Bird Study, Brazil, Brazil 2017, Red Knot, rural communities, Shorebird

Our Brazilian Expedition – Conducting a Scientific Investigation in a Tropical Wilderness


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Tough Conditions for Scientific Investigation


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 best-prepared field investigations.  But after three days our team has not only acclimated but accomplished surveys in two separate estuaries.


Our team observes a roost in Ajuruteuam to help standardize our method of counting shorebirds. The small village ends at the mouth of a small estuary seen in the map below

Our team observes a roost in Ajuruteuam to help standardize our method of counting shorebirds. The small village ends at the mouth of a small estuary.


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 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 distances 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 team’s intended area of survey had already been covered by the tide by the time they arrived.  This is the nature of field work in remote places.


Yann and Christophe paddle our boat back to port after the engine failed.

Yann and Christophe paddle our boat back to port after the engine failed.

Roosting versus Foraging Habitats

Despite the difficulty, we maintain a standard of data collection protocol. 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 areas usually tells you the roosting areas.

But roosts and foraging areas can untangle usually to the bird’s detriment.  In human-dominated habitats like NJ, birds find it hard to roost near foraging areas. High tide narrows the beaches where people jog, dog walk or just walk along enjoying the beauty of the beach, mindless of the impact of birds attempting to roost or feed. This disturbance forces birds to leave, wasting energy and suffering greater risk.  Avian predators like peregrine falcons lurk in most places in NJ.  The state agency actually encourages them with nest platforms.  People constantly flushing shorebirds places them squarely in the peregrine’s precision crosshairs.

A Peregrine Falcon on Brigantine Beach, NJ

A Peregrine Falcon on Brigantine Beach, NJ

The nighttime roost creates the real threat here and everywhere.   At night many dangers lurk.  Predators, such as owls, feral cats, raccoons  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.


The Author surveys

The Author surveys


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 models, that are in turn, trained by our field data.  We count birds,  photograph the surrounding habitats, precisely locate the sites.  We even record the substrate.  Is it mud, sand, muddy sand, sandy mud and so on?


Maintaining a demanding data collection protocol in the northern coast of Brazil presents untold challenges.  Access is difficult.  Usually, we must travel to a place to rent boats for the day and get back to town after dark   Some estuaries demand a few days and overnight stays in remote fishing villages, sometimes with only a floor to sleep and no facilities or power. This adds new difficulties, finding good water and healthy food.  Throw in background difficulty: oppressive heat, unrelenting mosquitoes, wind-whipped sand, copious sweat.  Science isn’t easily done in these conditions.

Our team faced great big challenges last year.  One boat sank in 55 feet of water 8 miles out to sea.   All the team landed safely,  but much of our equipment was lost.  We were grim the next day,  should we go on or go home?  Without little hesitation, we pulled together a survey plan that took us through most of the state of Maranhao.  We followed this with a week of trapping shorebirds that ended with the capture of 22 geolocators from ruddy turnstones tagged two years earlier.


Our team chooses areas for the next days surveys. Beer is essential!

Our team chooses areas for the next days surveys. Beer is essential!


So in the last two days we completed 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 gathers 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.


Extractive Preserves Face Serious Headwinds

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 town residents get the 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 seven reserves in Para, and we will join another in Maranhao,  the state locations of our study sites   Max and Edginaldo told us, for example, ICMBio ( Chico Mendes Institute ), the federal agency in charge of the extractive reserves, pays a subsidy for local fishers in exchange for helping in the management of the fishery resources. The Institute funds other work, like supporting infrastructure in rural villages, or assisting residents in navigating regulations and understanding their rights.


Edginaldo hangs a small poster on the conservation of shorebirds and the reporting of bands or flags.

Edginaldo hangs a small poster on the conservation of shorebirds and the reporting of bands or flags.  This is one of many programs by ICMBio, the Brazilian agency that manages Extractiviste Reserves.(photo Yann Rochepault)


But the economic and political headwinds grow. They said that budget cuts of the new conservative government in Brazilia forced changes. There are now more traditional villages wanting into the system, but there are too few staff to work out all the bureaucratic necessities.  Also, the laws have been changed by the new government.  Now only the existing residents can claim reserve benefits, not new residents or people within new reserves.  Challenges of the local staff grow.  Three people manage seven reserves covering a coastline the size of New Jersey. Budget cuts have taken away most equipment and supply funds. They must clean their own offices.

The cuts come amid widespread corruption scandals that have already exposed billions of taxpayer funds going to the companies controlled by wealthy families and political bosses.  The scandal turned more brutal this January when the supreme court justice leading the probe died in a plane crash widely suspected as suspicious. Politicians from the two coastal states of  Para and Maranhoa, the bulk of the important shorebird wintering area, have been implicated in corruption scandals.  Some are comically tragic, others brutal and destructive to the welfare of the people who live in the area.  Maranhao is the poorest state in Brazil because of corruption.

This should resonate in the US because the same dark forces have been unleashed in the US.


wintering knots in flight

wintering shorebirds in flight

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