When most people think of Brazil, they think of Rio de Janeiro, a modern city that will soon host the World Cup, and in a few years, 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.
Except for an eight-hour layover in Rio, we are not going to these places. Instead, we will go to a tiny town on the northern equatorial coast near the bustling city of São Luís, about 250 miles east of the mouth of the Amazon. Only the well-traveled and hearty tourist visits this place. It’s a crowded, busy, traffic-choked city of fewer than 100,000 people ringed by smaller communities that ultimately give way to a hardscrabble landscape of subsistence farming that could benefit from even modestly modern equipment. I enjoy the antique farming equipment one finds in these poor rural areas, but it speaks to the hard life of these people as they eke out a subsistence living under the burning sun at the geographic center of this hemisphere.
Our home for the next two weeks will be the town of Panaquatira. 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. They can eat and drink at one of the several weather-worn outdoor cafés nestled precariously amongst the houses. Sitting at one of the cafés, one can see a car or a donkey cart pass by.
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, semipalmated sandpipers, willets, 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.
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. In the past, we have recaught red knots with geolocators that yielded dramatic stories of birds’ struggles to exist throughout an entire year. For example, after leaving the US coast, a red knot with the leg flag Y7H encountered a storm that forced it more than halfway to Africa. The exhausted bird made finally made landfall a short distance from Panaquatira after a four-day nonstop flight.
Even the most seasoned shorebird biologist is thrilled to follow one bird’s movement as it leaves its Arctic home and muscles thousands of miles to one or more stopover sites on its way to a comfortable winter. Our team sees these birds in many of these places, including Delaware Bay, Cape Cod, Georgia’s barrier islands, the Caribbean leeward islands, and San Antonio Oeste, Argentina, to name a few. Our experience at these stopovers puts flesh on the bones provided by the geolocators so we can knit together a journey, an experience, a life of a wild animal.
Working in this remote place at the center of the world creates a challenge, however. 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.
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.