An Inside Look at the Winter Vacations of Shorebirds: Brazil-Part 1

Words and Photographs by Doug Gochfeld

Our Birds Aren’t Really Ours

Many people think of Neotropical migrants, those breeding in Temperate North America and wintering in Central and South America, as OUR birds. This fits a nice narrative on the surface: Every spring, they come back home, and set up their nests and territories, analogous to our homes and yards. They find their mate, and hopefully raise some young ones, and then just like that, they pass back to the south, out of our cooling fall climate, for a well-earned vacation.

However, while there are many parts of a bird’s life in the summer that make this a compelling way to frame their lives, thinking of them as our birds tends to ignore the fact that they spend the majority of their lives on the “wintering grounds.”

Most Neotropical migrant passerines depart the US in August and September, while the long-distance migrant shorebirds, which are coming from even farther north and heading even farther south, begin their journey as early as July. They then re-appear en masse in May as they move through North America on their way northward to their breeding grounds. Many of these adult shorebirds are likely spending only 2.5 to 3 months in the Northern Hemisphere! Compounding our own lack of consciousness of what these birds are doing prior to their arrival in and after their departure from North America, is the fact that even scientists haven’t had a clear idea of the routes they were using, even if they did know roughly where they all end up for much of the non-breeding season. Over the last decade, however, technology has allowed us to partially close the gap in our knowledge of just how these birds go about the thousands-of-miles long treks between their two “homes.”

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The vast majority of Semipalmated Sandpipers winter throughout northern South America

Chasing Down the Missing Link(s)

For the last three years, I have been fortunate enough to head down to the wintering grounds of one of the most numerous (though declining) species of shorebird in the Western Hemisphere, the Semipalmated Sandpiper, as part of an initiative by Dr. David Mizrahi, Vice President of Research for New Jersey Audubon.

Coroa Dos Ovos, the study site in Brazil, is so isolated that the team lives on this local fishing boat for the duration of the field work.

Coroa Dos Ovos, the study site in Brazil, is so isolated that the team lives on this local cargo boat for the duration of the field work.

 

It's not all a fun-and-games vacation for these long-distance migrant shorebirds once they arrive on the wintering grounds. Here, a Peregrine Falcon is carrying a Semipalmated Plover that it just caught. Peregrines are a constant threat to wintering shorebirds along the northern coast of South America.

It’s not all a fun-and-games vacation for these long-distance migrant shorebirds once they arrive on the wintering grounds. Here, a Peregrine Falcon is carrying a Semipalmated Plover that it just caught. Peregrines are a constant threat to wintering shorebirds along the northern coast of South America.

 

Just because Peregrine Falcons are less active at night doesn't mean that shorebirds can rest completely easily as they forage at night. Ghost Crabs, which are mostly nocturnal, are another potential threat to shorebirds.

Just because Peregrine Falcons are less active once it gets dark, doesn’t mean that shorebirds can rest completely easily as they forage at night. Ghost Crabs, which are mostly nocturnal, are another potential threat to shorebirds.

In 2013, the introduction of Geolocators (also called data-loggers) to the project was an exciting addition. Geolocators are small electronic archival tracking devices. They measure light levels over time which, when compared to an internal clock, allows us to determine the approximate latitude and longitude of a bird the entire time that it is wearing the device. The main catch, of course, is that you need the geolocator in hand to analyze the data on it. This, of course, means that it’s necessary to re-capture the bird a year or more after the geolocator has been affixed, in order to get the valuable data that it holds.

A geolocator unit that has just been fitted onto a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

A geolocator unit that has just been fitted onto a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

 

Finding flagged individualss, and reading their codes, among the tens of thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers in one area can be a challenge.

Finding flagged individualss, and reading their codes, among the tens of thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers in one area can be a challenge.

 

Here, a large flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers flies through the trapping area before the nets have been opened for the night. Those black lines strung between the poles, which the birds are avoiding, are mist nets that are furled (closed).

Here, a large flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers flies through the trapping area before the nets have been opened for the night. Those black lines strung between the poles, which the birds are avoiding, are mist nets that are furled (closed).

 

Bruno Jackson Almeida, the head of the Brazilian team of researches that partners with New Jersey Audubon in Brazil, removing a Semipalmated Sandpiper from a mist net.

Bruno Jackson Almeida, the head of the Brazilian team of researches that partners with New Jersey Audubon in Brazil, removing a Semipalmated Sandpiper from a mist net.

 

Four people, including the author, each working on removing a different bird from one of the net setups.

Four people, including the author, each working on removing a different bird from one of the net setups.

 

This bird has just been fitted with a geolocator, and this spring it might even show up in the state whose initials it bears on its flag!

This bird has just been fitted with a geolocator, and this spring it might even show up in the state whose initials it bears on its flag!

 

Semipalmated Sandpipers aren't the only birds that are studied while we're working on Coroa Dos Ovos. Here, blood is being taken from a Wilson's Plover, which is one of the species of shorebirds that is part of the conservation action plan that the Brazilian team is implementing.

Semipalmated Sandpipers aren’t the only birds that are studied while we’re working on Coroa Dos Ovos. Here, blood is being taken from a Wilson’s Plover, which is one of the species of shorebirds that is part of the conservation action plan that the Brazilian team is implementing.

 

This re-captured Semipalmated Sandpiper shows off its bling that it was fitted with a year before (January or February 2013) in the same exact location.

This re-captured Semipalmated Sandpiper shows off its bling that it was fitted with a year before (January or February 2013) in the same exact location.

 

Like "THX" in the previous photo, this Semipalmated Sandpiper was originally caught and banded in early 2013, and then was captured again in early 2014, both times on Coroa Dos Ovos.

Like “THX” in the previous photo, this Semipalmated Sandpiper was originally caught and banded in early 2013, and then was captured again in early 2014, both times on Coroa Dos Ovos.

 

After removing the birds from the nets, the real work begins. The banding process starts some time during the night (when exactly depends on the timing of the tides each day), and....

After removing the birds from the nets, the real work begins. The banding process starts some time during the night (when exactly depends on the timing of the tides each day), and….

 

...often we're still at it when the sun rises.

…often we’re still at it when the sun rises.

 

This photo is NOT from this year, or even from Brazil, despite the blue band that this bird is sporting. This photo was taken in the Suriname study site in April 2013, of a bird originally banded in Brazil in January 2012, and re-captured in Suriname over a year later!

This photo is NOT from this year, or even from Brazil, despite the blue band that this bird is sporting. This photo was taken in the Suriname study site in April 2013, of a bird originally banded in Brazil in January 2012, and re-captured in Suriname over a year later!

 

Re-sighting previously banded birds is also a priority. The recent trip to Brazil, in January (2014), saw over 120 re-sightings of birds previously banded at Coroa Dos Ovos (sporting blue flags with white lettering). Of these, there were ~30 different individuals that had been banded in prior years (rather than re-sightings of birds banded over the previous week or few days), and one of these was a bird with a geolocator that had been affixed in 2013. In addition, several birds that had been captured and banded in other countries were seen, including at least one each from Suriname (yellow flag with black lettering), New Jersey (Delaware Bay, lime green flag with black lettering), Canada (white flag with black lettering), and Alaska (Canning River Delta, dark green flag in addition to color bands). The cool thing about the white-flagged bird (banded on the breeding grounds in arctic Canada), was that it was rocking a geolocator on its leg! What are the odds? Both of these encounters with birds carrying geolocators were very short, unfortunately, and so no attempt to re-capture them could be made.

Here Michael Allen scans for flagged Semipalmated Sandpipers from the deck of our home (the fishing boat) during the heat of the middle of the day.

Here Michael Allen scans for flagged Semipalmated Sandpipers from the deck of our home (the boat) during the heat of the middle of the day.

 

One of the foreign-banded birds seen in Brazil this year. The yellow on the leg is actually a flag that's turned facing away from the camera so that it just looks like a yellow band. This bird's flag had some mud on the middle of it, so despite multiple encounters with this individual we were able to read only 2 of the three letters with 100% certainty. While this wasn't specific enough to know the exact individual it was, it was enough to know that it was banded in Suriname (the yellow flag is an indicator of that) in April 2013.

One of the foreign-banded birds seen in Brazil this year. The yellow on the leg is actually a flag that’s turned facing away from the camera so that it just looks like a yellow band. This bird’s flag had some mud on the middle of it, so despite multiple encounters with this individual we were able to read only 2 of the three letters with 100% certainty. While this wasn’t specific enough to know the exact individual it was, it was enough to know that it was banded in Suriname (the yellow flag is an indicator of that) in April 2013.

 

This is what the flag on the Suriname-banded would have looked like if it was facing the camera (except for a different code). This photo was taken in Suriname, where yellow flags are the default when scanning for flags.

This is what the flag on the Suriname-banded would have looked like if it was facing the camera (except for a different code). This photo was taken in Suriname, where yellow flags are the default when scanning for flags.

 

This was the bird (just right of center) that was re-sighted this year bearing a geolocator that was put onto it a year ago, in 2013. Instead of the geolocators being attached to a  green piece of plastic, like they were this year, the ones put out in 2013 were attached to a yellow plastic band.

This was the bird (just right of center) that was re-sighted this year bearing a geolocator that was put onto it a year ago, in 2013. Instead of the geolocators being attached to a green piece of plastic, like they were this year, the ones put out in 2013 were attached to a yellow plastic band.

 

Looking for flagged Semipalmated Sandpipers in the evening as the birds are concentrated around the shrinking mudflats by the rising tide. The boat farther away is The Universo, where we lived, while the closer boat is a local fishing boat taking a rest on the sandbar.

Looking for flagged Semipalmated Sandpipers in the evening as the birds are concentrated around the shrinking mudflats by the rising tide. The boat farther away is The Universo, where we lived, while the closer boat is a local fishing boat taking a rest on the sandbar.

 

Here, pictured in Brazil in January 2014 is "TV," a bird that was banded and fitted with a geolocator in Arctic Canada in the summer of 2013.

Here, pictured in Brazil in January 2014 is “TV,” a bird that was banded and fitted with a geolocator in Arctic Canada in the summer of 2013.

You can be a part of this effort as well. If you come across a flagged Semipalmated Sandpiper (or any other species of shorebird, for that matter), try your best to read the flag, whether through a telescope or binoculars, or through zooming into a photo. Then submit the sighting to BandedBirds.org.

It is the hope of the organizations involved that the establishment of the ecological connectivity of these sites of such a significant benchmark species adds some serious weight to efforts to both conserve stopover and wintering habitat, as well as protect the birds while they’re on the wintering grounds (mostly from illegal hunting).

Two Peregrine Falcons keeping a vigilant watch over the shorebird flocks that are their winter meal tickets, with the Coroa Dos Ovos banding station (temporary structures consisting mostly of wooden stakes and tarps) in the background.

Two Peregrine Falcons keeping a vigilant watch over the shorebird flocks that are their winter meal tickets, with the Coroa Dos Ovos banding station (temporary structures consisting mostly of wooden stakes and tarps) in the background.

 

One danger to shorebirds that doesn't receive much exposure in North America is hunting on the wintering grounds. Here, a Surinamese game warden who works with the New Jersey Audubon team writes up two guys for hunting after confiscating their firearm.

One danger to shorebirds that doesn’t receive much exposure in North America is hunting on the wintering grounds. Here, a Surinamese game warden who works with the New Jersey Audubon team writes up two guys for hunting after confiscating their firearm.

 

This Semipalmated Sandpiper, seen here on the last morning that we were at the study site, eluded our nets THIS year, but hopefully funding will enable future expeditions that will allow this bird another chance to help out science!

This Semipalmated Sandpiper, seen here on the last morning that we were at the study site, eluded our nets THIS year, but hopefully funding will enable future expeditions that will allow this bird another chance to help out science!