Monday, February 27, 2012

Canine Introductions

Hey guys. Time to take a break from the birds for a little bit and show you something else. Our house has a wonderful assemblage of dogs, and thankfully these dogs are full of drama. Before I get into the drama, however, I must introduce the characters to you. They are known as follows: Momma Dog, Red Dog, and Silver Dog.

The bottom level of our refrigerator is dedicated to chilled pig guts, which come up from the pig farm once a week or so. These guts are fed to the dogs twice a week, along with the bones and meat scraps that we throw them after dinner. I fed them pig guts yesterday and made the poor decision of grabbing the guts with my hands - after five hand washes I can still smell the charming odor. The dogs love it however, and can gulp down an amazing amount at one time.

All three are adept at howling late into the night, chasing cars, and being overall no count skanks. We have leanred that ticks are big fans of dogs as well, and their eyelids and ear tips are often riddled with them. Here is a detailed photo account of our pooches:

Momma Dog(seen below) is the elder resident, who has given birth to many litters, and has the saggy nipples to show for it. As I said before, she is the mother of Red and Silver Dog. Momma Dog is incredibly spunky, and is sure to wag her whole body for you if you make eye contact with her. As you can see, Momma Dog was quite pregnant at the time of this photo.. but she got even chubbier than this.
Red Dog(seen below) is a female offspring of Momma Dog. She is the largest of the three and full of energy, liking to steal shoes and stash them under the tree in the front yard. When we are gone for a few days, she takes up residence on the back porch, sleeping in our cushioned chairs. She has never given birth, but last year she produced milk for Momma Dog’s babies. She might be sterile.
Silver Dog(seen below) is a female from last spring’s litter and she is very peculiar. She is evasive and cringes, acting as if she has been hit in the past and rarely let’s me touch her. She is submissive to the other two dogs.
So in addition to being no count skanks, these lady dogs excel at getting pregnant. Momma Dog has been obviously pregnant for the past month or so, but only over the past couple weeks have we noticed that Silver Dog is pregnant as well, although not nearly the girth of Momma Dog. Yesterday while sitting on the back porch, I heard a loud rustling from down the hill in the woods. After a few minutes, Momma appeared panting, covered in sticky seed pods. What was she doing down there? I had no idea.

Since then, however, more developments have transpired. We returned from a morning at the Black Morass to find Momma and Silver both missing and Red Dog sitting in the front yard all by her lonesome. Strange. Then Miss Rattay then told us that Silver Dog was under the house preparing to give birth! Ashley and Laura proceeded to crawl under the house and find Silver and Momma Dog had both scraped out dens in the rocky floor, but neither had given birth yet. Oh Excitement! The following morning, Red Dog was the only dog to be seen once again. Silver and Momma were both still under the house. After another inspection, it was discovered that both had given birth to six puppies, side by side. How cute! Who's the father? We're not sure, but it mostly likely is Brother-Dad, a dark male that appears here from time to time. From the little I've seen, he likes to hump, and yes... he is both brother and father. Below is the entrance to the crawlspace where the puppies were birthed.
Here is Silver Dog's litter, deep in the recesses of the house. To get to this spot you must crawl through two very small tunnels. Needless to say, this is the optimal hiding place for pups.
Below is Momma Dog's litter. Since the time of this photo, one of the pups has disappeared. Uh oh!
So anyways, this has been all quite enthralling for us. Now the countdown begins for the emergence of the puppies into the outside world.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Ticked Off

So, I teased you guys last week about the mysterious duct tape strapped to my lower legs(see picture in previous blog post). Why did I have it on? What was it’s purpose? Surely it wasn’t purely fashion. Well, the time has come to tell you, and it can be summed up in one word. But I’m not going to make it that easy. The story is as follows.

Our main field site is located high up in the limestone hills behind Montego Bay on the property of a British family who, except for the occasional visit, no longer lives there. They allow us to stay there for a modest fee, and in turn we get a wonderfully convenient field station. The vast property, operated by many local employees, consists of a coffee plantation, an enormous pig farm, and grazing land for hundreds of cattle.. as well as one substantial section of mature wet limestone forest. The main house we’re staying in is called the Copse house, and is on the uppermost tier of the property(more on the house and its inhabitants to come in later posts).To start out with, we will to be working in this one section of mature forest, while later on we will do some work in the coffee, as well as at some other sites around the island.

View from our back porch, looking northeast towards Cockpit Country. The coffee farm is sitting unseen below us, and the pig farm is on the distant hills. Taken by Laura.

So, onto the work itself… Our mission is to catch all of the redstarts and black-throated blue warblers that are spending the winter in this patch of forest. We catch them with mist nets, which are eight feet tall and forty feet long and almost invisible. Once caught, each individual is banded with a unique combination of color bands. This allows for each bird to be identified as an individual later on in the field. Other measurements concerning its weight, health, and size are also taken. We spend the rest of our time mapping out the territories of each individual – the details of which reveal that the oldest males are dominant and thus get the highest quality habitats. Females and young birds live more marginal habitats, whether on the forest edge or in less mature forest. What makes one section of the forest better than the other? Well, hard to say for sure, but it likely comes down to, as with most things in this world, to food. The taller and wetter a section of forest the more diverse and abundant the food source. The taller the forest, the more habitats there are, from canopy, to mid-level, to understory and the ground. A young, second-growth section of forest is unlikely to have as many insect niches, and thus less insects as a whole. To study this dynamic further, we are taking insect samples at all of the sites we will be working.

Above is a photo of a male redstart that we caught. You can see the color bands on him which will help us in resighting him.

But, before we could get started on all that, we had to clear the road from the house to the forest plot. No one else drove that stretch, so it was up to us to tame a years worth of new growth. To make the task more daunting, the entire area was inundated with seed ticks, an exotic visitor from Africa. Drawn to the cattle, hordes of these needle-tip sized beasts sit on top of blades of grass in giant balls of hundreds to thousands of individuals, waiting for you to brush up against them. Once you do, they explode and disperse to infiltrate your being. Ashley, having worked here for three years, knew this and warned us, but there was only so much that words could tell us. She recommended that we each carry a roll of duct tape, and each time a “ball” of ticks got on us, to stop and use duct tape to pull them off as quick as possible. We worked for most of the day using machetes to clear the road before returning to the house in the late afternoon.

Despite my diligence, my clothes had become completely infested with ticks and my body was covered in hundreds upon hundreds of irresistibly itchy red welts. Despite a generous helping of Benadryl, I spent the night in a fitful state of self-mutilation. The next day I had to shave my legs so that I could properly treat them. A week later, the welts were still there, with bloody scabs and new welts rising all around them. There wasn’t a single stretch of skin on my body I could run my hand across without feeling lump after lump after lump. I looked like a poorly shaved poodle with lupus.

The top photo is a piece of duct tape with some seed ticks on it, as well as one giant "silverback" tick. A normal tick ball has about ten times as many as there are on that piece of duct tape. Yes. It sucks. The second photo is of A LOT of ticks, all pulled off at once. Below is my thigh a couple days after the first attack. My whole body looked like this.

Since then, I have learned my enemy and gotten better in my defense, and in turn by body as healed. A typical field day at Copse consists of a dawn departure from the house. My first order of business after breakfast and ablutions is to prepare my defense against the ticks. This entails tucking my quick-dry pants into my socks, wrapping that junction with duct-tape, putting my boots on, and then putting gaiters on after that. Then I tuck my shirt into my underwear, strap on my belt, and I’m ready to go. I always have a roll of duct-tape in my hip pocket, in case I get nailed with a tick ball. If that happens, I rip off a piece of tape and use it to pull off the ticks before they weasel their way into a crevice. We drive up above the house on the track we cleared(bypassing many ticks) to the Copse forest plot, passing through three gates before we enter the forest. The forest itself doesn't have many ticks, thankfully... even though the cows do escape into it every once and awhile.

Once we had caught and color banded some birds, we were able to start mapping out their territories(and still are), and to do this it takes great patience and attention to detail. In addition to the new birds we've caught, there are already several birds banded in previous years that have returned to the plot. To map a bird, I must stalk quietly down the paths that we have cut, listening for the chip notes of the birds to locate them. Once located, I watch it and plot on a grid where I have seen it, at what height in the forest, and what bands it is wearing. After months of doing this, we will have an excellent data set of the habitat partitioning amongst these birds, and what sort of territories each subset of redstart is getting. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that we already know some of the redstarts on territory here have been returning to the exact same tree for the three or four years, all after a migration of over a 1,000 miles.

Of course, one added benefit of setting up a bunch of nets in Jamaica is that you catch a lot of other things as well! On average we have 10-12 nets set up, and have them open for around seven hours a day. Here are some pictures and captions of some of the things we’ve caught. Remember you can click on a photo to make it larger.

Jamaican Woodpecker. Common in all forest types in Jamaica. Taken by Laura.

Rufous-throated Solitaire. Endemic to Hispaniola and Jamaica. The solitaires are members of the thrush family, and have a haunting ethereal song. Taken by Laura.

Jamaican Tody. Todies are only found in the West Indies. Their closest relatives are the motmots and kingfishers. They are quite the sedate little birds, sitting still for long periods of time before flying out after an insect, audibly snapping its wings. Taken by Laura.

Arrow-headed Warbler. A resident warbler species endemic to Jamaica, most often found in wet mid-level forest, gleaning insects from the underside of leaves. Taken by me with Laura's camera.

A male Jamaican Spindalis. One of a group of closely related species endemic to the West Indies, this tanager is common in wet forests of Jamaica, eating fruit. Taken by me with Laura's camera.

A male Kentucky Warbler. This is another migrant warbler species, and one that is listed as a vagrant for Jamaica. However, they are annual at the Copse field site. They breed in bottomland forests of southeastern North America. Taken by me with Laura's camera.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Hey guys! It's Alan, and as you can see I'm back on Goodbye, Me after a long hiatus. Since my last post, I've spent time in Louisiana, Oregon, and Massachusetts, as well as back home in North Carolina. But now, I am in Jamaica and ready to start blogging again. Why am I in Jamaica? Well, my girlfriend Laura and I are first and foremost, studying birds, but adventure is a big part of it as well. We are working for a graduate student at Tulane University, and in turn the the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Our study is focusing on American Redstarts and Black-throated Blue Warblers, two species of warbler that breed in eastern North America and spend the rest of the year here in the West Indies. What's remarkable about those two species in particular is the fact that they hold winter territories, and the dynamics of these territories is what we are studying. A single redstart will return to the same tree to spend the winter, year after year, all after over a 1,000 mile journey! WOWZA! But more on that in later posts... I'll keep it streamlined for now. Basically, Laura and I will be down here until May, capturing and studying birds and exploring the world of Jamaica. SOoooo... without further ado... let's start the journey. Here is post #1...

January 14th, 2012

As the plane descended into Montego Bay the stewardess came onto the intercom. She declared that everyone should get ready, because it was 84 degrees on the ground! Roars of exultation came from the rabid tourists who had been ordering cocktails and mini-bottles since the flight had taken off. Not everyone on the flight was so responsive to the weather announcement however. A young, fat rastafari in a wife beater and stocking cap sat quietly and a black man next to me offered me two Halls cough drops after I had sneezed into my hand. He promptly fell asleep against the window after that, which was okay with me, as I preferred to sit in silence as we approached.

Well, it was true. Montego Bay was indeed 84 degrees, and as the plane skimmed just above the coastline, aquamarine water met white sand just as it should. Beyond the coastline strand, verdant hills rose up into lush forest, where small colorful buildings were barely visible, tucked beneath the fronds, fruits, and flowers.

The humidity hit me like a wall as we filed out of the plane and into the airport. Moving through a bare white hallway, I followed the signs towards immigration. I had taken a separate flight than Laura and Ashley, who had arrived on a plane about 30 minutes before I had. Arriving at immigration, I was greeted by a line of 300 people, making switchbacks toward the front . Ashley had informed me that I might get some questioning from the immigration officers regarding the length of my stay, which, at four months, was a rarity among visitors. At long last I arrived at the booth, and answered a series questions – How long is your visit? What will your address be? What is the purpose of your visit? I answered all as I should. I will be here until May 10th. My address will be Kew Park, Betheltown. I am a volunteer on a scientific research project. I am a volunteer. All my expenses are paid. Repeat. I am not getting paid. She promptly asked – Who is your boss? I said she is over there in baggage claim. Her name is Ashley. Then I remembered that I had a sheet of paper with our Jamaican phone number and address printed out – maybe that would be more convincing. I handed the sheet to the young Jamaican woman, and as she glossed over it, she began to laugh and show it to the worker next to her. I had forgotten that on that same piece of paper was a blow-by-blow list of tips to get by immigration, rife with all the “right things to say,” and “what you might expect.” Of course that was hilarious to them. After their laughter subsided, she stamped my passport for 90 days and said I would need to come back two weeks before it expires to get it renewed or face a steep penalty. I was through!

In the airport parking lot we met up with a representative from the car rental company who handed over the keys of a new pick-up for us to drive off in. Our first stop in town was the Mega Mart, a giant store reminiscent of Costco. I, however, did not get to go inside, and had to stay with the pick-up to guard our bags in the back. Not knowing exactly what I was guarding against, I stood stoically behind the truck, switching around occasionally to sit on the back hatch. To pass the time, I nonchalantly watched the bird life around me. Glossy ibis lifted up from the wet grasses across the street, and a pair of mockingbirds danced across the lawn, throwing shadows over insects before they pounced. My attention was drawn to the cars that passed by me in the parking lot – hosting a wide variety of people, all of them either gawking, glaring, or avoiding me. Horrific dramas of assault and murder began to play out in my mind. What a shameful way it would be to go out!

Well, of course nothing happened, and as we continued onward, I learned from Ashley that we would be driving about an hour or so into the hills to where we would be staying, in an old estate of a British family that rarely visits anymore. The road that wound up into the mountains and away from tourist-land was sinuous, narrow, and full of potholes, and when combined with the left-side-of-the-road driving, quite harrowing. We passed through the towns of Anchovy and Rat Trap, where trash blew down the sidewalks and matchstick houses with zinc roofs blurred by.

Ashley’s informative words flowed fluidly into and out of my consciousness – The Jamaican government is bankrupt, they are trying to develop every undeveloped area left in the county - Nowhere is safe - They don’t give a shit about the land – it went on. I lost track of the words, and stared back out the window at the shoulder of the road, where a man and his two sons stood urinating, their backs turned to us. Wow. Ashley then told a story of a kid who once approached her and asked if she wanted to see a boa. Since the Jamaican Boa is an endangered species and rarely encountered, she eagerly asked the kid to lead her to it. There it was. In the chicken coop! Later she learned that they traded the boa so that the kids could get shoes. What can you say to that? We all agreed. Nothing.

Our journey towards Kew Park continued, and I focused again on the scenes passing by. The feeling of being in a 3rd world country started to come back to me, as I smelled the smell of exhaust fumes, burning trash combined with lush green vegetation, foreign signs and foreign faces. We pulled over to a plywood front with “corner jerk” scrawled on it. It was a small shop selling jerk chicken and jerk pork, and as Ashley ran in to grab us some, I watched a young boy wearing a red shirt and athletic shorts walking up the street, kicking a ball. As he launched the ball up the road, he made a gun with his hand and fired three shots into the sky before he ran around the corner and out of sight.

At last we pulled onto the dirt track that would take us to our house where we’d be staying the first few nights, while other researchers cleared out of the main house. It was an old, fortress turned cottage, with slots in the wall for firing weapons out of, and a tower that would fit right into medieval times. I took a moment to sit down. I could here music from Betheltown far below us. Mystikal, Notorious BIG, and Ghetto Superstar played in succession. My favorite music! Where was that music coming from, and what sort of people were down there? I sat back and closed my eyes and slowly but surely, my brain started to tackle my new home. Jamaica.

So... STAY TUNED. Many more posts to come.. hopefully once a week or so. And, maybe you are wondering why I am wearing duct tape on my ankles in that photo. Well, tune in later and you'll find out. IT'S A SCARY REASON. Wowza!