Caribbean Naturalist Paper Published!

Caribbean Naturalist Tyto alba Hellshire HillsAfter a year of waiting, the paper that I wrote with Justin and John is finally published! This is a journal article that arose from an accidental encounter with a juvenile Barn Owl in a small cave that I noticed on the side of a trail we were on while exploring the Hellshire Hills. This southern region of Jamaica is not one in which we expected to see the Golden Swallow, but we wanted to check anyway, as well as look out for some of the rare tropical dry scrub species we might find in the area, like the Jamaican Iguana, previously thought extinct.

I briefly hinted at this paper in an old post after our return from Jamaica, but didn’t mention it after that since I knew a published article would tell the story more fully, albeit more technically and with science instead of storytelling as a priority. In the cover photo above I’ve included a link to the PDF version of Caribbean Naturalist journal issue 37, which contains our article, but I also want to summarize our findings in lay terms for those less familiar with the biological jargon.

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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.

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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 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?

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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

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


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A Sneak Peek at Jamaican Bird Videos

We have several full hours of raw bird behavior footage from our first trip, so it’ll be a while before we have much processed to the point of sharing here, but I thought it’d be nice to have a quick preview of some things to come once we’re back from our second trip to the Blue Mountains.

In the video above, you can see four relatively common bird species in Jamaica: the American Kestrel, Northern Mockingbird, Merlin, and Orangequit. The first three species can be found in the United States but have resident populations in Jamaica, while the last is endemic to the island. The behavior exhibited in the video is typical of all the species. Continue reading

Preparing for the Blue Mountains

A friendly caterpillar I found crawling around my tent’s rainfly on one of the last days in Jamaica.

We just finished our first week back in Ithaca, where temperatures have stayed below 0ºF most of the time and therefore we have stayed indoors most of the time. Mostly we’ve been writing up all our observations from the first expedition, digitizing our paper field notes and organizing our photos and videos; playing around with bird data in Excel, eBird, and ArcGIS (a mapping-data program); and looking at maps of the Blue and John Crow mountain ranges.

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Melton West


Note:  Hey I’m John, a new author with Raxa Collective. I am working as a field technician on an expedition studying the Jamaican Golden Swallow with Justin Proctor and Seth Inman.

While traveling in the Jamaican bush, local people would often pleasantly surprise us. While passing us deep in the bush on a donkey with a pack saddle brimming with yellow yams, a local farmer with a ragged hat and torn work shirt told us about how he just spend the last week in Toronto with his Canadian girlfriend. A group of illegal mahogany loggers, upon seeing our camera equipment, enthusiastically asked us to help them film a music video. But by far, our favorite encounter was with Melton Manuel West.

We met Melton as we set up our camp in the late afternoon near BBQ Bottom Rd. He was walking from his home in the bush to go to the market in nearby Campbells. Like most people we met, he asked us about what we were doing. Intrigued by our project, he declared he would take us to the best places in the bush to see swallows. Then he sat down nearby and just hung out near our camp. At first we were suspicious, and it was a little disconcerting. Yet before he left, we agreed that he could guide us into the hills the next day. Continue reading

A Successful Part One

View of a foggy Barbecue Bottom valley in Cockpit Country

This past weekend, the first stage of the Smithsonian’s Jamaican Golden Swallow Expedition came to a close. After a full month of exploring Cockpit Country for whatever aerial insectivores we could find, we flew back to Ithaca on the 14th. Now we will process our data and imagery for two weeks while restocking for the second trip.

The bulk of our gear laid out for washing, drying, and sorting on the Windsor Research Centre’s lawn during our last day in Cockpit Country.

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Roads and Trails Through Cockpit Country

A Turkey Vulture is king of the power tower

As I mentioned in my previous post, we’ve been traveling around Cockpit Country over the last week and a half by driving around from town to town and finding trails to lead us into the bush. Sometimes these trails are old roads that are clearly still sometimes used by SUVs and donkeys; often they are even older tracks that are for single-file passage and no longer pack-animal-friendly.

Justin on one of the “karstier,” more rugged valley trails

We started out our trip to Jamaica hiking some of these latter types of paths, accurately predicting that they would take us to places few people have birded and naively hoping that they would offer us views of hidden valleys or even the sky. They ended up being difficult to traverse and, as far as we can tell, not the right type of habitat for swallows. Continue reading

Cockpit Country

© Google

Cockpit Country, the first of the two regions we’ll be traveling through during our pair of expeditions, is an area of roughly 500mi² in northwestern Jamaica. The country is divided into parishes, which are like the counties or provinces of other countries; Cockpit Country is in the southern section of Trelawny Parish, which at one point had the most sugar plantations on the island. The sugar factories were closer to the coastal ports, but Cockpit Country, full of forest and strange limestone terrain, was (and still largely is) uninhabited and difficult to traverse.

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