Conserve Wildlife Blog

Update from Brazil: News from Our Shorebird Scientists

February 28th, 2014

CWF’s Larry Niles and his colleagues are on a two-week trip to northern Brazil to trap and band Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, and other shorebirds on their wintering grounds. We’ll be following him and posting summaries of his blog entries as he reports from the field.

 

When most people think of Brazil, they think of Rio de Janeiro, a modern city that will soon host both the World Cup and the Summer Olympics. Or they may think of the Amazon jungle, and all the wonders of a wilderness alive with fascinating wildlife and plants that can found in no other place.

The town of Panaquatira perches precariously along the Atlantic shoreline of northern Brazil, about 250 miles east of the mouth of the Amazon.

The town of Panaquatira perches precariously along the Atlantic shoreline of northern Brazil, about 250 miles east of the mouth of the Amazon.

Except for an eight-hour layover in Rio, we are not going to these places. Instead, our home for the next two weeks will be Panaquatira, a tiny town on the northern coast about 250 miles east of the mouth of the Amazon. You could not imagine a more coastal town – the main street is the beach. Residents ride the mile-long strand to get to their modest homes in all but lunar tides, when the sea laps onto the stone driveways. The town is a resort for the working class, who mostly stay for the day, often arriving by bus to enjoy a frolic on the wave-washed sandy beach.

Heavy projectiles powered by gunpowder pull the net over birds quickly. The speed of the cannon net is key to catching fast-moving shorebirds.

Heavy projectiles powered by gunpowder pull the net over birds quickly. The speed of the cannon net is key to catching fast-moving shorebirds.

But we have not come to recreate. Our team of nine hearty souls will attempt to capture shorebirds that breed in the Arctic and winter here in the Maranhão state of Brazil. This forlorn and remote shoreline supports one of the most important concentrations of shorebirds in the hemisphere. Each year, thousands of red knots, ruddy turnstones, black-bellied plovers, whimbrels, and other species spend the winter here in a hot and humid climate that is the exact opposite of Arctic weather. Why do they winter here? What attracts them to this place? Where the Arctic do they breed? What other places are vital to their enigmatic lives? These are some of the questions we hope to answer.

The output of a recovered geolocator, this map shows the yearlong track of a red knot with the flag Y7H. We attached its geolocator on Delaware Bay in 2011 and recaptured it in 2012. The track shows it left Delaware Bay, passing through Hudson Bay on its way to its Arctic nesting area. In July, it flew south though James Bay, stopping on the US Atlantic Coast before making an epic flight that took it over 1,000 miles out into the ocean to avoid a storm. After four days of flying, Y7H finally reached the coast close to our study site.

The output of a recovered geolocator, this map shows the yearlong track of a red knot with the flag Y7H. We attached its geolocator on Delaware Bay in 2011 and recaptured it in 2012. The track shows it left Delaware Bay, passing through Hudson Bay on its way to its Arctic nesting area. In July, it flew south though James Bay, stopping on the US Atlantic Coast before making an epic flight that took it over 1,000 miles out into the ocean to avoid a storm. After four days of flying, Y7H finally reached the coast close to our study site.

Last year we trapped the beaches of Panaquatira and nearby island of Curupu. We caught red knots and ruddy turnstones with cannon nets and banded them with tiny devices called geolocators that track movement and store daily locations on a tiny memory chip. Geolocators are a digital treasure chest, but they can only be unlocked if we recapture the same birds and retrieve the devices.

Working in this remote place at the center of the world creates a challenge. What we call necessities are luxuries here, only available to a lucky elite. Everyone else struggles to achieve modest livelihoods at best. It’s a place where basic sanitation and clean water are still a modern improvement not yet available to the majority of the population; a place where warm-hearted and generous people must face persistent lawlessness, both in the street and in the halls of power. I fear the water, the parasites, and the thievery that the residents suffer with equanimity.

These colorful fishing boats, typical of the region, are powered by one-cylinder engines similar to those that served as workhorses of small boats 50 years ago in the United States. Some rely on sail power alone.

These colorful fishing boats, typical of the region, are powered by one-cylinder engines similar to those that served as workhorses of small boats 50 years ago in the United States. Some rely on sail power alone.

Don’t get me wrong. I live in New Jersey, less than an hour from Camden – one of the poorest places in the country and one of the “murder capitals” of the US. Still, we are threading a needle here. We don’t come as tourists, or on business per se. Panaquatira will be our home, and we must pull together a complicated effort that can only be successful with help and generosity of the residents. In return we hope to shed light on the circumstances of the birds and people of this wild and isolated place.

 

For the original blog entry, see Larry’s post Braving Brazil.

Stay tuned for further updates!

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