Tracking Semipalmated Sandpipers in Brazil

During November and December of 2018, a team of shorebird scientists led by New Jersey Audubon and Tulane University went on a month-long expedition to Brazil. The trip, a part of a multi-year regional effort, centered around the deployment of nano-tags on Semipalmated Sandpipers (Calidris pusilla) to help generate overwinter survival estimates for the species. These estimates will be used along with survival estimates from studies during migration and breeding periods to develop life cycle migratory network models to investigate what period during the annual cycle might be driving population declines. The target locations for this trip were two sites on either side of the mouth of the Amazon River, in the states of Amapá and Pará.

Our team included Dr. David Mizrahi of New Jersey Audubon, John Herbert of Tulane University, Bracken Brown, a Pennsylvania ornithologist and teacher, Onofre Montiero of Aquasis in Brazil, and Alan Kneidel, Staff Biologist at Manomet. We were also joined by Dr. Carlos David Santos, Professor at the Federal University of Pará.

The photos and captions below, taken and composed by Alan, are meant to share the team’s experience.

satellite photo

Located south of the mouth of the Amazon River, the Brazilian state of Pará is a tropical, biodiverse region. This satellite image gives an idea of what the coastline looks like there. While many parts of the interior have been deforested, the sinuous, mangrove-bordered coastline is comparatively remote. This region extends into the neighboring state of Maranhão and the area known as Reentrâncias Maranhenses, a WHSRN site of hemispheric importance for Nearctic shorebirds. While hosting many species, this habitat is of particular importance to populations of Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola), Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres), Eastern Willet (Tringa semipalmata semipalmata), Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), Red Knot (Calidris canutus rufa), and Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla).


Access is difficult, and the isolated communities rely on boats for transportation. The boats themselves come in a flamboyant array of colors and designs. The assistance of the locals was invaluable, both for logistics and for their insight into local shorebird behavior.


We successfully deployed over 70 nano-tags on Semipalmated Sandpipers (Calidris pusilla). Nano-tag technology allows for up to 2,000 tags to be assigned to a single radio frequency while retaining the ability to identify individual animals. Transmitters are picked up through a network of widely-spaced towers that have been constructed along the coastline. The towers take a solid two days of work to erect. Here, one of the two towers we built is adopted as a favorite perch by a Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus).

Bird Processing

The team processes birds in our mobile field station on the Ilha de Maracá in the state of Amapá. At this site, our trapping efforts centered on a mangrove high-tide roost, often forcing us to work through the night.

fiddler crab

Fiddler crabs (Uca sp.) are widespread in mangroves and saltmarshes throughout the world. Wherever they are found, they serve as a principal food source for a variety of coastal waterbirds. In Brazil, Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) and Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber) use their long, curved bills to extract crabs from their burrows. Meanwhile, birds such as Eastern Willet (Tringa semipalmata semipalmata), Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia) and Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica) have stout bills, specialized for feeding on actively foraging fiddler crabs.

wilson's plover

The Brazilian coast is home to a substantial population of Wilson’s Plovers (Charadrius wilsonia), likely augmented by wintering birds from the north. At one of our field sites, we found a flock of 50+ in the dry dune ridges. Among the Wilson’s were lesser numbers of Collared Plover (Charadrius collaris) and Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus).


Many shorebirds molt their feathers while on their wintering grounds, a process that is energetically demanding. This Sanderling (Calidris alba) is replacing its greater coverts, revealing the vivid white base to the secondary feathers.

flying Whimbrel group

According to estimates, the Brazilian coast is home to up to 44% of the South American population of (Hudsonian) Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus hudsonicus). This number includes adult birds that spend the winter months here before returning to North America to breed, as well as juvenile birds that can stay for over a full calendar year. To better understand the migration ecology of this declining subspecies, shorebird researchers in the Atlantic Flyway (Center for Conservation Biology, Georgia DNR, Manomet) have been tagging Whimbrel with satellite transmitters over the past several years. Many of these birds have spent the non-breeding season along this portion of the Brazilian coastline, including Ahanu, a Whimbrel tagged by Manomet staff on Cape Cod in the fall of 2018. Ahanu continues to winter on the outskirts of São Luis, Brazil.

upclose Whimbrel flying

Poaching is one of the greatest problems facing shorebird conservation in Brazil. In the Brazilian state of Ceará, the Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) is called “Pirão Gordo.” “Pirão” is a mixture of fat and flour used to make a thick gravy, and “gordo” means fat in Portuguese, referring to the Whimbrel’s size. While the hunting of shorebirds is illegal in Brazil, enforcement is a challenge.

roosting Whimbrel flock

As is the case for most birds that rely on the intertidal zone for foraging, high tide is a time for roosting. Whether a tern, skimmer, shorebird, or heron, the sand spit outside of the small village we stayed in was the place to be at high tide. Here, a flock of over 200 Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) rest.


A flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers (Calidris pusilla) and Short-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus) wheel about as they settle into their high-tide roost.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Among the regular suspects in Pará, we also spotted a few (European) Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica lapponica). Recent explorations to this stretch of coastline have begun to reveal a pattern of regular occurrence for this species in Brazil.

scarlet ibis

Without a doubt, the bird most emblematic of this region is the Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber). We regularly saw ibis feeding on the tidal mudflats and flying to and from their roosts at dusk and dawn. In Portuguese, the ibis is known as Guará, a word originating from the indigenous Tupi people.

Southern Caracara

This Southern Caracara (Caracara plancus) has just finished gorging on a washed-up carcass. The crop, bulging out through the breast feathers, is used to temporarily store food prior to digestion. Being able to store food like this is all the more important when competing with the local Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) and Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus).

team walking in Apeu

The team walks down the main street of Apeu, in Pará. From left to right: Bracken Brown, Onofre Montiero, John Herbert, and David Mizrahi. The trip to this village required a full day of driving on dirt roads followed by an overnight journey by boat.


Information Exchange and Monitoring in Manitoba

“Ephemeral does not equal unimportant” shared Christian Artuso, Manitoba Program Manager of Bird Studies Canada, with the cadre of workshop participants sitting at Nature Conservancy Canada’s property in Southwestern Manitoba. Christian is referring to the flood and drought cycle of the midcontinent’s prairie landscape. In some years, the shallow lakes and small pothole wetlands are full to the brim. Water fills every low lying area across the seemingly flat region. Sometimes, the flood cycle can last years. In other periods, persistent drought shrinks the availability of wet habitat to a few core areas. But every year, shorebirds move through this region, many during spring or fall migration to rest and refuel en-route to nesting areas well to the north in boreal bogs and on the Arctic Tundra or to wintering grounds to the south in Mexico and South America.  A few species, like Marbled Godwit and Wilson’s Phalarope, spend the nesting season on the Manitoba prairies, raising their young among the slow rolling undulations of wetlands, grasslands, and agriculture.

In Spring 2018, Manomet’s Habitat Management Division helped to facilitate exchanges across important shorebird sites and among conservation practitioners in the Central Flyway through two workshops. In early May, we held a workshop in Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas.  In late May, we worked with Nature Conservancy Canada, Bird Studies Canada, Manitoba Important Bird Areas, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and West Souris River Conservation District to host a Shorebird Conservation, Management, and Monitoring workshop in southwest Manitoba.

brianManomet’s Senior Scientist Emeritus Brian Harrington surveys a wetland in Manitoba. Photo by Brad Winn.

The workshop in Manitoba marked the start of a citizen science-based, collaborative shorebird monitoring effort within Manitoba using the International Shorebird Survey framework. The workshop also inspired multiple informational exchanges beyond the boundaries of the province. Ann McKellar, Wildlife Biologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada based in Saskatchewan, helped organize and plan the workshop. She shared her work monitoring shorebirds at Chaplin and Reed Lakes in Saskatchewan, Manitoba’s Western neighbor. Robert Penner, Cheyenne Bottoms and Avian Programs Manager with The Nature Conservancy of Kansas and Chair of the WHSRN- United States Committee, and also our main partner in delivering the shorebird workshop in Kansas, joined us in Manitoba to provide an overview of conservation efforts benefitting shorebirds reliant on the wetlands and grasslands using the midcontinent region to the South.

avocetAmerican Avocet. Photo by Christian Artuso.

east meadows marshEast Meadows Marsh, Manitoba. Photo by Monica Iglecia

The prairie landscape is deceptively rich in biological diversity. Rather than large congregations of shorebirds that can be found in coastal estuaries and bays, the prairies hold groups of shorebird scattered across multiple locations in the region. As we drove, each small wetland we passed seemed to hold a small but diverse grouping of species including but not limited Semipalmated Sandpipers, White-rumped Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Stilt Sandpipers, Marbled Godwits, and Willets. Grasslands hosted species like Upland Sandpipers seen standing on fence posts of walking through the grass. A dry, recently tilled field, yielded a delightful surprise of resting American Golden Plovers with blazing black bellies and gold and white speckled backs.

amgpAmerican Golden-Plovers in a dry field in Southwestern Manitoba. Photo by Christian Artuso.

upland sandpiperUpland Sandpiper. Photo by Brad Winn.

The morning before the workshop, Christian and I ventured over to the water’s edge on the NCC property of Jiggens Bluff and found eight Red Knots in bright breeding plumage, preening and foraging in the shallow water. One Knot had a light green flag affixed to its leg. The green color indicated the country where the bird was originally banded – the United States. We were unable to get close enough to read the combination of letters and numbers on the flag which would help us track down even more details about this individual bird’s history, but it is very likely that this Red Knot was banded in coastal Texas. During the workshop a day later, as we scanned a small wetland through our scopes, Gillian Richards, a workshop attendee shared that she had seen a Hudsonian Godwit with a red flag on its leg. Red flags indicate that the bird was banded in Chile, representing yet another direct connection to an even more distant location – and one where our team had recently delivered two workshops and seen large flocks of nonbreeding Hudsonian Godwits on their wintering grounds on Chiloé Island, Chile.

As we left the long days of May in Manitoba and with my long day of travel ahead, I thought back to those Red Knots and their journey. To my knowledge, those birds were at Jiggens Bluff for just a few days but that brief time to rest and refuel at a property owned and conserved by Nature Conservancy Canada ensured that their time in Manitoba would contribute to a successful next leg of their trip and their nesting efforts.

participants jiggensWorkshop participants at Jiggens Bluff, Manitoba. Photo by Christian Artuso.

This workshop helped to engage a group of dedicated people in Manitoba in shorebird conservation and monitoring. Using International Shorebird Survey protocol, the data collected here will contribute directly to the local understanding of how shorebirds use the Manitoban prairies and our collective understanding of long-term shorebird population trends. These data are collected across North and South America and are a significant resource for informing decision making at the U.S. and Canadian state/provincial and federal levels. Working together, we can monitor and help conserve shorebirds.

But for those knots at Jiggens Bluff, it was North to the Arctic, to lay four eggs and raise their young, and then to begin their great migration once again.

Want to know more about the workshop? Check out the Manitoba Important Bird Areas Program blog post here:


And learn more about what was found during the International Shorebird Survey efforts in Manitoba here:

Prioritizing Shorebirds in the Prairies: Conservation Action in Kansas

In front of us, a few hundred shorebirds were focused intently on foraging for food. We were in the center of Kansas, for Manomet’s Shorebird Conservation Action Symposium at Cheyenne Bottoms. Some of us were practicing estimating flock size on a large group of Long-billed Dowitchers and Hudsonian Godwits. Some were learning to tell the difference between a Baird’s and a Semipalmated Sandpiper for the first time.

Handmaker_BASABaird’s Sandpipers. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

But the sky behind us had turned a thick, hazy gray – and the air was eerily calm after a barrage of 30-40 mph winds. Anyone from Kansas would tell you – this was the “calm before the storm.” Most of the species before us were making their way back to their high-arctic breeding grounds after a winter in South America. And this large basin in the prairies of the United States is one of their crucial rest-stops along the Central Flyway. To budge the 33 Symposium participants busy counting and identifying the birds – not to mention to move the birds concentrated on eating, that storm was going to have to get a lot closer. Luckily it skirted to the east, and we closed day one without having to brave the tornado we’d seen brewing in the distance.

Handmaker_LBDOflockTakesFlightFlock takes flight. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

Cheyenne Bottoms is one of the largest interior marshes in the United States. It has been a Site of Hemispheric Importance in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) for 30 years, and the symposium celebrated this milestone by presenting certificates to the site partners. Migratory shorebirds passing through the mid-continent are subject to unpredictable weather patterns and a landscape of ephemeral wetlands in which to find their food. Water levels at Cheyenne Bottoms still vary on a regular basis, but the basin provides some of the most reliable food resources for shorebirds migrating through the center of the continent.

Handmaker_STSA1Foraging Stilt Sandpipers. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

Of the 52 shorebird species that occur in North America, 37 are found in the Great Plains – and half of these species are considered of high conservation concern or worse.

Manomet’s Habitat Management Division and Robert Penner of The Nature Conservancy of Kansas organized and led the symposium that brought together managers of public and private wetlands, employees of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism, representatives of Ducks Unlimited and other non-profit organizations as well as National Wildlife Refuges from the surrounding states of Nebraska, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Kevin Teneycke, Director of Conservation for Nature Conservancy Canada, traveled from southwest Manitoba to share their shorebird conservation efforts in the Canadian Prairies. Manitoba was next on the docket for a Manomet Habitat Management workshop; a few weeks later Robert Penner would travel to Canada and he would share a presentation about Cheyenne Bottoms, thus beginning a learning exchange between these two Central Flyway regions.

Iglecia_Robert Penner presentsRobert Penner presents. Photo by Monica Iglecia.

Handmaker_GroupDiscussion1Group discussion. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

The three-day workshop focused on techniques for “managing with multiple priorities.” Cheyenne Bottoms provided an ideal case study: a diverse matrix of habitat management techniques are needed to weave shorebirds into management plans.  At a site where shallow-water dependent shorebirds overlap with shorebirds that rely on drier grasslands, a management plan needs to provide habitats that suit them all. When The Nature Conservancy rotates between mowing, haying, grazing, and prescribed burns it helps to maintain short and sparse vegetation preferred by upland shorebirds like Upland Sandpipers – and it helps to reset the prairie landscape, much as the large herds of American Bison and natural fires used to do. In other areas of Cheyenne Bottoms that are principally managed for waterfowl, water levels can be brought to levels that satisfy the habitat needs of shorebirds that arrive before most ducks.

Handmaker_GroupEstimatesPhalaropesatQuiviraGroup estimates phalarope flock size at Quivira. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

Day two’s field trip was to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, a WHSRN site of Regional Importance. Quivira combines a unique array of sand prairie, freshwater wetlands, inland salt marsh, and playa habitats – and it is one of the four most important nesting sites for Snowy Plovers in the Great Plains. It was here that workshop participants witnessed shorebirds at work with waterfowl. We watched hundreds of tiny Wilson’s Phalaropes – a member of the only group of shorebirds that can swim – forage behind the much taller shorebird the American Avocet, and the much bigger duck, the Northern Shoveler. Phalaropes are known for their behavior of swimming in circles to stir up invertebrates in the water column. Shovelers stir things up too, using their shovel-shaped bill to forage head-first in shallow wetlands. Were these phalaropes swimming in the wake of the shovelers to eat the invertebrates they brought to the surface?

Iglecia_Sea of NSHO and WIPHA “sea” of Northern Shovelers and Wilson’s Phalaropes. Photo by Monica Iglecia.

SESA Peru Flagged Quivira May 2018_Jason OlszakFlagged Semipalmated Sandpiper. Photo by Jason Olszak.

Looking out at the mudflats of Quivira, a subtle flash of yellow struck someone’s spotting scope. In a blur of small brown and grey shorebirds – Dunlin, Baird’s Sandpipers, Snowy Plovers, Stilt Sandpipers, and Sanderling, to name just some – a Semipalmated Sandpiper was spotted with a yellow flag on its leg. Its red letters read “8AC,” making it possible to trace this bird to Peru. It was tagged as an adult in 2011, meaning it had made this tremendous journey twice a year for at least seven years. Gathered around scopes to catch a glimpse at the sandpiper from Peru, many participants commented that the connection between the wetlands of Kansas and the coasts of South America had really hit home.

Winn_CheyenneBottomsGroupPhotoGroup photo at Cheyenne Bottoms. Photo by Brad Winn.