The Secret Vagrants of South America: Brazil-Part 2

All photos copyright Doug Gochfeld unless otherwise noted.


In Part 1, I went into the details of the Semipalmated Sandpiper research project that brought me to Brazil this year.  However, dropping several birders off for two weeks in a region and eco-zone that is very rarely thoroughly birded has ramifications beyond just the valuable research that they perform. The relative lack of birding coverage of such a rich, and large, ecological area makes it a prime location for avian discovery.

The first rarity we saw of the trip this year was a Curlew Sandpiper. As this was only the 5th record of this species for South America, and the 3rd for Brazil, you’d think that we would have been mindboggled and excited. However, the last record of this species was almost exactly one year before, by the same crew, and at the same location. While it is very plausible that this was the same individual, it’s also possible that it wasn’t; The shorebirds shuffle around the bay a lot, and this was actually our only encounter with Curlew Sandpiper this time around, so it’s difficult to accurately speculate about whether this single shorebird was also seen last year. In any event, this is one illustration of how fieldwork on the northern coast of South America over the last several years has shown rarities to be the rule, rather than the exception.


The Eastern Vagrants:

Bar-tailed Godwit (European subspecies L.l.lapponica):

Bar-tailed Godwits are known to have one of the most incredible migrations of any bird. Therefore, it’s not terribly surprising that they could make it over a little extra ocean, and wind up in South America instead of Africa to winter. What might have been surprising before a couple of years ago, however, was how regular they may actually be in South America, and how many show up together. Since the project began coming to Coroa Dos Ovos, in the Brazilian state of Maranhão, three years ago, multiple Bar-tailed Godwits have been seen each year, with 2013 seeing a flock of 14, and this year the high count increasing to 19! It’s also not as if this was a bird known to occur in lower numbers around Brazil: We’re talking about a species that had only been recorded ONCE in Brazil previously.


How many Bar-tailed Godwits can you pick out among the birds pictured here? The Bar-taileds are smaller, paler, and have straighter bills than the large, brown Whimbrels with their decurved bills. Note that there is also a Willet near the middle, which, while also smaller and grayer than the Whimbrels, has a blunter bill, and most importantly a black underwing with a bold white stripe through it.


3 Bar-tailed Godwits buzzing The Universo (our boat) as they fly out to forage elsewhere in the bay as the tide falls.


The 6 Bar-tailed Godwits in this photo (probably the same 6 in the photo above), were part of a group of 13 that was scattered through this Whimbrel flock. Just on the other side of the sand-spit were another 6 Bar-tailed Godwits roosting with medium-sized shorebirds, breaking the Brazil single-day high count with 19!



Curlew Sandpiper:

Curlew Sandpipers, like European Bar-tailed Godwits, breed in the northern clines of the Old World, and winter south to Africa. Each year, a few Curlew Sandpipers are seen along the East Coast of North America, having found their way over to the “wrong” hemisphere. However, as mentioned earlier, they are essentially unknown from South America. Is this because they actually don’t occur much in South America, or is it because of the lack of coverage of the coastal areas that are the likeliest locations for them to be wintering on the Continent? While we can’t know for sure, it certainly seems like the latter is more likely the case. Coroa Dos Ovos has seen Curlew Sandpiper records each of the past two years, and just as in the case of Bar-tailed Godwits, there was only one previous record of this species for ALL of Brazil.


The Curlew Sandpiper that we briefly encountered this year. While we did see it with its curvy little bill exposed, we didn’t get photos of that feature until it flew…






This is the Curlew Sandpiper that the crew saw in Coroa Dos Ovos last year (2013), being more obliging on the ground than the one this year was.


The Northern Vagrants:

Western Sandpiper:

Western Sandpiper was undocumented from Brazil until 2012. That was the first year that this large-scale banding project took place on Coroa Dos Ovos, and several were caught in the nets (and subsequently collected), furnishing the first documentation of the species’ occurrence in Brazil. Each of the two years since, there have been multiples seen, caught, or collected. This year Western Sandpiper was seen or photographed on almost half the days that the crew was on Coroa Dos Ovos.


Sometimes we were fortunate enough to pick out Western Sandpipers on the ground, and study them in the scope for a while…


However, for a couple of individuals, we got to find Western Sandpiper remotely…as in from the US while going through flocks-in-flight photos after we returned from the trip!


The best views of Western Sandpiper, though, came on the rare occasions when one would find itself entangled in the nets intended for their congeners, Semipalmated Sandpipers.



Marbled Godwit:

Marbled Godwit is a species where the bulk of the population winters well north of South America. However, two out of the three years at the field site have produced a Marbled Godwit record, with 3 individuals seen simultaneously in 2014. This species was, again, not on the substantiated list for Brazil before these sightings.


A species that is conspicuous enough to likely NOT go undetected during birding coverage of Whimbrel flocks, it’s difficult to know whether Marbled Godwits are genuine rarities in northern Brazil, or if they are “false vagrants,” that are annual in Brazil but stick to out-of-the-way and un-birded locations.


A Marbled Godwit sandwich on a Whimbrel roll.


Here are the 3 Marbled Godwits that we found on our last day on Coroa Dos Ovos, all jammed in one frame, and circled in red for your viewing convenience. Not circled, however, are several Bar-tailed Godwits lurking amongst the flock.


This is another case where I think that lack of coverage is the crucial factor to this bird being perceived to be extremely rare, and essentially nonexistent, in some regions. The bird photographed below, was the first Merlin to be physically documented from the country of Suriname, and only the 2nd time the species has even been reported in the country. There are several records of Merlin farther to the south and east in South America, where there is more (though still relatively scant, overall) coverage than there is in Suriname.


Imagine our surprise when this Merlin, which wasn’t on the substantiated list of birds for Suriname, flew over our cabin, between shorebird trapping sessions




The spectacle:

Scarlet Ibis:

By far one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip, for those of us lucky enough to see it, involved an enormous Scarlet Ibis roost. On the first evening at the field site we noticed that across the bay, about two miles away, was a large copse of trees on an island just off the Mangrove covered coast, that had Scarlet Ibis streaming into it from 180˚ around. That first evening, two of us counted over 4,700 coming into the roost! This alone was enough to stand as a highlight from the trip, as the largest aggregation of Scarlet Ibis that any of us (even the Brazilian researchers) had ever seen, but a few nights later that spectacle became exponentially more awe inspiring. Something that night was keeping the Ibis unsettled after, and as, they came into the roost, and what was apparently the entire roost was flying around in circles, creating a huge swirling mass of crimson that continued until past sunset. We never learned definitively what made them so spooked, but it was a spectacle that I doubt we will ever forget. Unfortunately the great distance made high quality media unobtainable with the equipment we had, but the below should give a little bit of a sense of things.



Each one of those pink dots over the trees, as well as the ones below the tree-line, is a Scarlet Ibis. Many of the ones below tree-line to the left are temporarily perching. Many would perch for alight in the trees for short periods of time before the entire group would explode into a swirling mass of pink feathers enveloping the island.


It was truly a spectacle to behold.




Luke Musher focusing on accurately counting one of the flight lines of Scarlet Ibis heading into the massive roost.



While the spectacle of the Scarlet Ibis is almost certainly something that is annual at a few places along the coast, it is harder to determine just how unusual the “rarities” listed above really are. That said, some of the circumstantial evidence points to these species being regular in small numbers (and maybe not even so small, in the case of Bar-tailed Godwit) along the northern coast of South America, and are essentially “false vagrants.” Drift vagrancy and overshooting probably play a reasonably strong role in these species’ occurrences here as well, but how these interact with the species’ regular tendency to reach the area is beyond the scope of this piece. However this question is delved into really deeply (not specifically about this location, or these species, but those phenomena as a whole) in the recently published, and excellent, “Rare Birds of North America” field guide authored by fellow Leica Birding Team member Steve Howell.

These vagrant concentrations are likely not limited to just Coroa Dos Ovos, which is a mile long sandbar. One would expect that bird-laden areas in the rest of the Bay of Turiaçu would be similarly productive. It is also a reasonable bet that farther East (and closer to where some of these birds are “supposed” to be going) would be productive for at least the vagrants that are coming from the Old World.

This is yet another in a long line of reasons to get out and and go birding in areas that aren’t covered often, or well. You just never know what avian discovery lies around the next corner!