Must-see Aerial Insectivores in the Greater Antilles: Part 5/5

Northern Potoo perched on a fence post near the Windsor Research Station, Trelawny Parish, Jamaica. (photo by Justin Proctor)

This post is part of a series; visit Part 4 here.

Let’s move now from the diurnal species to a nocturnal favorite, the Northern Potoo (Nyctibius jamaicensis), which has been featured here before a couple times. These birds actively hunt for insects at night by sallying out from low-lying perches where they remain camouflaged and motionless until prey is spotted. If you’ve got a little bit of energy left in you after the sun goes down, and you also remembered to pack a decent headlamp or flashlight, I can’t encourage you enough to just go for a little walk down a quiet road nearby.

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Must-see Aerial Insectivores in the Greater Antilles: Part 4/5

White-collared Swifts in flight, Jamaica; top photo is a good depiction of the species viewed head-on from a mountain top. (with the observer positioned at the same elevation that the swifts are flying) as they come together to flock in the evening. (photos by Justin Proctor)

This post is part of a series; visit Part 3 here.

In Part 3 I introduced you to the smallest swift you’ll find in the Greater Antilles, so it seems appropriate to bring the largest swift of the region into the equation. An all-around phenomenal bird, the White-collared Swift (aerial insectivore 4) doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and I think I know why. Wetmore and Swales summarize the problem perfectly:

…through its great speed in flight so annihilates distance that flocks may appear temporarily almost anywhere.” (1931)

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Must-see Aerial Insectivores in the Greater Antilles: Part 3/5

Antillean Palm-Swifts in flight as well as entering and exiting nests located within the hanging fronds of palm trees, Jamaica. (photos by Justin Proctor)

This post is part of a series; visit Part 2 here.

Antillean Palm-Swift (Tachornis phoenicobia)

This is going to be the most noticeable and easy to identify swift out there. However, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get a really good look at one right away. They are fast, and they are small. Luckily they are gregarious and colonial nesters, which means that you will usually come across them in large numbers as they forage or move into and out of their nests – which, amazingly, are a blend of saliva, plant fibers, and feathers attached to the undersides of dead, hanging palm fronds.

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Must-see Aerial Insectivores in the Greater Antilles: Part 2/5

Cave Swallows in flight from multiple angles under different lighting conditions, Jamaica.

This post is part of a series; visit Part 1 here.

Cave Swallows (Petrochelidon fulva)

These little guys are a great species to start with because they are known to all of the Greater Antilles islands. One of the best contexts to find Cave Swallows in would be nearby to one of their communal roosts / nesting sites. Terrestrially, look around cave entrances or pocket-like formations in the sides of rocky cliffs. Coastally, look for limestone formations along the beach or just offshore. If they are there, you won’t miss them. Their nests are primarily made up of a mix of mud and plant fibers that have been attached to a vertical wall. If you can manage to get close, you might be lucky enough to see a pair of Cave Swallows sitting still in a nest giving you that famous 1000-yard stare.

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Must-see Aerial Insectivores in the Greater Antilles: Part 1/5

Illustration by Justin Proctor

Are you tired of really crisp, up-close views of beautiful Caribbean birds? Are you repulsed at the idea of having an extended period of time to view a bird, jot down detailed notes about its breath-taking plumage, and really connect with the moment? Well, I knew it; and I’m happy to say that here at Proctor & Proctor Inc., we can offer you something much more challenging! Let’s start by having a long, long look at the following Rorschach test (pictured left). And if at any time it becomes painful to keep your eyes on the image, just keep looking…

Alright, let’s reflect. Did you see a hamster? If you did, I’m gonna ask you to just kindly walk away now. If rather you saw some intriguing silhouettes of our feathered friends in front of our beloved Yellow Star, you’re sitting pretty. And if you took one quick glance and were able to immediately identify all the different species present, I think we can probably get you a movie deal.

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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.

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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.

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Discovering Gold in the Greater Antilles (Part 1)

Male Hispaniolan Golden Swallow perched over-top an artificial nest-box in Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic; July 2014.

With a title like that, I’m hoping that many of you instinctively hucked your laptops across the room, sprinted out to the barn and started hitching your pride-and-joy appaloosa to the covered wagon your grandpappy gave to you as a belated wedding gift back in the summer of ‘69. Just don’t forget the “caulk the wagon and float” option if you’re coming from the mainland.

If you decide to make the journey, I suggest making landfall on the beautiful island of Hispaniola (gold deposits have all but dried up in Jamaica – but more on that later). Trade in your bikini and flip-flops for some long pants and hiking boots, because what you came for can only be reliably found high up in the mountains. Not that I like to give away too much insider advice, but if I were you, I’d keep heading up until you’ve reached the Hispaniolan pine forests – the highest altitude forest type you’ll find on the island. Find a grassy clearing, sit down, and wait, because at this point, the gold is going to come to you! With mighty wings (~11cm long each), fearsome talons (actually you’d have to strain to even notice the legs on this bird), and a relentless hunger for meat (prey doesn’t get much bigger than an 8mm march fly), watch out as the infamous Golden Swallow comes tearing over the nearest hillside radiating its majestic golden sheen across the lands…wait…wait…I can’t do this anymore. It’s a tiny bird that can’t peck to save its life, and unless the light of a passing-by solar flare manages to reflect off the swallow’s dorsal plumage at a perfect 47.86o angle, the bird is green!

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