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Shorebird Expedition Brazil: The rights of traditional communities

Monday, February 27th, 2017

By Larry Niles, LJ Niles Associates LLC

Over the last few days of our expedition, we left the state of Para and flew to Sao Luis in the adjacent state of Maranhao. There we began the next phase of our work, trapping red knots, ruddy turnstones and other species, as we have done since 2014.

 

 

But prior to leaving Para, while we stayed in the village of Apiu Salvatore, the fishermen asked to meet with Max. He hadn’t planned it, so at first, the reason was unknown. The fishermen of the village knew Max represented ICMBio, and that Apiu Salvatore fell within Resex Gurupi-Piria, one of the Brazilian agency’s many extractive or Resex reserves. As I described in the previous post, ICMBio conserves natural resources in each reserve for the benefit of traditional communities, such as this one. So Max had a good idea what the community had on their mind.

 

David and Danielle prepare for the meeting with the fishermen of Apiu Salvadori.

 

We entered the large open meeting space under a thatch roof with a good breeze cooled by a sudden evening downpour. The association leader, Antonio, got down to business. He explained the problem of immense ships lurking offshore, spreading giant purse seines or immense lines of baited hooks, and stealing all the fish. It threatened their own lives, not only their livelihoods but their very existence. One could see very clearly how vital fish were to these fishermen. The community consumed virtually no goods; most of their daily needs came from the sea or their backyards. Chickens, pigs, even lambs filled backyards.  Fruit like mangos and avocados literally fell from the trees. I saw no washing machines, microwaves, coffeemakers, or nearly any of the appliances that litter a typical U.S. kitchen.

 

There was one modern device found in every hut and cabin, no matter how small or dilapidated. All had TVs.  How, I imagine, can they fit in this primitive world while gapping at the lives of the rich and famous? These were not people ignorant of the world, but unfortunately, they could be innocent as lambs when faced with the greedy schemers and politicians of Brazil. And as the ongoing corruption scandals here evolve, it seems like nearly every politician serves their own or other greedy interests.

 

So it is understandable that the fishermen’s first thought was to go to the Catholic Church. But then we came. So they asked for Max’s advice.

 

The people of the village live simply with no luxuries except TVs. The town, located on a small island has no electricity except when the community generator is turned on at night. (Photo by C. Buiden.)

He quickly determined the fisherman had no idea they had legal rights to the fishery. He patiently explained the concept of ICMBio reserve system, the system of which they are a part. In theory, they could unify and certify their observations, take it to a judge and get a decision that would force the government to stop the theft by the international fishing fleet, at least in principle. Max and Danielle explained these rights and the group seemed sufficiently inspired. At least they left happy.

 

Why did they not know their rights? Max explained to me that the reserve manager for this area covered 60 other villages and that ICMBio has suffered 3 years of budget cuts. He reminded me how long it took to get to this village. So it’s the usual story familiar to U.S. agency biologists.  Here, as it is in rural U.S., but with a more obvious impact, starving good government often only starves the people who live on the land, the land itself and the wildlife, who depend upon it.

 

For me, it meant something more. We proposed this project to create better protection for shorebirds. We took the usual approach. First, do the surveys then will create scientifically defensible descriptions of the habitat’s value.  Finally, we overlay the threats: shrimp farming, oil spills, human disturbance, predators etc. then develop counter-measures.

 

I learned that nigh there is only one threat in this, one of the most important shorebird habitats in the world. It looms large above all others – if you erode ICMBio’s system of protection all the other threats will grow and decimate the fragile ecology of the area. Grow the ICMbio system and the traditional communities will enforce their legal right to conserve. They can monitor the threats and work with the agency to stop them. The laws already exist. The monitoring system is already in place. But this meeting pointed out they need more help.

 

Photos by C. Buiden.

 


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


 

Shorebird Expedition Brazil: Trapping shorebirds in Panaquatira

Saturday, February 25th, 2017

By Larry Niles, LJ Niles Associates LLC

The capture of Arctic nesting shorebirds first brought us to Brazil in 2013.  We brought 125 geolocators and caught both ruddy turnstones and red knots, attaching 85 on the former and 30 on the latter.  But we also came to create a new perspective on shorebirds in this place, one of the most important shorebird habitats in the world.

 

For all intents and purposes, shorebird work in this area started in the mid 1980’s, when Canadian biologists, Guy Morrison and Ken Ross surveyed from an airplane, the entire coast of South America.  In this monumental and dangerous survey they established an invaluable historic baseline of the number of Arctic nesting shorebirds wintering in South America. This was before shorebirds caught the interest of the public, and way before foundations and agencies devoted significant funding or staff time.  They surveyed the entire continent, but on the coast of Maranhao and Para they found the motherlode of shorebirds.  They did not, however, get close and personal.

Guy Morrison and Ken Ross about to conduct an aerial survey (also in the photo is Guy’s daughter Clair, Brad Winn, Jorge Jordan and Luis Venegas).

That challenge belonged to a team led by the late Allan Baker of the Royal Ontario Museum and Ines Serrano, then with CEMAVE, the Brazilian counterpart of USGS.  They also flew the coast but followed up with a ground survey and the capture of a small group of red knots. Along with Guy and Ken, their work cemented the hemispheric importance of this area.

Juliana holds one of the two birds caught in our second day of trapping. (Photo by C. Buiden)

Over the last 4 years we captured knots, turnstones, sanderlings, whimbrels, collared plovers, semi-palmated sandpipers, semi-palmated plovers as well as South American terns and other species. Last year we recaptured 20 geolocators in a catch of over a hundred ruddy turnstones.  But only in 2013 were we able to catch red knots. Although abundant in the region, populations are estimated at 10 to 15K, they are remote and elusive.

 

So we were happy to find on our first day of surveillance this year over 400 red knots. They roosted within a flock of about 1000 shorebirds located at the west end of a small working class beach resort called Panaquatira, about an hour out of Sao Luis. The flock including black bellied plovers, semi-palmated sandpipers and plovers, collared plovers, South American terns, Black Skimmers and a few whimbrels. We readied that night for an early morning attempt.

 

First we needed to figure out the tide. It rises and falls 13 feet in northern Brazil, twice that in Delaware Bay. The spring tide or full and new moon tide increases the range to 18 feet.  Consequently, the high tide line moves every day and catching birds with a cannon net depends on placing the net near the predicted tide line, because birds move with it to stay as far from the dangers lurking on dry land. Wind speed and direction changes the high tide line, and so does barometric pressure.

 

So much rides on where we place the net. On our first two attempts, we missed by just a few yards, but it could have been a mile. The birds moved with the tide and stood just outside the 30 by 100-foot area within which the birds must be to be caught. We tried moving them but they spooked and most gradually left the area altogether. Ultimately, we fired but caught only two knots and two whimbrels.

 

We were blessed on the third day. We arrived near dawn, over four hours before high tide so we had plenty of time to measure elevations. We knew the morning’s high would be about four inches lower than the previous night’s high, which snaked along the sandy peninsula used by the birds to roost. Standing on the tide line we used a method borrowed from Clive Minton to determine the location on the beach four inches lower.

 

Laying my head flat on the sand I trained my eye towards the horizon. This establishes a level line. Using her hand, Stephanie marks four inches on her leg than moves until the four inch mark lines up with the level line. Her location depends on the slope of the beach. In this way we determined the location of the tide line four hours hence. We dug in the net.

Larry Niles and Mandy Dey take training on measuring elevation from Clive Minton in Australia.

At about an hour before high tide, shorebirds started crowding into the area around the net. At first, oystercatchers, black bellies, short-billed dowitchers and a small flock of skimmers. Most of the knots hung back on an adjacent sand bar. With a little push, they too piled in right into the catch area.

 

We fired and caught 175 knots, 30 sanderlings, 20 short-billed dowitchers and 5 black-bellied plovers. Among the knots were 3 with geolocators. We flagged, banded and measured 145 birds, all the while releasing unprocessed birds that appeared stressed by the heat. By late afternoon we were back at the house cracking open beers. We completed all our objectives with one day to spare.

CWF Biologist Stephanie Feigin moves birds closer to the net. (Photo by Yann Rochepault.)

 

Stephanie and Julianna begin taking birds out of the cannon net. (Photo by Yann Rochepault)

 

We must cover birds with a light shade cloth to calm birds while they are extracted and placed into keeping cages. (Photo by Yann Rochepault.)

 

Processing our catch. (Photo by Yann Rochepault.)

 

One of the many values of catching shorebirds is examining their condition and molt. Here we compare two knots, an adult on the right and a second year or sub adult on the left. The latter molts its flight feathers much earlier than adults and it shows in the fading to brown. (Photo by C. Buiden).

 

Our team includes Carla Meneguin, Paulo Siqueira, Ana Paula Sousa, Larry Niles, Juliana Almeida, Carmem Fedrizzi Joe Smith, Stephanie Feigin, Yann Rochepault, Laura Reis and Christophe Buiden. (Photo by Juliana Almeida).

 

A red knot after banding and processing. (Photo by Y. Rochepault).

 


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


 

Shorebird Expedition Brazil: Going to the heart of the mangroves

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Hundreds of red knots found to cap long day’s journey

By Larry Niles, LJ Niles Associates LLC

It took us long into the night to reach our next port.  We went from the relatively populated area of Braganza to the dark heart of this coastal region of Viseu. In three trucks, we caravanned through a maze of remnant tropical rainforests, cattle pastures, and impenetrable second-growth woodlands. Along the rain-slicked, red clay road, small and desperate looking towns popped out of nowhere always looking like the past was a better day. The road cut through countless mangrove forests that define this region.  We reached Viseu too late to do anything but find a place to stay the night.

A bridge across the many rivers from Braganca to Visiu, Brazil. Photo by Christophe Buiden.

By noon the next day, we boarded a Lancha boat named Garota Viseu (Viseu Girl). Local shipwrights craft these two-decker boats of about 50 feet in length, primarily to carry cargo and people from port to port.  Today it will carry us into one of the most remote estuaries in the 250-mile coastline of this enormous mangrove and beach landscape.  Our captain, 78-year-old Benedicto, with one crew navigated the coffee- colored Gurupi, a long river that cuts deep into the tropical coastline.

A nearly completed boat in a ship yard in Viseu.

Bene took his craft down the Gurupi within sight of the wind-tossed Atlantic Ocean.  The trade winds blow constantly here, almost always at near gale levels.  But then he turned into a small channel directly into the steamy mangrove forest.  At first the path was wide, lined with a dense tangle of mangrove on either side.  Whimbrels, scarlet ibis, semi-palmated sandpipers clung to tangles of roots as the high tide flooded the soft mud.

Captain Benedicto piloting his Lacho boat, the Garota Viseu.

Then he took the boat in a channel so narrow, the crew had to duck the whipsaw of mangrove branches.  We slowly snaked our way through a tunnel of green until we reached another wide channel.  Within a few minutes, we entered another narrow channel ultimately reaching the next bay.  Here we felt the full force of the stiff winds and deep rolling swell of the Atlantic.  An hour later we weighed anchor at the small community of Apiu Salvadore.

The Garota Viseu weaves its way through the narrow mangrove passage. Stephanie Feigin, Danille Paluto, Christophe Buiden and Yann Rochepault watch from the top deck of the boat.

 

 

Few people from the outside world come to this community of about 50 ramshackle huts and cabins and about 150 people. As the boat neared the shore with most of the team standing on the roof of the boat, scattered groups of the town’s people stood on the sandy bluffs overlooking the harbor as though we just landed from space.  Ultimately, we found them welcoming but wary.  Little good comes from the outside to these communities.

 

 

Over the next two days, we plied our craft of field biology. We needed to find small boats to take teams to the various shorebird habitats previously determined on our maps. Local craftsmen build these boats. Running about 20 feet in length, they use 10 to 20 horse power engines meant for something like a lawn tractor. Instead of driving a blade, the craftsmen power a long shaft that ends in a 8-inch propeller. The skipper can lift the engine and propeller according to the water’s depth. They suited our needs perfectly.

 

We fielded five teams in three in boats while Mandy, David Santos, Carmem and I surveyed Lombo Branco Island, about two miles from the Apiu Salvador. The sea shapes this island into a crescent, the inside protected from the restless waves.  Nestled within, one could see in miniature, the whole ecological system that creates resources for shorebirds.

 

At the heart of the island grows a small and stunted mangrove forest and an apicum, or wetland that only floods during lunar tides or spring tides. These are the highest of the monthly cycle of tides but only occur on the full and new moon. Every day the tide moves in and out of this small system. Twice a month the tide floods the apicum for several days at a time.

We arrived on the day of a waxing moon, near full. The very high-high tides reached well within the small drainage flooding habitats that have not been flooded in a few weeks. Shorebirds carpeted the wet mud, searching for all the invertebrate life that flourishes in this habitat. But the productivity only starts there. Here the tidal flow is gentle because the island shields it from the wind tossed Atlantic from all sides except the leeward quarter of the island. This gentle tidal flow flushes sediments from the mangrove swamp, the nutrients of the apicum and the normal productivity of a sediment-rich sandy substrate, forming the base layer of a productive food chain that nurtures small clams and other invertebrate – all prey for shorebirds.

 

We found whimbrels, semi-palmated sandpipers, ruddy turnstones, short-billed dowitchers, black belly plovers, willets, semi-palmated plovers, sanderlings and collared plovers.  In the lower reaches, we found 337 knots, a glorious find that will help our mapping model enormously.

Red knots, sanderlings, short billed dowitchers and other shorebird forage in the inter-tidal estuary of Morro Branco.

The following day we surveyed a second island, Coroa Criminosa. Why the sinister name we cannot say, but it supported a very similar esturary giving us another successful day. When the tide went out the small island of about 6 kilometers grew to over 20 kilometers. Intertidal sand flats spread out of sight in nearly all directions.

 

 

We left the island that night and arrived in Viseu just before dark. Once again we suffered the sway of the Atlantic. After weaving our way back through the mangrove and up the Gurupi River, we landed too late to go on.  We were thankful for the modest rooms with showers, a good meal and beer!

 


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


Lights, Camera, Action: Conserve Wildlife Foundation Releases New Video

Thursday, July 30th, 2015
New Video Showcases CWF’s Work to Protect the Garden State’s Wildlife

By: Lindsay McNamara, Communications Manager

Conserve Wildlife Foundation is thrilled to release a new video as an “introduction” to our work, keeping New Jersey’s wildlife in our future! We are a private, non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of New Jersey’s endangered and threatened wildlife and the habitats they depend on.

 

As the video demonstrates, we utilize science, research, wildlife management, habitat restoration, education and volunteer stewardship to help conserve and protect a variety of at-risk species of wildlife in New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the nation.

 

The video was produced by Tyler Grimm, a video intern with Conserve Wildlife Foundation.

 

Want to get involved? Learn more about Conserve Wildlife Foundation on our website.

 

Lindsay McNamara is the Communications Manager for Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

 

Black Rails: Secretive Denizens of our Coastal Marshes

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015
Searching for a Small, Dark Bird at Night, in the Dark

By: Alfred Breed, Field Technician

What you can see at night while listening for Black Rail. Shown are the datasheet and speaker that plays the various calls. Photo courtesy of Tom Reed.

The nighttime view while listening for black rails in the marsh. Shown are the datasheet and speaker that plays the various calls. Photo courtesy of Tom Reed.

Shhhhhhhh. Be very, very quiet. Sit perfectly still. Listen. When you are searching at night in the dark for the black rail, the rarest and MOST secretive of the secretive marsh birds, your best sense to use for detection is hearing.

 

The black rail is a small, darkly-colored marsh bird whose numbers are believed to have declined precipitously in the past few decades, primarily due to habitat loss (when their preferred high marsh habitat was filled and developed), as well as sea-level rise and the loss of salt hay farms (in New Jersey). The breeding population is likely extirpated from both Connecticut and New York, while its continued stability here in New Jersey is in question. Its conservation status varies by state, with full protection as an endangered species in New Jersey and some other states, and only the cursory protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 in other, mostly southern states. Even in states where they are not listed as threatened or endangered, black rails are rarely seen because of low abundance, their secretive habits, and the inaccessibility of their preferred habitat.

 

Because of both its rarity and extremely secretive nature, the detailed habits of black rails are little known. Furthermore, historic and current population numbers critical to establishing its conservation status are not well understood. It is thought that they mostly feed during daylight hours, quietly traversing the marsh mud in search of seeds and invertebrate prey, thus remaining largely undetected beneath the dense grass mat. But during the breeding season they call, quite loudly, to each other at night.

 

This habit, nocturnal vocalization, is what we hope to use to determine the continued presence of black rail here in our coastal marshes, and eventually their abundance and other critical biological information. As part of a cooperative effort by the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, and New Jersey Audubon Society, staff and volunteers are conducting surveys at points throughout the black rail’s potential breeding range in New Jersey and other states. One purpose of such research is to collect and analyze data in order to establish sound, effective, science-based species management plans coordinated across the species’ entire range.

Underway during daylight hours to check-ride new field boat, and deploy an acoustic recording unit that also “listens” for Black Rail.

Underway during daylight hours to check-ride deploy an acoustic recording unit that also “listens” for black rails.

The current phase of the black rail project requires me to transport by boat four expert bird-by-ear surveyors, capable of identifying birds common to the coastal marsh habitat from their song alone, at night. I bring each “listener” to ten randomly selected points within suitable high marsh habitat at the proper tide and during the designated survey period between 10:30 PM and 3 AM. Each 10-point survey route is repeated three times across a six-week period from May-July. Surveyors record all of the identifiable species they hear as well as the direction and estimated distance of the calls from each survey point.

 

The survey consists of two minutes of passive listening followed by several recorded black rail vocalizations broadcast from a very loud speaker that are interspersed with short silences in order to listen for any response. The black rail calls are followed by calls from Virginia and clapper rails, as they will also sometimes elicit a response from our quarry. Surveys are conducted with winds below 12 mph and in little to no precipitation in order for the sound to carry to both human and bird ears. Absolute silence is critical in order not to miss any of the more distant calls that pierce the darkness. The scrape of a boot on the deck, the crinkle of a snack wrapper, or a sudden sneeze has the potential to drown out the sound of a distant call. Discussions about species, direction and distance are held in a quiet whisper.

 

CWF field technician Alfred Breed, the intrepid nocturnal boat pilot for the Black Rail survey project.  Photo courtesy of Tom Reed.

CWF field technician Alfred Breed, the intrepid nocturnal boat pilot for the Black Rail survey project. Photo courtesy of Tom Reed.

This season, our four survey routes encompassed appropriate habitat areas of several of the tributaries to the Great Egg Harbor Bay watershed. In our quiet and isolated marsh stream we are joined only by the birds we hear, many fireflies and less benign insects, spring peepers, croaking bullfrogs, and the occasional splash of a startled muskrat. Periodic traffic noise from the roads that encircle Great Egg Harbor Bay are a reminder that it is difficult to entirely escape civilization here in New Jersey. But listening to the marsh at night, while boating up a narrow isolated tributary that snakes its way toward the transition from marsh to upland, definitely allows for a sense of quiet communion with nature. Because of its extensive lighting, the BL England power plant in Beesley’s Point is truly a bejeweled wonder to behold at night from almost anywhere in the watershed, and the light pollution that emanates from the Atlantic City sky line can be actually quite helpful for nighttime navigation.

 

As far as this season is concerned, all of the hoped for data was successfully collected from each point during the survey periods, with only one survey transect interrupted by an un-forecast pop-up lightning storm that required a quick race back to the safety of the boat ramp. With the surveys now completed, we look forward to sharing the results when they are available for release.

 

This is the first of hopefully many seasons of data collection of this type. As each season’s final results are collected and analyzed, we hope to focus our survey efforts from geographically random points within appropriate habitat, to the areas of repeated detection, and to eventually be able to achieve our long term goal: namely a science-based understanding of the black rail population in our state that informs a viable and effective species management plan.

 

As a result of my participation in this study with four expert surveyors, for three survey nights each, at 10 points per night, and 10 minutes per point, I have had the privilege of intently listening for over 20 solid hours to our nighttime native secretive marsh bird songs in the presence of experts who can teach me what it is we’ve heard. Although I was only able to master a few of the calls with which I was not already familiar, it has truly been a pleasure and a valuable learning experience accompanying these experts into the field. I can’t wait to do it again next season!

 

The Conserve Wildlife Foundation and New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife wish to thank Alf for the excellent logistical, navigation, and boat handling skills he brought to this project. Just as we could not conduct the survey without our observer’s expert ears, we would be equally lost without Alf’s expertise on the water. Thank you, Alf!

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