Our principal study site for the Hispaniolan Golden Swallow is located within Parque Nacional Juan Bautista Pérez Rancier (JBPR), locally referred to as Parque Valle Nuevo , is approximately 910 km2 in size and situated in the heart of Hispaniola’s highest and most extensive mountain chain, La Cordillera Central. The park is contained within the provinces of Monseñor Nouel, La Vega, Azua y San José de Ocoa, and is currently delineated between the latitudes 18°36’10” and 18°57’52″N and 70º26’56” and 70º51’44″W (Guerrero and McPherson 2002). The park was decreed a Protected Area under the category of Scientific Reserve in 1983 and in 1996 became a National Park overseen by the Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales of the Dominican Republic government and co-managed by Fundación Propagas.
Geographically, JBPR is in large part dominated by a northwest to southeast running highland plateau, paralleled laterally by strings of higher mountain peaks. Appropriately designated “The Mother of Waters,” heavy annual rainfall (>250 cm) in JBPR drains quickly off the steep outer slopes of the park, giving birth to an estimated 769 rivers across the island. Temperatures in the winter months fall below 0 oC and mornings with ice are not uncommon, while summertime temperatures can easily exceed 40 oC (Pedersen 1953, Guerrero and McPherson 2002). The landscape is largely dominated by sub-tropical, high altitude monospecific pine forest from the summit of the Caribbean’s highest peak (Alto Bandera, 2,842 m) down to ~ 2,250 m where pine forest begins to transition over to lower elevation cloud forest (Sherman et al. 2005, Latta et al. 2006, Perdomo et al. 2010).
The park is subjected to strong anthropogenic illegal disturbance through farming, timber-harvesting, and irrigation (Guerrero and McPherson 2002, Nuñez et al. 2006). Meanwhile, fires ranging in magnitude from small and localized up to landscape-sized conflagrations are common in the Cordillera Central and are known to play a large role in shaping the vegetation and succession of forests across JBPR (Horn et al. 2000, Martin and Fahey 2005, Núñez et al. 2006).
Despite these disturbances, and taking into account the park’s relatively small size and considerable variations in topography, altitude, and climate, JBPR boasts 77 species of birds representing 29 families. Twenty-six of these species are endemic to Hispaniola and sixteen fall under some level of vulnerability on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (BirdLife 2012, Brocca and Landestoy in prep.). This level of biodiversity coupled with high numbers of endemic and/or threatened birds has led to the park’s designation as both a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) (Anadón-Irizarry 2012) and Important Bird Area (IBA) (Perdomo et al. 2010, BirdLife International 2015).
The approximate location of JBPR is indicated with the yellow highlight in the map below.
In 2010, a group of researchers based out of Cornell University decided to begin the first scientific study of the Hispaniolan Golden Swallow by erecting artificial nest-boxes throughout an area of the pine forests where the species was known to breed. The nest-boxes were designed to simulate natural cavities found in trees, but included a hinged door that would allow researchers access to study the nesting behaviors of the birds throughout the breeding season. However, these nest-boxes that were originally perceived as a tool for direct scientific study soon proved to be just as valuable for the conservation of the swallows:
First, the box provided a nesting cavity for swallows in a habitat where otherwise very few natural cavities existed, which resulted in more nesting attempts by more pairs of swallows.
Second, with the boxes attached to free-standing poles, a predator guard in the form of a metallic cone could be fashioned below the box to thwart attacks from invasive rats and mongoose. This resulted in higher rates of nestling survival in the face of unnatural – yet overwhelming – rates of predation and subsequent nest failure that was occurring otherwise.
Third, the boxes were something visible on the local landscape. They became a talking point, a tangible connection to nature, and ultimately an icon for the region’s growing campaign to protect the native fauna.
Today, a network of 200 nest-boxes has been created, with more being added across Hispaniola each year.