Brazil, Expeditions and Travels, Science

Curupu: Kindness and Grim Deprivation

Joe Slusher and Humphrey Sitters work on captured red knots during our previous expedition to Curupu. In retrospect, the 115-knot catch we made in 2013 was miraculous compared to our experience this year.

Joe Slusher and Humphrey Sitters work on captured red knots during our previous expedition to Curupu. In retrospect, the 115-knot catch we made in 2013 was miraculous compared to our experience this year.

Last year, our work at Curupu went off without a hitch. Curupu is an island just off the coast of Panaquatira, composed mostly of mangrove swamp and miles of unpopulated sandy beach. Two years ago Guy Morrison, then with the Canadian Wildlife Service, performed an aerial survey of the island and found nearly 800 red knots. Last February, after catching ruddy turnstones on Panaquatira, we took the hour-long boat trip to Curupu Island, and in fairly short order found Guy’s knots and caught 110 of them. We were off the island by the next day. And when we arrived three days ago, we naively expected this year’s expedition to go just as easily.

Our team enjoys the ride to Curupu, unsuspecting of the wretched experience ahead. Our captain Joabe, seated at the back of the boat, not only helped us get on and off the island, but also helped us make the four-kilometer trip from the boat landing to the catch site.

Our team enjoys the ride to Curupu, unsuspecting of the wretched experience ahead. Our captain Joabe, seated at the back of the boat, not only helped us get on and off the island, but also helped us make the four-kilometer trip from the boat landing to the catch site.

It didn’t. Instead, we suffered three days and two nights of oven-like tropical heat while being blasted by fine wind-driven sand and fighting the tides to catch birds. We slept with the tents sealed to protect us from the blowing sand, but this left us wet with sweat every morning. Mosquitoes met us in droves as we emerged from our tents before dawn light to set the cannon net. The extreme lunar tides acted almost independent of the tide charts, so a predicted 1/10th of meter decrease in the high tide height turned out to be a half a meter (4 inches compared to 20 inches). It sounds minor to most readers, but we must set our nets at the high tide line to catch the birds and 16 inches in height could translate to a tide line outside the catch area or a flooded net and cannons. In fact, the tide defeated us every time we trapped – except one.

Joabe provided several motorcycles to transport all the supplies, trapping equipment, and camping equipment necessary for our expedition. The motorcycles were driven across the tidal river that separates the island from the mainland at low tide. (photo by Joe Smith)

Joabe provided several motorcycles to transport all the supplies, trapping equipment, and camping equipment necessary for our expedition. The motorcycles were driven across the tidal river that separates the island from the mainland at low tide. (photo by Joe Smith)

Even then, we succeeded only because the team endured several drenching rainstorms while resetting the net twice, following the retreating tide line. We caught and processed a measly eight red knots. Once fitted with new geolocators, they were set free to join the rest of the flock of 500. After our short-lived deprivations, we hoped to be free of Curupu.

A rainbow follows one of the many downpours that drenched us as we struggled to catch red knots on Curupu. The soaking rains chilled us, while the blazing sun that followed fried us. A few rounds of this on our last day left the team in terrible spirits.

A rainbow follows one of the many downpours that drenched us as we struggled to catch red knots on Curupu. The soaking rains chilled us, while the blazing sun that followed fried us. A few rounds of this on our last day left the team in terrible spirits.

Not quite. We had hoped that we could leave by midday, but transporting our equipment from the roost and camping site to the boat landing turned into a long wait and another downpour. By 4:00 p.m., we finally made it to the landing only to find we couldn’t leave the island until an incoming tide, probably about 7:00 p.m. We were facing the possibility of another night on this wretched island.

Expecting only tribulation, we were suddenly met with kindness. Indio Sousa, the father of Leo Sousa, a Brazilian student who joined us for our misadventure on Curupu, and who manages a compound of houses on the island, invited us to use the guest showers. While we luxuriated in what felt like our first shower in months, he served us platters of watermelon and pineapple and cooked a plate of shrimp, then fish. As we enjoyed his generosity, we relaxed in the languid late afternoon tropical heat, cooled by gentle breezes, while being serenaded by the melodious song of native forest birds and amphibians.

Indio’s son Leo banded red knots with us last year and this year.

Indio’s son Leo banded red knots with us last year and this year.

Indio extended his hospitality and asked us to stay in the guest quarters at the compound. His offer delighted us, not only because we had suffered the last three days in sweltering heat and his accommodations included air conditioning, but because the compound belonged to the first elected president of the new Brazilian republic, José Sarno and his daughter, the current governor of the state of Maranhão. Of course if they were using this, their second home, we wouldn’t be allowed through the gate (especially considering our grimy condition). Their main house awed this blogger, not as a biologist but as the son of a carpenter and a journeyman woodworker in his own right. This gorgeous and massive structure left one overwhelmed by its complicated architecture supported by a framework of handcrafted logs. But it was not rustic. The craftsmen who constructed this gorgeous building did so with painstaking detail, and the decorator knew the spirit of this land. The home mirrored the mystery and power of the island by allowing a comfortable experience of this coastal tropical isle. If we had only stayed in this place, we would have left waxing rhapsodic about this rich natural environment. Unfortunately, the island had already had its way with us and we knew too much.

Indio Sousa, the manager of the Governor’s compound who provided us with overnight accommodations at the end of our trip to Curupu, also helped us establish a base camp on the island. He genuinely cared for our welfare, here bringing us water, coconuts, and mangos. (photo by Joe Smith)

Indio Sousa, the manager of the Governor’s compound who provided us with overnight accommodations at the end of our trip to Curupu, also helped us establish a base camp on the island. He genuinely cared for our welfare, here bringing us water, coconuts, and mangos. (photo by Joe Smith)

The overnight provided us with more than cool air. It also provided a last chance to trap, this time for willets. We had brought 30 geolocators to attach to these poorly understood temperate breeders, one of only three shorebirds that breed in New Jersey, and an emblematic species of the breeders of Delaware Bay.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. The operation needed precise timing, an unlikely event in our short-lived experience in northern Brazil, especially given our bad fortune. The captain of the small boat that brought us to this island came late, than ran out of gas while taking us to the catch site. Finally arriving at the roost that we scouted at the start of the trip, we faced an already declining tide. We tried to catch, but the island defeated us one final time.

The author wonders what else could go wrong, while Joabe paddles his boat after running out of gas.

The author wonders what else could go wrong, while Joabe paddles his boat after running out of gas.

But back on the mainland, we were once again blessed with kindness. As we fled to our home base, Ana Paula’s parents graciously offered a home-cooked meal, a very generous offer considering the size of our group and their own modest means. We left the Sousas’ with full stomachs, warmed hearts, and mixed feelings about the wild coast of Brazil.