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!

Artificial nest-box mounted to a pole with a cone-shaped predator guard attached beneath, Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic; June 2014.

In 2010, in collaboration with the Golondrinas de Las Américas (Swallows of the Americas) project at Cornell University, researcher Jim Goetz and Dominican biologists Esteban Garrido and Jesus Almonthe erected nearly one hundred artificial nest-boxes across a national park known as Parque Valle Nuevo (Parque Nacional Juan Bautista Pérez Rancier) located in the Dominican Republic’s Cordillera Central. Their hope was to attract a sizeable, returning population of breeding Hispaniolan Golden Swallows (Tachycineta euchrysea sclateri) to those nest-boxes so that a formal study of the species could be carried out. By 2012 the plan had worked, and word spread back to Cornell that the time was ripe to find someone to undertake the research. Upon hearing about the opportunity – and conveniently in the very beginning planning stages of my master’s thesis – I decided to give it a go. I was fresh off two years of back-to-back-to-back field seasons working with Tachycineta swallows up and down the Western Hemisphere, and I was ready to find out where else this genus of acrobatic aerial insectivores could take me.

The Hispaniolan Golden Swallow, it turned out, was considered endemic to the island, threatened, and in steady decline. Furthermore, there was so very little known about it. Some work had been done with a very small breeding population that was nesting in crevices within the walls of abandoned bauxite mines located in the Aceitillar region of the Sierra de Bahoruco, but that was really about it. As I came to realize both the extent of what we didn’t know as well as the current plight of the species, I decided that a focused study of the swallow’s breeding biology would simply not be enough. The project would have to be more holistic. The work I decided to do would have to be chosen for its relevance and thus its ability to produce information that helped develop both short and long-term conservation management plans for the species. The project could only truly be successful if its every facet was geared towards having a broader impact on the future of the Golden Swallow. So, I had three years (roughly speaking – this is academia we’re talking about) to make some magic happen, and with the laundry list of ideas and goals growing daily, I knew I was going to need some help. Much to my good fortune, I found smiling faces and willing bodies around absolutely every bend in the road. [All of those people, groups, and foundations deserve their own article – and I plan to write it – but in the meantime let me just say that I’m hoping we all set some kind of record for the 400 word acknowledgment section within our Hispaniolan Golden Swallow monograph that’s currently under review for publication by the Journal of Caribbean Ornithology.]

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