of the best waterfalls on the island. Anyhow, Josh does a mean cannonball off the nearby rock face (perfect execution by the way), surfaces a few seconds later, and casually admits that he forgot to take his glasses off before he jumped in. Though the story only goes downhill from there, our admiration for Josh grew stronger that day as we saw in him an inhuman level of determination as he nearly went hypothermic (yes, that water is unforgivingly cold) by repeatedly diving down into the zero-visibility abyss trying desperately to save the fate of his summer. [A big shout-out to Josh, who just unfortunately suffered a serious accident during his 2016 field season, but is currently managing to push through a difficult recovery with nothing but a smile on his face. All our best buddy, we’re thinking of you!].

  • Field assistants Ianela García Lau (Habana, Cuba) and Milagros Jefferies (Mendoza, Argentina) busy checking all 185 nest-boxes for signs of nesting; Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic, 2014

    My field assistants and I sit down in front of an evening fire with the local park guards in Valle Nuevo. They are bursting with energy, interrupting each other to tell me stories about the Golden Swallows they saw while making their rounds that day. One man says that he’ll give his life for those birds. I laugh, but make sure to grow a little more serious when I tell him that that’s not totally necessary…just in case. At the end of the night, I walk back to the cabin realizing that really well-done outreach takes your passion and makes it contagious.

  • I’m sitting at my office in Ithaca, NY in August, post field-season, and receiving a flurry of emails that Parque Valle Nuevo is burning. A forest fire spreads rampantly across the national park, directly through the areas where all of our nest-boxes are located. Everything is lost.
  • Not much later, I’m sent a flurry of photos that indicate otherwise. Because the nest-boxes are all mounted on metal posts in meadows away from the forest edge, the fires in those areas have burned low to the ground, passing quickly underneath them. The nest-boxes, in many areas, are the only things left standing. Though a few were lost, word soon comes back to me that they have been replaced. The project carries itself without me – a major success for everyone and a solid indication that many more good things are to come!

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