Migratory Connectivity of Semipalmated Sandpipers and Implications for Conservation

The Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla) is a small shorebird, most commonly seen on migration along the coastlines of the eastern United States.  It was historically one of the most widespread and numerous shorebird species in the Western Hemisphere, breeding across the North American Arctic tundra, but major population declines have been documented in the core of the nonbreeding range in northern South America.  Breeding populations have also declined in the eastern North American Arctic, but appear to be stable or increasing in the central and western Arctic.  To help understand what is causing the declines and work toward conservation of this species, we set out to track migration routes and stopover sites using light-level geolocators, a relatively new technology which determines the bird’s position on earth by measuring the length and timing of daylight throughout the year.  The major challenge to use these tags is that you have to catch the bird once to put on the geolocator, and then you have to recapture the same bird the next year to retrieve it, which requires finding the same bird again in the vast arctic tundra.  Luckily, they tend to return to the same breeding areas the next year.

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Our large group of 18 partner organizations worked collaboratively to carry out the study across the entire North American Arctic from Nome to Hudson Bay, and we attached 250 geolocators to birds by mounting expeditions to 8 different field sites.  Our field crews faced challenging conditions, working in the Arctic where the weather is always unpredictable and where both Grizzly and Polar Bears regularly visit field sites.  We repeated expeditions the next year to each site, and recovered 59 of the units by recapturing birds.  The treasure trove of data showed migration routes and stopover sites from the entire year in the life of each bird, and showed that birds breeding in the eastern Arctic wintered in northeastern South America.  Birds from eastern Alaska and far western Canada wintered from Venezuela to French Guiana.  Central Alaskan breeders wintered across a very wide range from Ecuador to French Guiana.  Birds that bred in western Alaska wintered mainly on the west coasts of Central America and northwestern South America, outside the nonbreeding region in which population declines have been observed.

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Our results confirm that Semipalmated Sandpipers that breed in the eastern Arctic and use the Atlantic Flyway also use the areas in South America where population declines have been detected, suggesting that declines may be concentrated in populations along the Atlantic Flyway and in the eastern Arctic.  However, because some birds from sites as far west as Barrow also used the areas in northeastern South America where declines have occurred, further work is needed to localize the geographic areas used by declining populations, and therefore the potential causes for the declines.  We identified several new stopover and wintering areas, where implementing conservation actions to preserve the habitats used by Semipalmated Sandpipers could contribute to protecting the species.  We measured a larger impact of geolocators on return rates than has been observed for larger shorebirds, indicating that caution should be used when working with small shorebirds, and that potential new information gains from additional geolocator studies should be weighed against expected impacts on individual survival.  Our data also provided new insights about how long birds stay at migration stopover sites, which will be useful to studies that measure and monitor the total size of populations using these sites. Understanding the connections between breeding, migration, and wintering areas for these populations of a widespread yet declining shorebird can help future studies to identify the causes of declines and ensure the effectiveness of targeted conservation efforts.

International Shorebird Survey training in Suriname – a December Adventure

I had the opportunity to travel from my home in Paraguay to Suriname in order to establish monitoring sites for Manomet’s International Shorebird Survey. Suriname is on the northern edge of South America. With Guyana and French Guiana, Suriname is sandwiched between Venezuela to the west and Brazil out to the east. It was along this remote coast that the Canadian biologists Guy Morrison and Ken Ross encountered huge flocks of small sandpipers during their epic flight in small planes, circumnavigating the entire South American continent during the nineteen eighties.1 Ground surveys carried out by the ornithologist, Arie Spaans confirmed millions of Nearctic shorebirds using the extensive mudflats in this tropical paradise. These surveys led to the designation of the first WHSRN sites in South America, including Bigi Pan, Wia Wia and Coppenamemonding, all joining the network in March of 1989 as sites of Hemispheric importance.

To understand both local and range-wide population trends, regular monitoring at many locations can help conservation biologists estimate shorebird numbers and determine where conservation efforts might have the greatest impact. Suriname, as important to shorebirds as it is, has not had a regular and widespread monitoring effort. To address this regional gap in shorebird data, the Shorebird Recovery Program of Manomet planned an International Shorebird Survey (ISS) and Shorebird identification workshop on the Suriname Coast in early December. I conducted that effort, working to get more shorebird enthusiasts and professional biologists engaged in gathering data for Manomet.

Unfortunately, numbers of many Nearctic shorebird populations have declined since those surveys in the ‘80s. The decline in wintering shorebirds along the coast of Suriname has been reported in several published papers.2,3 Semipalmated Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs populations have plummeted significantly, and it is believed that unregulated hunting along the migration routes through the Lesser Antilles and on their winter grounds of South America is the primary cause of these declines.

The workshop was organized and hosted by the Forest Management Division of the Ministry of Physical Planning, Land- and Forestry Management, with help from Marie Djosetro. Marie attended a shorebird workshop in Icapui Brazil last spring and hosted a WHSRN site assessment tool workshop in 2014. The agenda was prepared by Assistant Director of Forest Management Mr. O. Saeroon and his team and the whole event was of the most adventurous kind. I did not know what to expect when I landed, but anticipated spending most of my time lecturing indoors. However, instead of sitting for two days in a classroom talking about shorebirds, I quickly found himself on one of two small heavily loaded boats, zipping along intertidal mangrove creeks and rivers on the way to a small town on the rugged coast. I was in the company of all 20 workshop participants, including tour guides, students, gamekeepers, former hunters, and staff of the Forestry Management Division.

Workshop provisions were carried to the boat by Forest Management staff

Workshop provisions were carried to the boat by Forest Management staff

The Warappa Creek

The Warappa Creek

We had all of the provisions with us for what was becoming quite an expedition in to the wildlife-rich Surinamese wilderness. After some time on the water, we landed in a small coastal village where we spent the first night. The town is called Alliance, and not long after arriving, evening presentations were given on nature policy (M. Djosetro), environmental laws in Suriname (R. Ho Tsoi), shorebirds in Suriname (M. Lingaard) and Manomet´s shorebird work (me).

Alliance – Suriname

Alliance – Suriname

Assistant Director Mr. O. Saeroon opening the workshop in Alliance

Assistant Director Mr. O. Saeroon opening the workshop in Alliance

Arne Lesterhuis, presenting a lecture on shorebird migration Ecology at Manomet’s International Shorebird Survey Workshop in Alliance, Suriname.

Arne Lesterhuis, presenting a lecture on shorebird migration
Ecology at Manomet’s International Shorebird Survey Workshop in Alliance, Suriname.

Mr. A. Pherai (Chief Education and Awareness of the National Forest Service) educating schoolchildren about shorebirds at the local school in Alliance.

Mr. A. Pherai (Chief Education and Awareness of the National Forest Service) educating schoolchildren about shorebirds at the local school in Alliance.

During the morning of day 2, I presented on Shorebird Identification, the need for shorebird data from Suriname and on how to become an International Shorebird Survey volunteer. Also, the local school was visited where schoolchildren were educated about Nearctic shorebirds and how the birds are threatened by hunting. Consequently, the whole group had to prepare quickly as the next stop would be the Warappa Creek mouth, an important shorebird site along the Suriname Coast. The site can only be reached by water and only within a short timeframe between low and high tide. This narrow timeframe is because during high tide the water level in the Warappa Creek is too high and boats can’t get through because of overhanging vegetation, and the passage is impossible during low tide because the creek is too shallow for the boats to get through. The one hour trip to the creek mouth was a great experience, navigating through a wall of forest on both sides of us, and with remnants of Suriname´s Colonial past in evidence. The area was used for sugarcane plantations during the years of Dutch occupation, which ended in 1975 with Suriname’s independence. Flocks of very brightly colored Scarlet Ibis, sharply contrasting with the green vegetation, were frequently flushed from their roosts in the trees. It was an impressive and memorable sight each time we flushed them.

Scarlet Ibis flocks along the Warappa Creek.

Scarlet Ibis flocks along the Warappa Creek.

Warappa Creek mouth and basecamp for remainder of the workshop in Suriname.

Warappa Creek mouth and basecamp for remainder of the workshop in Suriname.

After an hour both boats arrived at the Warappa Creek mouth, where basecamp was already prepared by Forest Management staff that traveled ahead the day before. The workshop fieldtrip turned out to be more than just a morning or day trip to the field. The night was spent here with the whole group, sleeping in hammocks and stretchers on the beach under the stars. During the afternoon and the morning of day 3, shorebirds were observed and identified with the group. A total of 13 species were found, including many Semipalmated Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings and Spotted Sandpipers. Also some Semipalmated Plovers, Willets, Whimbrels, Red Knots, Least Sandpipers and Short-billed Dowitchers were seen. Overall, a great variety of shorebirds to show to the workshop participants, who were quickly able to start recognizing the subtle differences between some of the most difficult species to identify.

Warappa Creek mouth mudflats, full of the invertebrate prey of thousands of shorebirds.

Warappa Creek mouth mudflats, full of the invertebrate prey of thousands of shorebirds.

A nice flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers feed on the incoming tide.  The silts that form these flats are the product of the mighty Amazon River flowing into the Atlantic from Brazil, far to our east.

A nice flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers feed on the incoming tide. The silts that form these flats are the product of the mighty Amazon River flowing into the Atlantic from Brazil, far to our east.

Feeding Semipalmated Sandpipers on Warappa Creek mouth mudflats.  Some of these birds might have been seen by Manomet Staff working on Coats Island all the way up in Hudson Bay, Nunavut Canada.

Feeding Semipalmated Sandpipers on Warappa Creek mouth mudflats. Some of these birds might have been seen by Manomet Staff working on Coats Island all the way up in Hudson Bay, Nunavut Canada.

Here we are practicing shorebird identification, and estimating the flock-size of the Semipalmated Sandpipers. (Photo M. Djosetro).

Here we are practicing shorebird identification, and estimating the flock-size of the Semipalmated Sandpipers. (Photo M. Djosetro).

Workshop participants (Photo M. Djosetro).

Workshop participants (Photo M. Djosetro).

The workshop ended with an evaluation on the beach during which all participants could have their say. All enjoyed the experience and a number of the participants showed a lot of interest in becoming an ISS volunteer, including some of the park rangers. After the evaluation session, we had to pack quickly and be ready for the trip back to Paramaribo before the tide was too high and we would be stuck on the River mouth for another day.

To me, the workshop was a great experience and, above all, a great success. Participants got excited about observing shorebirds and the challenge of identifying the species by picking out the little but clear difference between them. The Assistant Director of Forest Management Mr. O. Saeroon acknowledged the importance of the Suriname coast for staging and wintering shorebirds. It was agreed to stay in contact and assist wherever necessary so that ISS is implemented again in Suriname. We would like to thank Mr. O. Saeroon, all his staff of the Forest Management Division, Marie Djosetro, and all participants for making this workshop happen, especially keeping in mind it was all on short notice. The logistics of the workshop went flawlessly and we hope we can come back someday for a follow up effort on behalf of the shorebirds, their habitat, and the people of Suriname.

When leaving Suriname, I had a ten-hour layover at the airport of Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago. This could have been long and exhaustingly boring, but fortunately, I was picked up by Graham White and Martyn Kennefick, two board members of the Asa Wright Nature Centre and die-hard birders. Graham and Martyn took me to the Asa Wright Nature Centre to spend the day. So instead of biding my time in an airport, the day turned out to be a rewarding one, making new friends, seeing several “lifers” for my global bird list and sharing ideas for future Manomet work in the region. During our conversations, Graham and Martyn informed me that Trinidad has an important stopover site for shorebirds called the Westcoast Mudflats, but unfortunately only few people master the skills to monitor and identify shorebirds. In other words, an ISS workshop could be of great use for the country and the shorebirds of the Caribbean.

To be continued…

 

[1] Morrison, R. I. G. and R. K. Ross. 1989. Atlas of Nearctic shorebirds on the coast of South America. Canadian Wildlife Service Special Publication, Ottawa, Ontario.

[2]Morrison, G. D.S. Mizrahi, R.K. Ross, O.H. Ottem, N. dePracontal, A. Narine. 2012. Dramatic Declines of Semipalmated Sandpipers on their Major Wintering Areas in the Guianas, Northern South America. Waterbirds 35(1): 120-134.

[3] Ottema, O. H.; Ramcharan, S. 2009. Dramatic decline of Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes in Suriname. Wader Study Group Bulletin 116: 87-88

Shorebird Conservation in French Guiana

French Guiana is a beautiful overseas département of France located on the northern coast of South America, nestled between Suriname to the West and Brazil to the East. This part of South America has a highly dynamic coastal system. The coastline is influenced by the Amazon River via a multi-year cycle of sediments migrating along the coast from East to West. Mudflats accumulate as currents bring sediment from the Amazon River to a shifting series of locations along the coast of Brazil, French Guiana, Suriname, and Guyana (the latter three often referred to as the Guianas). Next, the rapid colonization of mangroves leads to the establishment of mangrove forests. And then, significant erosion begins again as currents shift away from a particular location, causing the die off-of the mangrove forest, and the erosion of land that can extend inland multiple kilometers. At any one time many large mudflats exist along the coast, each one containing a year’s volume of mud from the Amazon River and can be up to 5 meters thick1!

Mud from the Amazon River is deposited on the beaches and accumulates rapidly in French Guiana. This mudflat developed in just a couple of years.

Mud from the Amazon River is deposited on the beaches and accumulates rapidly in French Guiana. This mudflat developed in just a couple of years.

A flock of semipalmated sandpipers cruise across the sediment-rich waters on the coast of French Guiana.

A flock of semipalmated sandpipers cruise across the sediment-rich waters on the coast of French Guiana.

At low tide, the exposed mudflats near the Amana Nature Reserve are used by a variety of waterbirds including Semipalmated Sandpipers, Willets, Little Blue Herons, and the conspicuous Scarlet Ibis.

At low tide, the exposed mudflats near the Amana Nature Reserve are used by a variety of waterbirds including Semipalmated Sandpipers, Willets, Little Blue Herons, and the conspicuous Scarlet Ibis.

This ever-changing coastline provides important habitat for a variety of shorebird species including but not limited to Whimbrel, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Red Knot, Sanderling, and Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Aerial surveys in the 1980s led by the Canadian Wildlife Service shed major light on the importance of the north coast of South America to shorebirds. Of all the small shorebirds recorded around the coast of South America, 84% were found in the Guianas, plus 42% of all medium-sized shorebirds. While Suriname was found to be particularly important, 19% of all the small shorebirds surveyed, mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers, were seen in French Guiana2. Confirming observations of Semipalmated Sandpiper population declines elsewhere in the Atlantic Flyway, surveys conducted in the 2000s found less than one third (30.6%) of the number of birds observed in the 1980s3.

In early October 2016, Manomet’s Rob Clay (WHSRN Executive Office) and Monica Iglecia (Shorebird Habitat Management Division) were invited to a management workshop to address the “Conservation and Management of the West Atlantic Flyway’s Shorebirds”. The workshop was hosted by the Group for the Study and Protection of the Birds of French Guiana (Groupe d’Etude et de Protection des Oiseaux en Guyane, GEPOG) and the goals were to discuss opportunities for habitat management and conservation in northern South America and the Lesser Antilles. The workshop was attended by representatives of Manomet, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environment and Climate Change Canada, New Jersey Audubon Society, University of La Rochelle, Nature Reserves of France, Amazona (Guadeloupe), Coastal Protection Agency (Conservatoire du Littoral), The National Hunting and Wildlife Agency (Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage- La Délégation Inter-Régionale Outre-mer), and Tulane University.

During our time in the region, we visited the Amana Nature Reserve and the nearby Mana rice fields. The Mana rice fields are located near the town of Mana in western French Guiana. The fields include both cultivated land and areas that are no longer farmable due to the dynamics of the coastal system. Over the last decade, nearly 2 km of coastline have eroded, taking with it a large section of the northern part of the rice fields- flooding them with ocean water and rendering them no longer suitable for farming.

A flock of shorebirds, mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers, rises up above the young mangrove forest.

A flock of shorebirds, mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers, rises up above the young mangrove forest.

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A pile of dead mangrove trees in the capital city of Cayenne, French Guiana.

Forum attendants at the Amana Nature Preserve in French Guiana.

Forum attendants at the Amana Nature Preserve in French Guiana.

A Sanderling with a light green flag was one of the first shorebirds seen on field excursions in coastal French Guiana. This bird was flagged on the East Coast of the United States, underscoring the linkages between North and South American and the need to work collaboratively to conserve highly mobile species.

A Sanderling with a light green flag was one of the first shorebirds seen on field excursions in coastal French Guiana. This bird was flagged on the East Coast of the United States, underscoring the linkages between North and South American and the need to work collaboratively to conserve highly mobile species.

The Mana rice fields in 2000 and 2012.

The Mana rice fields in 2000 and 2012.

Despite the loss of arable land, this area continues to provide habitat for shorebirds and other waterbirds. Foraging and roosting areas are available along the coastline on the mudflats and beaches in and near the Reserve, and the rice fields provide a mix of seasonally flooded areas and drier upland habitats.

A major question is, how will this place be managed in the future? To help answer this question and to help conserve this very important piece of the Atlantic Flyway, GEPOG and the Conservatoire du Littoral are working to purchase this important area and develop a management plan to benefit foraging and roosting shorebirds and other waterbirds. During a field visit to the area, Monica was able to provide advice regarding a variety of different management options, while Rob led discussions regarding how these important local efforts fit within broader shorebird conservation initiatives, such as the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative, and the Arctic Migratory Bird Initiative.

We are grateful to the workshop hosts and local leaders for the invitation and warm welcome to French Guiana including Nyls de Pracontal, Vincent Pelletier, and Stanley Pinas with GEPOG, Johan Chevalier with Réserve Naturelle de l’Amana, and Elodie Raye with Conservatoire du Littoral. We are thankful for their graciousness in hosting the meeting almost entirely in English. We left inspired by the commitments to conservation efforts in such an important region for migratory shorebirds.

  1. Anthony, E.J. A. Gardel, N. Gratiot, C. Proisy, M.A. Allison, F. Dolique, F. Fromard. 2010. The Amazon-influenced muddy coast of South America: A review of mud-bank-shoreline interactions. Earth-Science Reviews, vol 103.
  2. Morrison, R. I. G. and R. K. Ross. 1989. Atlas of Nearctic shorebirds on the coast of South America. Canadian Wildlife Service Special Publication, Ottawa, Ontario.
  3. Morrison, G. D.S. Mizrahi, R.K. Ross, O.H. Ottem, N. dePracontal, A. Narine. 2012. Dramatic Declines of Semipalmated Sandpipers on their Major Wintering Areas in the Guianas, Northern South America. Waterbirds 35(1): 120-134.
Standing on the sand dune between the now-flooded rice fields and the Atlantic Ocean, forum participants survey the area.

Standing on the sand dune between the now-flooded rice fields and the Atlantic Ocean, forum participants survey the area.

A Whimbrel flies overhead on its way from the young mangroves and mudflat to a roosting area in an abandoned section of rice fields.

A Whimbrel flies overhead on its way from the young mangroves and mudflat to a roosting area in an abandoned section of rice fields.

 

A large flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers assemble in Kourou, French Guiana.

A large flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers assemble in Kourou, French Guiana.