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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.


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.


 

2016: A Good Year For NJ Bald Eagles

Friday, January 13th, 2017

216 Young Produced from 150 active nests. 

Larissa Smith & Ben Wurst: Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ

The Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ in partnership with the NJ Endangered and Nongame Species Program has released the 2016 NJ Bald Eagle Project Report and the new and improved Eagle Tracking Maps. In 2016, 172 eagle nests were monitored during the nesting season. Of these nests 150 were active (with eggs) and 22 were territorial or housekeeping pairs. A record high of 216 young were fledged. The success of the NJ Eagle Project is due to the dedicated Eagle Project Volunteers who monitor and help to protect nests throughout NJ. (more…)

Tiger Salamander Season

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

Volunteers Survey For This Rare and Elusive NJ Salamander.

by: Larissa Smith, CWF Wildlife Biologist

Adult Tiger Salamander @ M. Tribulski

On a cold December evening I met up with ENSP biologists and dedicated Tiger Salamander project volunteers to survey for Eastern Tiger Salamanders. The group had been out surveying all day in Atlantic County without spotting any tiger salamanders and were cold but still raring to go. The pool we surveyed has been a successful tiger salamander breeding pool, within a complex of enhanced vernal pools. We weren’t disappointed as we quickly found adult salamanders in the pool and egg masses.

Another great find was a neotenic (gilled adult).  This was a larvae, most likely, from last season that didn’t metamorphose and still had external gills. It had not yet left the pool, whereas most larvae metamorphose and leave the pools in June to July of their hatching year.

Neotenic adult @ M. Tribulski

Surveying for TS@ M. Tribulski

We surveyed a second pool in the complex, but found no sign of adults or egg masses. We found fish in the pool, which is an indicator that there won’t be salamanders since the fish eat the eggs and larvae.

New Tiger Salamander breeding pools have been found by the TS volunteers, in Cape May and Cumberland Counties. It is encouraging to know that these salamanders continue to live and breed in New Jersey and that gives me hope for the future of all NJ wildlife.


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