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Posts Tagged ‘Para’

Shorebird Expedition Brazil: Conducting a scientific investigation in a tropical wilderness

Thursday, February 9th, 2017

By Larry Niles, LJ Niles Associates LLC

It’s hard to imagine the difficulties of people living here at Latitude 37 Degrees North when arriving at the equator in northern Brazil. It challenges even the hardiest of biologists. However, after three days our team has not only acclimated but we accomplished surveys in two separate estuaries.


Ruddy turnstone multiyear flight recorded by a geolocator caught in Maranhoa, Brazil.


Low tide was cut short on our first day in the field, while high tide persisted longer than we expected which challenged our surveying since it must take place when birds forage. Shorebirds typically forage until 1 to 2 hours before high tide and start again 1 to 2 hours after high tide, usually resting and digesting the food consumed at the lower tides. Because we intend to understand the foraging habitats of shorebirds in the wintering area, we must focus on the lower tides. This is always difficult due to logistical issues such as renting boats, equipment failures, and long distance from the ports present an array of complications. Still, we were able to go out in the field and collect some data.


The next day we did marginally better, each team member faced different problems. Our boat engine failed and we had to paddle back to port, another boat took so long to get to the shoal we intended to survey that it had already been covered by the tide.  But this is the nature of field work anywhere.


Yann and Christophe paddle our boat back to port after the engine failed.


No matter the complication, it is important to stick to our rigid protocols.  Our goal is to determine the best places for shorebirds in this area. We must work with the shorebird’s behavior because each tidal stage creates different value.  In a wild place such as this, they will choose to roost as close to the foraging areas as possible. In fact most will just roost then feed as the tide recedes then feed as the tide rises and then roost again.  So locating the feeding areas will usually indicate the roosting areas.


But things can go awry. In human dominate habitats like New Jersey, birds find it hard to roost near foraging areas. Most often the high tide forces them into people jogging, dog walking or enjoying flushing shorebirds.  So the shorebirds must leave, unnecessarily burning valuable fuel and suffering greater danger from avian predators.


The night-time roost creates the real threat here in Brazil and everywhere. At night many dangers lurk.  Ground predators, such as owls, feral cats, raccoons, and even people will take advantage of any unwary or sickened bird.  It is worse when birds are forced to use areas that are less secure than others. This can happen naturally at spring tides, for example, when the very highest high tides force them closer to the dangers lurking in the dunes or mangrove forests.  In places like Hereford, New Jersey, people often force birds to use more dangerous areas.


Larry Niles surveying.


So our goal here is to map all the areas of importance – foraging, day-time roosts and night-time roosts.  But we hope to do it with remote sensing; satellite maps that are trained by a mathematical model, that are, in turn, trained by our field data.  We count birds, photograph the surrounding habitats, precisely locate the sites, and even look at the substrate.  Is it mud, sand, muddy sand, sandy mud and so on?


Doing this in New Jersey is difficult.  Doing it in the northern coast of Brazil presents untold challenges.  One cannot easily access the coast here.  We have to rent boats to take us out to the birds, conduct surveys then get back before dark.  Sometimes we go out for days and stay in remote fishing villages, sometimes with only a floor to sleep and no facilities or power. Imagine unrelenting heat, mosquitoes, persistent blowing sand, copious sweat, and trying to conduct a scientific investigation. That would be demanding in any environment.


So this is the challenge of our crew – and they do it aplomb!  Last year one of the boats sank in 55 feet of water 8 miles out to sea. We all made it to land safely but we lost much of our equipment. The day after was grim, wondering if we should we go on or go home?  Without hesitation, not only did the crew go on to complete the survey but we ended up capturing twenty-two geolocators from ruddy turnstones tagged two years earlier. A good crew is hard to put together and stay productive in these conditions. A good spirit is the most important thing.


Our team chooses areas for the next day’s surveys. Beer is essential!


So we completed two days of surveys at the western end of our 150 miles long study area. Today we prepare for three days out to a remote area, accessible by boat only.  As I write, the team prepares for food, water and all the necessities of spending three days with minimum comfort.  We hope to camp in a fishing village, maybe a house, but we won’t know until we get there. We must prepare for all possibilities.


Our understanding of the inner workings of the Brazilian Extractavista reserve system grows every day. This system I believe holds great hope for us in the United States because it serves both the wildlife and fish and the people living in the landscape.  Pretend, for example, on Delaware Bay, the rural towns and the residents get first crack at the sustainable management of resources, not the companies exploiting them without regard to the future, as it is now. Instead of few people earning a good living off Delaware Bay resources, many would. Rural American would be transformed. This is what ICMBio hopes to achieve in this much poorer area.


Two members of our team are managers of the seven reserves in Para, our study site. They told us, for example, ICMBio (Chico Mendes institute), the federal agency in charge of the extractive reserves, pays a subsidy for local fishermen in exchange for helping manage the fishery resources. But the subsidy is limited to existing residents, not people within new reserves because of the new conservative government. One can see right away the challenges of two people managing seven reserves covering a coastline the size of New Jersey. Budget cuts have taken away all equipment funds. They must even clean their own offices as most nonessential staff has been cut under the new conservative government, a government accused of unfairly deposing the most popular liberal party.


This should resonate in the United States because it could be coming soon to a wildlife reserve near you.


Wintering knots in roost.

Dr. Larry Niles has led efforts to protect red knots and horseshoe crabs for over 30 years.


Shorebird Expedition Brazil: Investigating the plight of shorebirds and rural people

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

By Larry Niles, LJ Niles Associates LLC

We leave a cold and dark New Jersey with mixed feelings for our destination to tropical Brazil. It will be warm and sunnyish – though forecasts predict drenching thunderstorms threatening us every day of our trip. We will explore a very new place, the ocean coast of Para, a largely unsurveyed coast known to be a wintering shorebird mecca. At the same time, we will undergo trials experienced by few biologists. Zika is prevalent in Para, but recent cases of malaria are equally alarming.  Of course, one must be ever vigilant for food and water pathogens. Last year, I developed food poisoning ending me up in a rural hospital, with a room full of very sick people. On arrival, I wondered what comes next?


A small part of the sprawling city of Sao Jose de Ribamar.


The contrast of poverty and the truly wild can jar a Jersey biologist’s sensibility.  People fall into poverty here because it’s the common condition.  Poor sanitation, terrible roads, and nearly non-existing law enforcement plague those who live in coastal Brazil.  The economic crisis and the ever-expanding corruption scandal in the federal government rob people of hope for the future and anchor them to a life of poor education and wages, and widespread filth.  In the cities, the water churns with rubbish and contamination is ubiquitous.


Yet few people populate the ocean coast sites where we will survey.  There, the sea teams with fish and shellfish beyond measure.  Walking through a fish market is like going to a fish museum for all the species, exotic and common.  Hundreds of small villages, most with only occasional power, perch precariously on the edge of this wonderful and largely uncontaminated sea or nestle deep in a vast mangrove forest, one of the largest in the world.  In many ways it’s a biologist’s wonderland.


Our team walks through a small fishing village in the Brazilian state of Maranhao. The village has no power system just a generator that turns on in the evening for a few hours.


Only a few hundred miles away snakes the many channels of the Amazon River and surrounding it lies one of the world’s last great tropical forests.  It’s the home of one of the great battlegrounds of environmentalism.  The new U.S. administration will probably support the wealthy families cutting away valuable timber for cattle ranching, destroying carbon capturing and oxygen producing trees and, at the same time, the livelihood of native people who eke out a bare existence from rubber, nuts and the diverse wildlife that share the forest with them.


An illegal forest cut in the Brazilian rainforest in the state of Para.


But our government has a lot to learn from the Brazilians. They have created a novel conservation system, one unknown to us in the U.S.


They call them extractive reserves. The federal agency in charge, ICMBio, struggles to save these reserves, not for tourists or rich residents, as we do in New Jersey, but for the people who live within.  They stop the ranchers from destroying the forest. In the same way, they stop the international fishing fleets from decimating the fishery in Para. Staff of the agency die every year doing their job. One just recently in the state of Para, not far from our destination.


There are seven extractive reserves in our coastal study site in Para, Brazil. This map was created by Dan Merchant and Rick Lathrop CRSSA.


Our project aims to help. Our team, sponsored by Conserve Wildlife Foundation with Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, will survey birds, measure habitat, and ultimately map this coast with state-of-the-art GIS system developed by Rutgers Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis.  We intend to provide ICMBio staff with better GIS tools than are available in the U.S.


Over the next three weeks, we will be reporting on our research investigation. We will also explore the threats to the extractive reserves in our study area, everything from disturbance to shrimp farms.


For my part, however, I will also investigate if this system captures the best conservation envisaged by most religious leaders, including Pope Francis. Despite the political rhetoric of the old politicians that fill our media, most of the world’s religions speak openly about supporting climate change action. They envisage an “integral ecology”, in the word of Pope Francis, a union of the need to heal the earth and the plight of the poor.  Even Southern Baptist have adopted this position that the impact of climate change falls on the poor.  This is as true in Brazil as it is in Delaware Bay.  Perhaps in Brazil lies a better way.


Dr. Larry Niles has led efforts to protect red knots and horseshoe crabs for over 30 years.