Monday, March 5, 2012

A Change of Scenery

While at our house and working in the Copse plot we are mostly by ourselves, isolated and secluded. The only people we see regularly are the cattlemen and the people who work around the house. Though the solitude is pleasant, it is always nice to have a variety, and thankfully we have been granted that in the form of a new study site. The Citrus.

The valley below us is filled with vast citrus groves, where row after row of orange trees line the rolling hills. In addition to producing copious amounts of fruit for people to eat… many, many migrant warbler species live in this man-made habitat (although few resident species do). Since migrant warblers are what we are after, the citrus is a great study site, providing a contrast to the relatively pristine forest of Copse. What is the warbler density like down here? How healthy are they comparatively? These are the questions that we are trying to answer.

During the first few hours of each day the valley is blanketed by a dense fog. The citrus trees show the effects of this daily gift of moisture; the branches are draped with mosses and epiphytes, and if you look closely, orchids. Parulas and redstarts can be seen gleaning from the leaves and flying out in quick bursts to snatch flying insects while ovenbirds and waterthrushes hunt unobtrusively on the ground.

For the first week in the citrus, I spent my mornings wandering down the misty lines of trees, stopping at set points to survey the birds I could identify. After these preliminary assessments, we have begun capturing birds there, setting up nets within the citrus trees to color-band redstarts and assess the health of other warbler species we catch. Much like our work in the wet limestone forest, we set up 8-12 nets and leave them open from first light until early afternoon. We check the nets every 20-30 minutes, extracting the birds and taking them back to our makeshift banding station. We were able to borrow some extra nets from the other Smithsonian crew down in Whitehouse, and thanks to this, Ashley, Shawn, Laura and I have been able to split up into two separate banding teams, doubling our efforts.

Here are some photographs of some of the birds we have caught so far, with some explanations to boot. Woot woot!

Above is a migrant, a male Cape May Warbler, one of a couple that we've caught this past week.

Here is another migrant, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler. This species breeds in Canada, New England, and down the spine of the Appalachians. Abundant throughout Jamaica, they are the focus of much research on migrant biology down here.

This is an abundant, conspicuous resident of the citrus, the White-winged Dove. The people of Jamaica love to eat white-wings, and have devised a number of genius methods to catching them. Every time someone saw us holding one, they emplored us to give it to them to eat.

Here is the villain of the citrus, the Greater Antillean Grackle. Hordes of these guys maraud through the citrus, eating rotten fruit, bird eggs, and if they're lucky, a bird dangling in one of our nets. Thankfully we've had no grackle murders yet this year.

The Jamaican Mango. This endemic hummingbird is just one of many jewels zipping amongst the trees.

What's fruit without parakeets?! The Olive-throated Parakeet, seen here, is a common species throughout Jamaica, and one that we were very excited to have fall into our nets, provided that we kept our fingers clear of that nut-cracking beak.

And perhaps most shockingly of all, Laura pulled this bird out of the net one afternoon! A Merlin! This medium sized falcon migrates from the taiga of Canada down to the coasts of the North, Central, and South America during the winter. Needless to say, it was an absolute thrill to handle this bird killing machine.

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