Friday, February 16, 2007

Chile - The 2007 Shorebird Project Team

Larry Niles PhD is the Chief Biologist with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation and former chief of the NJ Endangered Species Program. He has led expeditions to the Arctic and Tierra del Fuego for the last 7 years. He co-leads this expedition with Amanda Dey.

Amanda Dey PhD is a Senior Biologist with NJ Endangered Species Program, Shorebird Project Leader for NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife's Endangered and Nongame Sepcies Program, and co-leader of the Expedition. This is her fifth Tierra del Fuego expedition.

Humphrey Sitters PhD is with the International Wader Study Group, Edits the Wader Study Group Bulletin, and is vice-chair of the British Trust for Ornithology. He has taken part in expeditions throughout the world, this is his fifth to Tierra del Fuego.

Mark Peck Bird Curator and biologist with Royal Ontario Museum has also taken part in expeditions throughout the world, it is his 7th to Tierra del Fuego.

Steve Gates Volunteer and veteran of 5 expeditions to the Arctic and Tierra del Fuego.

Ricardo Matus runs a nature tourism business in Punta Arenas, Chile, and with his wife Olivia Blank a veterinarian, conducts bird-related investigations in Tierra del Fuego, including the first report to alert the Chilean Government, and the conservation community, to the importance of Bahia Lomas for wintering shorebirds.

Carmen Espoz PhD is a professor at the Universidad de Santo Thomas in Santiago, Chile, and has been conducting field studies in Bahia Lomas for five years. She has led a number of graduate students working on Bahia Lomas including Gabriella Gonzalez and Sergio Urrejola who carried out research projects this year.

Allison Argo is a film producer and Andrew Young a photographer working on a film documentary the red knot migration for the PBS program Nature.

Brad Andres PhD coordinates the US Fish and Wildlife Service Shorebird Program and has done extensive field work in the Alaskan Arctic. He has co-led work on Hudsonian Godwit and Whimbrel on Chiloe Island in Chile for the last two years.

Jim Johnson is a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service investigating Arctic-breeding shorebirds in Alaska and leads the investigation on Hudsonian Godwit and Whimbrel migrating to Chiloe and Bahia Lomas, Chile.

Jorge Valenzuela carries out studies of all the birds of Chiloe Island and with his partner Daniella works to conserve sites important to shorebirds.

Luis Espinosa is a retired high school teachers from Puerto Mott and has done long-term studies of Hudonsian Godwit on Chiloe. He has also taken part in four Tierra del Fuego expeditions on Bahia Lomas.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Chile - Chiloe Island - February 7, 2007

With a good catch of Hudsonian Godwits, we had satisfied one of the goals of the Chiloe part of our expedition. Whimbrels proved to more elusive. Problems arose with our two small cannons that threw relatively light projectiles which lost momentum quickly when fired into the wind, even if the wind was not very strong. They were of a different design to those we now use in the US, weighting far less, with less power even though they use more powder. Six years ago, we took these cannons to Chile because they were lighter and easier to transport. But the lack of weight means less momentum to carry the net. We tried to overcome this disadvantage with more gunpowder, but at one site here in Chiloe we could only position the net so that it fired into the (moderate) wind. Each time we fired on a decent catch of Whimbrels, most escaped as the net almost froze in the air and drifted back under the pressure of the wind. After two attempts at the Caraco site on Monday and Tuesday we caught only 18 Whimbrels. We decided to try a new site and a new technique.

On Thursday, we moved back to the Pullao site where we caught godwits previously. The extensive mudflats lie below lush fields and are dotted with the occasional cow, pig or sheep roaming freely right out onto the mud. Over 6,000 godwits and 200 Whimbrels used the site a few days ago, now the Whimbrels remained at similar numbers, but the godwits were down by half. We decided to use the big net with three cannons: two with the light projectiles and one of the heavier, more powerful cannons we normally use on the Delaware Bay and which we brought from NJ so that we could fire this net. The small net is 104 sq yards (13 x 8) and the big net is twice the size (220 sq yards: 22 x 10), so it needs much more power. With the big cannon in the center and the two small cannons on either side and with 20% more powder, we hoped that the net would be fully extended when it was fired. We also hoped that the small cannons would stand up to the heavier charge.

They did! We chose our site well and within 30 minutes we had a catch, but with birds in the danger zone, the two yard wide area immediately in front of the net. The birds were jittery and repeatedly flew from our beach but returned, after some judicious twinkling by Mark, Jim and Luis, always moving right up to the danger zone. At last we fired and caught 78 Whimbrels and one American Oystercatcher. Our banding crew, Mandy, Humphrey, Mark, Jim, Brad, Jorge, Daniela, Gabriel, Luis and I, fully processed the birds in good time yielding all the data necessary for Jim and Brad’s study.

This was the final field day of our 2007 Bahia Lomas/ Chiloe Island Expedition. We accomplished all of our original goals. Sufficient birds were caught in both locations for all the studies taking place or about to start. We completed counts at Bahia Lomas allowing between-year comparison of numbers. We helped Carmen continue work on the benthic invertebrates and foraging of Red Knots and Hudsonian Godwits and expanded it to include mussels. We transformed the idea of a small researchers’ hut on Bahia Lomas to a more ambitious “Tierra del Fuego Bird Observatory” and secured local support. Finally we enabled the Nature film crew to overcome the difficulties presented by the harsh environment and low bird numbers to complete their filming. In Chiloe, Jim and Brad can begin the genetics study they had been planning but unable to start.

After all was done, we were within an hour of leaving for Puerto Montt and the long trip home, when Daniela and Jorge treated us to Chorante / Curranto, a traditional holiday meal of the Chiloe Islanders, consisting of mussels, clams, chicken, smoked pork ribs, sausage, potatoes, fresh peas, tomato and onion salad and salsa. The meal took the entire morning to prepare. We left with full stomachs and warm hearts for our hosts and all the other Chileans who had done so much to make our work possible.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Chile - Chiloe Island, February 8, 2007

This image marks the trapping sites on Chiloe Island. The coordinates for Castro, the main city on Chiloe, shown on the bottom left of the image are:
S 42 28 00.52
W 73 48 07.81

The Shorebird team has completed its work in Chile and is now en route back to New Jersey. We will update with final posts from this work as soon as the team returns and regroups


Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Chile - Chiloe Island, February 4, 2007

The moment we stepped out of the plane on Friday 2/3, we knew Chiloe Island would be the exact opposite of Bahia Lomas. The warm air carried by a gently breeze smelled of lush vegetation and the sea. Jorge Valenzuela, a Chilean grad student and Luis Espinosa a retired Chilean teacher met us at Puerto Montt airport. Both have done extensive work on shorebirds on Chiloe Island and are familiar with its birds and landscape. After a short drive from the airport, and a ferry ride to Anclud we were on our way to Castro, a small city which is the provincial capital on the east coast of the island. Chiloe is lush because it rains often during most of the year except in January and February when the weather is warm and relatively dry. The countryside rises and falls in hills covered with small pastures and woodlands. Dairy farming dominates the island. In the distance to the east, we could see the imposing snow-covered peaks of the Andes and a smaller coastal range to the west. As we traveled south the landscape became more rural and attractive.

After a night in the Hotel Esmeralda in the heart of Castro, the team assembled at Jorge’s house on Saturday morning. It included Humphrey, Mark, Mandy and I, along with Brad Andres and Jim Johnson all from the US, Canada and England and Jorge, his wife Daniela from Chiloe. Later we were joined by Luis Espinosa, Julissa Jeria, a biologist from SAG and Gabriel Huenun an undergrad carrying out benthic studies. By mid-afternoon, we had a net set on Pullao Bay in site of 6,000 Hudsonian Godwits and 400 Whimbrel. We chose to set the small net using igniters and black powder acquired by Jorge, no small job in Chile where such materials are tightly controlled. In the US, we can acquire black gunpowder freely in any amount in most stores selling outdoor equipment. It took Jorge a big effort involving much bureaucracy to acquire gunpowder in Chile.

The powder turned out to be slightly less powerful than we normally use and the net fired short of the mark. We caught 11 birds; 8 godwits and 3 Whimbrel. The catch was useful because we recognized a number of inadequacies that would cause much larger problems in a big catch. The next morning we resolved those problems, we made brand new keeping catches after a shopping spree in Castro in a hardware store out of a Norman Rockwell painting. We increased our charge in the cannons by about 15%, and created a covering cloth that we would use to cover the bird in the net to calm them. We were all set for the next catching attempt.

On Sunday morning, we set the cannon net beneath a near cloudless sky on a small bay just north of Castro. In the distance, we saw hundreds of floating structures associated with intensive shellfish farming dotting the channel. In bays with deeper water, there were circular pens to hold farmed salmon and in the shallows the locals farm seaweed, often used in the US as a filler in prepared foods. The tide in Pullao Bay has a range of about 6 meters, more than the Delaware Bay (2 meters) but less than Bahia Lomas (10 meters). We set the net just back from where we expected the tide to come about 3 hours ahead of high water. Within an hour we had over 6,000 Hudsonian Godwits and 200 Whimbrels being pushed towards the net by the rising tide. But they were very restless, persistently taking off and landing, sometimes flying to a different part of the shore. After a considerable time and patient “twinkling” (gently nudging the birds towards the catching area), we caught 101 birds: 98 Hudsonian Godwits, one Whimbrel and 2 Red Knots. None had been previously banded.

With this catch and the small one of the previous day, we achieved one of our primary goals: at least 100 Hudsonian Godwits for Jim Johnson’s proposed PhD project, which will focus on several issues, especially the relationship between the Hudsonian Godwits breeding around Hudson Bay and the population breeding in Alaska. The migratory ecology of this godwit species is poorly known. A key question is: do Alaska birds winter here and Hudson Bay birds in Bahia Lomas, or do they mix? Even less is known of their migratory pathways and critical stopovers. As Brad put it in his justification of the work, it would be best to accomplish this work before a problem arises as opposed to after as happened in the case of the Red Knot. Not knowing the wintering areas, the population sizes and the key stopover sites caused significant delay in responding to the decline of Red Knot populations and allowed marine fishery interests to continue the horseshoe crab harvest long after it should have been restricted. After many years of hard work by our team and others we now know these basics of knot population ecology but disentangling them from the catastrophic decline in knot numbers made them difficult to understand. Our work here will help Brad and Jim to avoid this same problem in relation to Hudsonian Godwits.

The two captured Red Knots were a bonus. We hope to catch a few of the 200 knots known to occur on the island because it may give us a clue as to which of the two subspecies that winters in the Americas occurs here. Calidris canutus rufa, the eastern New World Red Knot, breeds in the eastern Canadian Arctic, and C.c. roselaari breeds in Alaska. Our work has focused on C.c. rufa and it is proposed for federal listing as threatened or endangered. Little is known of the western subspecies, including the location of primary wintering areas and stopovers. The population is thought to have declined from original estimates of 150,000 to 20,000 so it too may need to be considered for federal listing. The two birds we caught may be either C.c. rufa, or C.c. rosalarii, but only genetic tests will make it clear.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Chile - Tierra del Fuego, February 3, 2007

Extraordinary winds complicated our last day on the Island of Tierra Del Fuego. We woke early to breakdown our camp and pack everything as tightly as possible into our two trucks. They could barely carry all our equipment even though some would remain with Carmen and Ricardo on Bahia Lomas so they could finish work on invertebrates and foraging. The sun shone brightly and dried our tents making the packing easier. In the background was a stiff but not uncommon wind.

By mid morning the wind had freshened significantly. Humphrey and I left earlier to try and make a meeting with Jorge Jordan. Mandy, Mark and Steve would leave shortly thereafter. After a long wait at the ferry landing we made it across the narrows but by then the wind had grown to hurricane strength. By the time the rest of the crew made it to the ferry, it was closed and remained so for most of the day. We reckoned the Captain and crew waited for the tide to ebb so the current would go in the same direction as the wind. Most people who sail or motor the Delaware Bay know of the dangers of wind against tide where you might have winds of 30 knots against a current of 3 knots. On this day the ferry crew faced winds in excess of 70 mph with currents up to 8 knots. The sea was covered in foamy white and would put fear into even the most seasoned seaman.

But the ferry sailors restarted the ferry despite the wind and by the end of the day we were together again and furiously squaring away our gear for next year. Our next stop is Chiloe Island, located on the Pacific side of Chile about 1000 km north of Bahia Lomas. We will take our cannon netting equipment and help Brad Andres and Jim Johnson of the USFWS catch hudsonian godwits and whimbrels that winter in Chiloe but breed in Alaska. They have been working on Chiloe for the last two years to understand numbers and habitats in ways not unlike our own work on Bahia Lomas.

On the morning of our departure, Humphrey and I met with Jorge Jordan, a Punta Arenas businessman, trained in marine biology, who has help us from the beginning with our work in Tierra del Fuego. Using his lawyers, he established a Chilean nonprofit to receive funding we raise in the US for the Tierra del Fuego Bird Observatory and to establish a managing board. After a short discussion Jorge agreed to meet with the provincial mayor of the area including the Bahia Lomas and Bahia Azul to settle arrangements for the Observatory. Jorge was very supportive of our ideas about the purpose, scope and location of the building but was adamant that the manager live on site to carry out the jobs we originally planned, helping visitor, bird tours, caring for the building, but also as some insurance against vandalism and theft. This is not unusual here or at home in buildings in remote locations.

By mid afternoon we were off to Puerto Mott and Chiloe Island.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Chile - Bahia Lomas, Tierra del Fuego, February 1, 2007

In as good condition as one can muster coming out of the field Carmen, Humphrey, Ricardo and I met with the administrator of the Province of Primavera, Ivan Herrera, in his office in Cerro Sombrero. Ivan is the deputy mayor of an area that covers much of the Chilean portion of Tierra del Fuego; it is nearly the size of NJ but with a relatively tiny human population. We came to discuss the new biological research center after considerable discussion amongst ourselves as to its location, type and strategic direction.

We proposed the center as a new bird observatory on the shore of the Strait of Magellan near the ferry terminal to be called the “Tierra del Fuego Bird Observatory”. It would have three main objectives: First to provide a logistical platform on which to focus research and survey on all bird species on the island of Tierra del Fuego with particular emphasis on shorebirds and the red knot. It would be equipped with basic accommodation and a lab and would provide an invaluable base camp for pioneering bird study in the region. Second the Observatory would become a gateway – a starting point – for all those interested in birding the Island (researchers and birders alike) from Bahia Azul in the north to Ushuaia in the south. This would be facilitated by our proposal to locate the Observatory at the old ferry terminal just one km from the current ferry. Third the Observatory would provide a logistical base for student exchange between the US (and other countries) and this section of Chile. Dan Hernandez of Stockton University has already begun to create just such a program.

Ivan enthusiastically supported our proposal and we spent the rest of the meeting developing a list of jobs and a timeline for the project. The mayor has already offered his support by offering to move an existing vacant house to the site. We would use project money from the Neotropical Bird Conservation Act Fund and Manomet Bird Observatory to restore the building, provide water, power and drainage systems as well as furnishings and equipment.

We will develop the project in more detail with a formal proposal, but our vision is to staff the observatory for at least the six months centered on the Austral summer. This will cover the local breeding season, as well as the period when migrants from North America are here (i.e. from fall to spring in the Northern Hemisphere).

In the afternoon the team surveyed the entire shore of Bahia Lomas and roosting sites on both sides of the Strait to provide a comparison with the aerial count. Mark and Ricardo covered the eastern part of the bay using the ATV and counted 4,650 knots, Mandy, Carmen, Steve, Sergio and Gabriela surveyed the west shore and found 1,159 knots. Humphrey and I surveyed known roosting sites on the north and south side of the Strait and found 3,250 knots. Altogether our count indicated a population of just over 9,000.

Late on Wednesday we made our second and last cannon net catch in Tierra del Fuego. Although trapping Red Knots is our primary goal, Carmen needed a sample of White-rumped Sandpipers in order to collect blood and feathers for disease and isotope studies. The SAG biologists were also with us to sample birds for avian influenza. We finally fired over about 150 white-rumps and finished processing at 11:00 pm.