Search for the Critically Endangered Jamaican Golden Swallow – blog compilation

In 2015, Seth Inman, John Zeiger and I spent two months conducting aerial insectivore surveys throughout some of the most remote geography that the island of Jamaica has to offer. Beyond the formal work we set out to do each day, Seth was diligent in documenting some of our less scientific, bird-themed adventures along the way, for which we are extremely happy he did – some of the best memories of the trip may have otherwise slipped away.

Here is a compilation of those blog articles that were (and still are) posted individually as the action unfolded to the La Paz Group blog. Enjoy!

Jamaican Golden Swallow Expedition – Blog Compilation

Golondrina Verde becas

ANUNCIO de BECAS para DOMINICANOS y HAITIANOS

 

El Proyecto Golondrina Verde

está ofreciendo becas para realizar su propio estudio

sobre algún componente de la

biología y/o historia natural de

La Golondrina Verde (Tachycineta euchrysea sclateri)

 

DÓNDE / CUÁNDO: Parque Nacional Valle Nuevo, Cordillera Central, Republica Dominicana; entre dos y cuatro semanas duración entre 1 de abril y 1 de agosto del 2016.

 

BENEFICIOS: Se ofrecen dos becas para estudiantes con cobertura total de costos de alojamiento, comida y viáticos desde y hacia Valle Nuevo desde cualquier localidad dentro de RD. Adicionalmente se podrá pagar hasta US$200 en herramientas necesarias y un estipendio de US$500.

 

CONDICIONES: Con ayuda de científicos de la Universidad de Cornell, el interesado diseñará y ejecutará un proyecto de investigación relacionado con algún componente de la historia natural o la biología reproductiva de la Golondrina Verde de La Española (Tachycineta euchrysea sclateri).

 

El tema de estudio es flexible, sin embargo, los estudiantes deberán trabajar en proximidad con investigadores de la Universidad de Cornell (con frecuencia a través de email) para desarrollar un tema y diseño de investigación coherentes. Los estudiantes deberán ser extremadamente motivados, capaces de trabajar de forma independiente y con excelente capacidad de comunicación con los directores del proyecto antes, durante y al finalizar el trabajo de campo.

 

Esta es una excelente oportunidad para realizar una investigación local, enriquecer su Curriculum Vitae y tener la posibilidad de publicar trabajos científicos en revistas de impacto – con todos los gastos pagos. También puede servir como proyecto de tesis de grado.

 

Para solicitar más información, favor contactar a Justin Proctor: cjp252@cornell.edu (en español o inglés).

Para aplicar, el email debe incluir (1) CV con información de contacto de 3 personas que puedan servir como referencia, (2) una propuesta del trabajo que le gustaría realizar (mínimo de 200 palabras), (3) su disponibilidad entre el 1 de abril y 1 de agosto.

 

POSIBLES ÁREAS DE ESTUDIO PUEDEN INCLUIR:

Territorialidad, competición por cavidades / Comportamiento de forrajeo: distancia recorrida, dieta, comportamiento e historia de vida de presa (insectos) / Comportamiento nocturno / Migración / Refinamiento de protectores anti-depredación / Historia de vida y comportamiento de especies invasivas (ratas, hurones) / Búsqueda de cavidades naturales / Búsqueda de Carpintero de La Española / Divulgación en las comunidades / Desarrollo de capacidad local / Interacción entre la golondrina y otros insectívoros / Diferencias de plumaje entre géneros y edad

Summary of the Jamaican Golden Swallow Expedition

Status of the Critically Endangered Jamaican Golden Swallow

(abbreviated summary edition)

 

 Justin Proctor, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA

Seth E. Inman, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA

John M. Zeiger, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA

Gary R. Graves, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560, USA

 

 

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.

 

Gary Graves, Curator of Birds at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., conducted island-wide surveys for the Jamaican Golden Swallow from 1994 to 2012.  Though his extensive search efforts did not produce a positive sighting, two large tracts of remote land remained to be thoroughly explored.  Cornell University graduate student, Justin Proctor, who has dedicated his Master’s thesis work to studying the Hispaniolan subspecies of Golden Swallow, was asked by Graves and the Smithsonian Institution to lead a team into Jamaica to finish the exhaustive search for the critically endangered Jamaican Golden Swallow.  Proctor was joined by Cornell students John Zeiger and Seth Inman, and from January 15th to February 12th (29 days), and from March 3rd to 30th (28 days) 2015, the team targeted their search efforts on the Cockpit Country and Blue Mountain regions of Jamaica.

 

Survey locations were selected based on several – often overlapping – criteria, including (1) areas where known historical sightings of the species had occurred, (2) remote, difficult to access terrain as well as large parcels of private property, both of which are greatly under-surveyed, if ever surveyed at all, by bird watchers and/or ornithologists, (3) habitat that closely resembled that which is currently used by the Hispaniolan Golden Swallow and (4) regions not covered – as well as those deemed worthy of repeat surveying – by earlier aerial insectivore surveys conducted island-wide by Graves (2013).

Hisp swallows

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 team performed 634 standardized point counts while surveying more than 300 miles of remote landscape on foot.  The presence and identification of all diurnal aerial insectivores were determined at each designated census site.  Three species of diurnal aerial insectivores were observed during the surveys, including the White-collared Swift (Streptoprocne zonaris), Antillean Palm Swift (Tachornis phoenicobia), and Cave Swallow (Petrochelidon fulva).  One additional species, the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) was observed on two separate occasions during the study period but was not recorded on any of the standardized censuses.  Every swallow species seen was positively identified by the observers.  No Golden Swallows were observed, nor were any other Tachycineta species.

 

Golden Swallows are not a cryptic avian species.  Their acrobatic manner of foraging combined with their often curious demeanor towards observers makes them an agreeable search target.  That being said, historical and contemporary observations (the latter referring to the Hispaniola subspecies) confirm that they commonly intermix with other aerial insectivores when foraging.  These mixed foraging flocks can occur from ground level to well over 100 meters high, and are often composed of extremely fast-moving congregations of swallows and swifts.  For most bird-watchers, this scenario has been a notoriously challenging one for identifying individual birds to the species-level.  In response to this, the aerial insectivore surveys carried out by Graves and Proctor et al. focused specifically on closely analyzing these mixed flocks so as to further dismiss the likelihood that any persisting Jamaican Golden Swallows had gone unnoticed while incorporated into these flocks.

 

More than 25 years have passed since the last confirmed sighting of the Jamaican subspecies.  Since then, there have been no sightings by investigators specifically targeting the subspecies nor any reports from local or international birdwatchers.  Furthermore, there is no evidence that either Golden Swallow subspecies has ever migrated off-island.  Despite the extremely minute probability that a remaining population continues to persist undetected, at this point it should be confidently declared that the Jamaican Golden Swallow, Tachycineta euchrysea euchrysea, is extinct.

 

map

Standardized census sites for Golden Swallows in Jamaica (N = 2,068).  Red circles indicate individual census sites conducted by Gary R. Graves (n = 1,434) and dark purple circles indicate census sites conducted by Proctor et al. (n = 634).  Collectively, surveys were conducted from 1994 to 2015.  Map shading depicts topography, with colors darkening as elevation increases.      

 

Supplemental readings:

  • Information on the Hispaniolan Golden Swallow: thegoldenswallow.org
  • Graves’ work and publication on the Jamaican Golden Swallow: journals.cambridge.org;

electronic version available in Volume 24, Issue 02

 

A special thanks to the organizations and institutions that made this work possible:

 

Jamaica trip sponsor logos

Golden Swallow Jamaica Expedition

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GOLDEN SWALLOWS, JAMAICA EXPEDITION

 

It was in 1844 that English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse arrived in Jamaica for his first time.  Gosse would ultimately spend 18 months on the island, where he became fascinated in studying the local birdlife he found there.  After returning back to London, he went on to publish a book entitled, “The Birds of Jamaica”, in which can be found the first formal descriptions of many birds still cruising about the Caribbean landscape today.  The encounters he had with one bird in particular inspired Gosse to write the following:

 

“This exceedingly lovely little Swallow, whose plumage reflects the radiance of the

Hummingbirds, is found, as I am informed by Mr. Hill, in the higher mountains

formed by the limestone range of the very centre of the island, as in Manchester, and

St. Ann’s. It is not until we ascend this central chain, that we meet with this sweet

bird, occasionally in the more open dells, but principally confined to the singular little

glens called cockpits.”

 

In this passage Gosse speaks of the Golden Swallow, a small passerine that has only been historically known from two islands, Hispaniola and Jamaica.  And while populations of this species continue to persist in several mountain ranges of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the beautiful bird that Gosse describes in his Jamaican travels has not been seen on that island for more than 25 years.

 

Gary Graves, Curator of Birds at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., conducted island-wide searches for the swallow from 1994 to 2012.  Though his extensive census efforts across 1,281 sites did not produce a positive sighting, several large tracts of remote land remain to be thoroughly explored for any relic populations, including the Cockpit Country in Trelawny Parish and the Port Royal Mountains and the southern slope of the Blue Mountains in St. Andrew Parish.  With recent financial support from the Smithsonian’s James Bond Fund, Graves approached current Cornell University graduate student, Justin Proctor, about the idea of putting together a team to survey these locations.  Proctor has been intimately studying the breeding biology and natural life history characteristics of the Golden Swallows for three years in the high altitude pine forests of the Dominican Republic’s Cordillera Central, where a relatively dense population returns annually to breed in Proctor’s artificial nest-boxes.

 

Proctor will be joined by recent Cornell graduates Seth Inman and John Zeiger, and beginning in January of 2015, the team of three will set off from Ithaca, New York to begin a series of two, one-month expeditions into the heart of the Jamaican wilderness.  The team will be drawing on the support of the Smithsonian, the Rufford Foundation, and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.  Gear assistance is being generously provided by Cornell Outdoor Education.


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The primary goal of the expedition will be to conduct exhaustive surveys for Golden Swallows by accessing the remote backcountry by foot.  Armed with sound recording gear, cameras, maps, backpacks, and tents, the team will attempt to survey terrain and habitats that see very little human presence.  Beyond searching for the target species, the team will be conducting small mammal surveys to better understand the distribution of invasive rats and mongoose that may have been a fundamental driver in the potential extirpation of the Golden Swallows from the island.  The team also plans to keep an eye out for a handful of other bird species that fall on a ‘high priority list’, while additionally incorporating an outreach component that will develop awareness around the theme of conservation of endemic birds.

 

For more information on the work done by Gary Graves and the history of the Golden Swallows on the island of Jamaica, read Graves’ Historical decline and probable extinction of the Jamaican Golden Swallow Tachycineta euchrysea euchrysea, published in Bird Conservation International, 2013.  And for extensive information and multimedia on Golden Swallows in the Dominican Republic, visit:  thegoldenswallow.org

 

 

JUSTIN PROCTOR

 Justin Pic

Justin standing in front of the highest artificial nest-box erected in the Dominican Republic (9,310ft asl)

 

Justin is a third year Masters student in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University.  Originally from Springville, NY, Justin relocated to Maine for his undergraduate degree, remaining on the Downeast coast for several years afterwards in order to work with lobster populations as a certified Science Scuba Diver.  After landing an internship opportunity with Cornell’s Golondrinas de Las Americas Project working with Tachycineta swallows in Canada and Argentina, Justin stayed onboard to become a veteran field leader and eventually the project coordinator.  His time spent traveling and studying different swallow species convinced Justin to become more involved with burgeoning conservation efforts in Latin America, and prompted Justin to enroll as a graduate student and develop a thesis focused on using avian systems as a tool for engaging local communities in conservation efforts.

 

 

SETH INMAN

 35071_408195180919_7749686_n

Seth with Bedouin students in Jordan

 

Seth spent most of his childhood in Costa Rica and is interested in conservation and environmental history across cultures and over time. During his summer breaks throughout high school and college, he worked on private sector conservation initiatives in the Galápagos Islands, Nicaragua, India, Jordan and Chile, co-founding and collaborating on a multi-media project (http://raxacollective.wordpress.com) highlighting entrepreneurial approaches to conservation. Seth recently completed a senior honors thesis in history that explores British conceptions of travel and wilderness in Iceland during the nineteenth century, graduating from Cornell University in May of 2014 with an honors in History.  He has been employed by a citizen science program involving education and outreach at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the past three years, previously worked for Cornell Outdoor Education and rowed for Cornell’s lightweight crew.

 

 

JOHN ZEIGER

 Tern pic

John working with a colony of terns at Oneida Lake, NY

 

John Zeiger recently graduated from Cornell University through the Department of Natural Resources.  He grew up in Ardsley, NY, a suburb near NYC, and has always been passionate about the natural world. As an undergraduate, John spent two summers assisting with Tree Swallow biological research under the direction of Dr. David Winkler.  John’s enthusiasm for conservation and the outdoors are strongly measured in his leadership with the Wildlife Society at Cornell.   John looks forward to making meaningful contributions to the field of conservation during the expedition to Jamaica, gaining the skills and experience needed to lead his own independent field research abroad in the future.

 

A new start for much of Valle Nuevo

We’ve been slowly trying to comprehend and take in the images and information we’re receiving from friends and collaborators in Valle Nuevo.  A lightning-induced forest fire began approximately two weeks ago, and aided by both a long, dry spell as well as consistent winds, the fire was able to spread significantly over a short amount of time.  A great many groups and organizations came together to fight the fire and aid those on the front lines, and our sincere thanks and gratitude goes out to every individual that contributed in any way they could.  Their efforts, combined with a long-awaited rainstorm, have diminished the fires at last.

Pajon fields and thick pine forest burned quickly.  The fact that all of our boxes are attached to metal posts, and almost all are located away from the forest edge turned out to be a bit of fortunate luck for the project in that the fires swept low through the grass fields and spared most the boxes.  Furthermore, a week prior to the beginning of the blaze, all of this years’ chicks had fledged.

The following images are difficult to fully understand from my office in Ithaca, but they are teaching us much.  We’ll be heading down sometime in the near future to begin the restoration and rebuilding efforts so that the boxes are ready for the 2015 field season.  How the fire has and will impact the localized migration of the species as well as their food sources is hard to say at this point.

Thank you to all of you that submitted these photos to me.

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