Discovering Gold in the Greater Antilles (Part 3)

Our (un)faithful jeep breaks down again. This time the rear axle snaps in half. Not good. Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic, 2012.

This is the final installment of the series; you can read Part 1 and Part 2.

As my vision begins to clear, I know all-too-well what I’ll hear next…
Whoa, sounds like an adventure! So, tell me, what are your plans for a PhD?
[My vision goes dark again…]

In 2014, I conducted my last full field season in the Dominican Republic (in other words, I had burnt up all of my NSF funding and the winds of change were blowing my wife and me from Ithaca down to Raleigh). That being said, I was (and still am) extremely passionate about Golden Swallows, and more and more so about aerial insectivores throughout the Caribbean (swifts and swallows of course; those flycatchers and nightjars will have to find other sponsors). I did, however, have the pleasure of sneaking in one more (big) Golden Swallow adventure before my master’s defense came around. I was asked by Gary Graves, the Curator of Birds at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, to finish the long-running census work he had been carrying out in Jamaica in search of the critically endangered Jamaican Golden Swallow (T. e. euchrysea) – the only other known race of Golden Swallow and one that hadn’t been reliably seen since the 1980’s. Gary had scoured the island except for two places the Cockpit Country in the northwest and the Blue Mountains in the southeast.

Adult female Golden Swallow incubating her clutch; Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic, 2013.

I had never been to Jamaica before, and judging by its minuscule size relative to Hispaniola on a map, I figured I could probably walk across that island in a day. Easy. Well, Proctor men have been wrong before, which means it was bound to happen again. It turns out that remote census work in Jamaica was more physically demanding (by far) than anything else I’d ever done in my life. Luckily, with unwavering field assistants at my side (Seth only collapsed vomiting from the stress twice, mind you, and John only plunged off a cliff once), we hacked our way across as many miles of that terrain as we possibly could in two months’ time. Remember earlier on when I mentioned “gold” being scarce in Jamaica. Unfortunately, that’s the truth. By the end of our work, and in light of compounding evidence in favor, we made a formal declaration that the Jamaican Golden Swallow was indeed extinct (look to Volume 29 of the JCO!). Despite not finding our search target, we were able to document many other interesting behaviors exhibited by the swift and swallow species that still inhabit the island. Furthermore, the extinction of the Jamaican Golden Swallow race brings considerable perspective to the importance of the conservation efforts surrounding the remaining race in Hispaniola.

School children from the town of El Castillo spend the day helping researchers erect new nest-boxes; La Vega, Dominican Republic, 2013. (photo by Jose Delio Guzman)

I think that there is a slow, but powerful momentum growing behind the idea of conservation in Hispaniola, and I’m hopeful that the work that so many of us have put into the Golden Swallow Project will continue to help that movement grow. So I encourage all of you to put the mountains of Hispaniola on your bucket list – they won’t disappoint. Maybe there will be a little bit of gold waiting there for you when you arrive.

Your Caribbean Gold Digger,
Justin Proctor

PS. An afterthought – I want to encourage birders and ornithologists (especially those that have somehow made their way through the entirety of this blog post) to pay a little extra attention to aerial insectivores during your future outings, and to document what you see by entering your observations in eBirdCaribbean. We are going to need all the information we can muster in order to grow our information banks strong enough to better diagnose – and do something about – the causes behind the growing, widespread trend of aerial insectivore decline in North America. For many of these species, a little bit of information goes a long way. Thank you!

You can see a compilation video of our work in Jamaica with clips of birds and scenery from sunrise to sunset here. This series of posts was also published as a single post on the Birds Caribbean blog, here.

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