Last Search for the Jamaican Golden Swallow

Spoiler alert: the search occurred about three years ago. We didn’t find any Golden Swallows.

If you were a regular visitor to this site in the first half of 2015, you probably remember the slew of posts we had on the Smithsonian Institution’s expedition to Jamaica to search for the subspecies of Golden Swallow (a type of bird, in case that needs clarification). The only other known population of this species is on the island of Hispaniola, in the countries of Haiti and Dominican Republic, but the Jamaican population hadn’t been seen in about thirty years, and Justin, John and I were tasked with scouring the final remote areas of the Jamaican mountains that hadn’t been rigorously checked yet.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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!

Continue reading

Cave Swallows in Jamaica

Our last big video from the Jamaican Golden Swallow expedition was from the Blue Mountains. This time I have some footage of a colony of Cave Swallows we found at the end of our trip when we were driving along the north coast of the island. About fifty or sixty birds live in this shelf of rock overhanging the ocean, having created nests in the walls with mud pellets.

In the video above, you can see Justin swimming under the natural bridge to get a better view of the birds as they circle around to check on their nests, possibly Continue reading

Status of the Critically Endangered Jamaican Golden Swallow (summary)

Justin Proctor, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Seth E. Inman, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY

John M. Zeiger, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY

Gary R. Graves, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 11.10.57 AM_zpsskyyrz9u (1)

Hispaniolan Golden Swallows in Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic. (From left to right) Adult in flight; adult perched overtop of artificial nest-box; 25-day-old chicks in nest-box, one day prior to fledging.

The Golden Swallow (Tachycineta euchrysea) is an aerial insectivore and obligate secondary cavity-nester known exclusively to the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Hispaniola. The Hispaniolan subspecies (T. e. sclateri) was first described in 1866 by the American ornithologist, Charles Barney Cory, and though considered common in the early 1900s, it has become an increasingly rare resident of the highlands of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The subspecies is currently categorized as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Researchers have been studying the life history and breeding biology of the Hispaniolan subspecies since 2012, and initial conservation efforts are currently underway. The nominate Jamaican Golden Swallow race (T. e. euchrysea) was first described in 1847 by the English naturalist, Philip Henry Gosse, and was always considered uncommon, locally distributed, and endemic to Jamaica. Sadly, the Jamaican Golden Swallow subspecies has not been unequivocally observed since the late 1980s. Continue reading

The Rufous-throated Solitaire

Back when I wrote about our ascent of Blue Mountain Peak, I mentioned that the Rufous-throated Solitaire is a bird that can be pretty tough to spot.

In that prior post, I had a picture of the same individual featured in the video above. If you turn the volume up, you can hear all the shrill details of the bird’s call, and imagine sounds like those echoing through the misty hills — the guidebook to Jamaican birds actually describes the vocalizations as “ventriloquial,” which we found to be accurate.  Continue reading

The Great Golden Swallow Gear Review: Part 3

Seth displaying his catch. Photo by Justin Proctor.

Thermarest Prolite Plus sleeping pad:

Seth: Comfortable and light, these pads kept us insulated and padded even on cement floors, but the compression sack that is supposed to store the pad is far too small. I don’t recommend sleeping on these on a hot, humid day at around noon.

Justin: This is the first thermarest I’ve used in my life. I’ll probably never have to buy another. I slept comfortably on this thermarest every night, whether it was lying on concrete, a tiled floor, or a more forgiving forest floor. I threw out the ludicrously small sack that came with this otherwise good product on the second day.

John: Don’t ask me, I just sleep on an old yoga mat. I should also point out that it took Seth and Justin a few minutes to deflate and roll these up every morning.

 

ExOfficio Men’s Boxer, Curfew, medium: (worn by Seth – see photo)

Seth: These highly expensive pairs of underwear are fast drying, don’t retain bad odors, and are quite breathable. Their only downside is that there’s a bit too much fabric in the seat, so they can be wedgie-prone.

Justin: I think Seth just wanted to beat me on the pricing of luxury undies.

John: What’s underwear?

 

Continue reading

The Great Golden Swallow Gear Review: nākd edition

Given the photo above, perhaps this post would have been better suited to April Fools’ Day. However, since April 1st was the first day we had back in Ithaca, the precise editing required to keep the photo PG-rated would have been rushed and the result would have been, shall we say, sloppy. Although it may seem like a strange way of saying thanks, this post — and especially the header photo — are a token of our great appreciation for the folks at nākd (Nature Balance Foods), particularly for Traci in US operations, who coordinated everything with us! I should clarify that we created the photo above of our own volition and without any explicit sponsorship — it is not a nākd photo shoot, it’s just a naked photo shoot.

On the trail up to Blue Mountain Peak, the highest summit in Jamaica.

We had mentioned long ago that we were receiving lots of nākd bars to help us through our expeditions, and no amount of expressed gratitude can reflect the true value of these snacks to our diet during the past three months. The best part is that we could eat as many as we felt like it since they have no added sugar or artificial ingredients, and are basically just a combination of 1) dates and/or raisins, 2) almonds, cashews, or pecans, and 3) spices or natural flavoring like cocoa powder or coffee.

Continue reading

The Great Golden Swallow Gear Review: Part 2

MSR Whisperlite International Stove V2:

Justin:  Referring to just the stove:  The whisperlite international is a darn good stove.  Lightweight, folds up nicely, and is relatively easy to set-up, maintain, and clean.  I purchased this stove because it can burn almost any flammable gas or liquid.  That’s imperative when you are traveling internationally.  The only change I would make would be to upgrade the ‘teeth’ on the three stands that hold your cookware so as to create more friction and lessen the likelihood of a pot or pan slipping off the stove.

 

MSR Standard Fuel Pump:

Justin:  This is an easy to use pump, but it requires more maintenance than one would desire.  Though the pump syringe never broke, it always felt weak to the touch.  The pump cup attached to the inner end of the syringe does not attach well to the syringe, while it also dries out over the course of several days.  Without lubrication and vigilance, that pump cup will slip off and/or rip if you’re not careful.  Once the cup has ripped, it will be impossible to build up pressure in the MSR bottle. Accessing the innards is also difficult, and requires at least four hands pushing and pulling at different pressure points at the same time.  Be sure to purchase the Whisperlite International service kit because you will need the spare parts.  After two solid months of use, I am thinking that I will now have to replace this unit entirely.  Continue reading

The Great Golden Swallow Gear Review: Part 1

A sea cave on the northern coast of Jamaica, where Cave Swallows nest.

We’ve finally put our heads together and written all our thoughts on the various articles of gear we brought with us to Jamaica for two months! Overall we were pretty pleased with everything we used, and would recommend them to the average backpacker except where it’s clear that we weren’t very satisfied.

GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Dualist Cookware Set:

Justin:  This cookware set has some big pro’s and some big con’s.  The fact that everything fits nicely together, and the entire unit is lightweight is definitely a plus.  However, a rogue surge of flame from our stove one night that came up high on the sides of the pot caused the pot to warp in shape (which is surprising because of its constant tolerance to high heat from below).  Therefore the lid never fit correctly again.  The bowls are solid and the two that come with a foam/elastic band around them are effective in keeping you from getting burned from hot contents within.  The folding handle of the pot is hazardous – perhaps there is a locking mechanism that we are unaware of or did not receive.  The two retracting sporks that come with the set are complete garbage.  The minute you attempt to ‘pierce’ a piece of food, the spork will retract and become useless.  Best to pawn these sporks off as a gift to a friend that you really don’t like much.

John: Hey, Seth, want a spoon?

Seth: Heck yeah! … … … hey, Justin, want a spoon?

Continue reading

Golden Swallow Expedition Back in Ithaca

A moon rises in the Blue Mountains

Photo by Justin Proctor

It’s been a while since you last heard from us, but not because we’re lost in the Jamaican wilderness!

We arrived back in Ithaca, NY a week ago, and have been hard at work processing our data, photos, videos, and thoughts from this past trip to the Blue Mountains. In addition, we’ve had to analyze our data from both trips combined, trying to seek out patterns in aerial insectivore sightings and making maps of all our point counts with different species seen in both Cockpit Country and the mountainous eastern portion of the island.

We’re also looking up references to all information on Cave Swallows, Antillean Palm Swifts, and White-collared Swifts in either Jamaica, the Caribbean, or the world, depending on what kind of journal articles have been published about them in the past. Other research we’ve been doing involves Barn Owls and Turkey Vultures, which will be the subject of spin-off Continue reading

Blue Mountain Peak

John walking down the mossy forest path

Last week, we hiked up to Blue Mountain Peak, the highest point in Jamaica. To reach the summit, you have to go through Portland Gap, a saddle between Mossman’s and Blue Mountain Peaks and a good point for camping out if you want to do the hike in the morning. Starting with all our camping gear on our backs at the trailhead around 4,185ft, we took a brisk hour’s hike to Portland Gap, gaining 1,356ft of elevation in the process. We set up our tents at Portland Gap, an area with the most Rufous-throated Solitaires we’ve seen so far – they’re very shy birds and are most often only heard, their haunting whistles echoing eerily over valleys and through the forest.

An elusive Rufous-throated Solitaire at Portland Gap

The Gap also ended up being a great spot to see Continue reading

The Simple Things

When we find ourselves absolutely overwhelmed by the complexities, demands, and irrational expectations surrounding field work, it’s really nice to remember the simple things – and within them, find peace of mind, stability, and renewed strength.

Waking up early enough so as not to have to rush through a French-press filled with Blue Mountain coffee is a must.  It’s 10 minutes of tranquility, when one can sit with friends, contemplate the day’s tasks, and appreciate the scenery you’ve missed while rushing from one place to the next.

And what about those incredibly infrequent times that the birds come to you?   Continue reading

Ambassabeth

Photo credit: Seth Inman

The Ambassabeth Ecolodge can be found tucked into the southeast corner of the Rio Grande Valley, at the meeting place of the southern end of the John Crow Mountains and southeastern end of the Blue Mountains. It’s a beautiful, lush nook filled with towering Tree Ferns (Order Cyatheales), fast-flowing tributaries thundering off the valley sides down into the Rio Grande River, elusive Giant Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio homerus), and a healthy mix of Jamaican avifauna.

A recent bridge collapse about a mile and half from the ecolodge, inhibiting the arrival of guests by vehicle, has further amplified the serenity, isolation, and rustic ambiance surrounding this naturalist’s paradise. For us, Ambassabeth provided a base location from which to hike and survey two distinct foot-trails that meander up out of the valley and continue down the other side towards the southeastern coastline of the island. Continue reading

Cinchona Botanical Gardens

a view of the valleys and Westphalia in the shadows of Portland Gap and some Blue Mountain peaks above

Since my last post, we’ve been several places and seen lots of things, but none of the areas we’ve visited have been so naturally “post-worthy” as the Cinchona Botanical Gardens above Westphalia, in the mountains of St. Andrew Parish. Somehow we had gathered from several people’s hearsay that we should practically expect ancient ruins, with perhaps some scattered floral gems growing feral among old dilapidated structures and a few exotic trees towering over the grounds. As you can see from the photo below, these vague rumors were partially true.

the old Garden Commissioner’s house/office, in need of some minor remodeling

 

Continue reading

Jamaican Golden Swallow Expedition Part Two: Into the Blue Mountains

IMG_2880_zpsyzulvsiy

We’re back in Jamaica and now in the second portion of our trip, where we explore the Blue Mountains and John Crow Mountains National Park looking for any signs of the Jamaican Golden Swallow. We arrived at the main visitor center for the park in Holywell yesterday, where we met with park rangers as well as representatives of the Jamaican Conservation and Development Trust, the organization that runs the park. We introduced everyone to our project using an adaptation of the standard slideshow that Justin uses to explain his masters research in Hispaniola to people, and then opened the table for a discussion of the best possible areas to hike and survey.

IMG_2722_zpsvhhlep1v

Map exploration with representatives of the Jamaican Conservation and Development Trust

The park rangers had many helpful suggestions for certain regions that they thought best matched the type of habitat and un-birded nature that we’re looking for, and thanks to their help while poring over our maps we have a much better idea of where to go from here. The national park is simply so massive that any head start we can get on the right places to survey is a great help.

Today, we enjoyed some beautiful weather – blue skies and quite refreshing temperatures comfortably between the wind-chilled -10°F of Ithaca and the muggy 90°F of Cockpit Country. From our short hikes around the park so far we all agree that it’s an amazing area with stunning views and lots of potential for the Golden Swallow.

Continue reading

You No Sen, We Still Come

– 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.

Seth and JZ

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.

Continue reading