It’s hard to imagine the difficulties of people living at latitude 37 degrees north when coming to the equator in northern Brazil. It challenges even the hardiest of biologists. But after three days our team has not only acclimated but accomplished surveys in two separate estuaries.
Ruddy turnstone multiyear flight recorded by a geolocator caught in Maranhoa Brazil.
The tide cut short our first day in the field, high tide persisted longer than we expected and our survey must take place when birds forage. Shorebirds typically forage until 1 to 2 after hours before high tide and start again 1-2 hours after, 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 but here logistical issues, renting boats, equipment failures, long distance from the ports present an array of complications. Still,we got out to the field and got some data.
The next day we did marginally better, each team facing different problems, our boat’s engine failed and we had to paddle back to port. Another took so long getting to the shoal they intended to survey, it had already been covered by the tide. This is the nature of field work anywhere.
Yann and Christophe paddle our boat back to port after the engine failed.
It 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 bird’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, feed as the tide recedes, then feed as the tide rises than roost. So finding feeding area usually tells you the roosting areas.
But things can go awry. In human dominate habitats like NJ, birds find it hard to roost near foraging areas, because most often the high tide forces them into the people jogging, dog walking or just walking along enjoying flushing shorebirds. So the shorebirds must leave, unnecessarily burning valuable fuel and suffering greater danger from avian predators.
The nighttime roost creates the real threat here and everywhere. At night many dangers lurk. Ground predators, such as owls, feral cats, raccoons, even people, roam everywhere looking for a chance to kill and will take advantage of any unwary or sickened bird. It is worst 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 NJ, people often force birds to use more dangerous areas.
So our goal here is to map all the areas of importance, foraging, daytime 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, we photograph the surrounding habitats, we precisely locate the sites, we even look at the substrate. Is it mud, sand, muddy sand, sandy mud and so on?
Doing this in NJ is difficult. Doing it in the northern coast of Brazil presents untold challenges. One cannot easily access the coast here. Mostly we have to rent boats to take us out to the birds, conduct surveys than 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 apomb! 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, should we go on or go home? Without hesitation, the crew not only did the crew go on to complete the survey but we ended up capturing 22 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 days surveys. Beer is essential!
So we completed two days of surveys at the western end of our 150 miles long study area. Ove the last two days. 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 is the system I believe holds great hope for us in the US 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 of our team are managers of the 7 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 not limited to existing residents, not people within new reserves because of the new conservative groverment. One can see right away their challenges. Two people managing 7 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 have been cut under the new conservative government, a government accused of unfairly deposing the most popular liberal party.
This should resonate in the US because it is coming soon to a wildlife reserve near you.
Wintering knots in flight.
Dr. Larry Niles is a biologist who works closely with the American Littoral Society and Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey on beach restoration efforts on the Delaware Bayshore. Dr. Niles has led efforts to protect red knots and horseshoe crabs for more than 30 years.