Photo story: brown hare

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Si­mon Lit­ton un­cov­ers the bizarre rit­u­als of hares in the breed­ing sea­son

drift over­head. They log the ac­tiv­ity of the grebes from dusk till dawn. They also watch out for signs of mink and set the mink traps. If they spot a mink at large, they shoot it.

Di­rect ac­tion is also needed to tackle the prob­lem of rainbow trout. In­tro­duced to some lakes for fish­ing and now wide­spread across the plateaux, the trout de­stroy the float­ing rose-coloured beds of An­dean wa­ter-mil­foil, Myrio­phyl­lum quitense, from which the grebes weave their nests. The fish also con­sume tiny aquatic in­ver­te­brates that thrive in these lakes and are eaten by the grebes. The con­ser­va­tion team works to rid the best lakes of trout, and pre­vent their spread via rivers.

The fi­nal ‘prob­lem’ species is the kelp gull, a na­tive but adapt­able and preda­tory species. By al­ter­ing shore­line habi­tat, con­ser­va­tion­ists dis­cour­age the gulls from breed­ing near hooded grebe colonies. Kelp gulls (also called Do­mini­can gulls) are wide­spread in the south­ern hemi­sphere, so there is no con­ser­va­tion is­sue with de­ter­ring them.

Lo­cal ap­peal

En­gag­ing lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties is a vi­tal as­pect of con­ser­va­tion. Most of Patagonia is in pri­vate hands, and trout fish­ing is im­por­tant for peo­ple try­ing to eke a liv­ing in this bleak land­scape. So ne­go­ti­a­tion is nec­es­sary to keep the fish away from im­por­tant grebe lakes. The co­op­er­a­tion of landown­ers is es­sen­tial, too, when it comes to plac­ing the colony guardians. Ed­u­ca­tion on a wider scale is also key. Ar­gentina has a small bird­ing com­mu­nity, and Aves Ar­genti­nas co­or­di­nates group vis­its to the colonies and raises aware­ness of the grebe, known as macá to­biano, in lo­cal schools.

“When peo­ple un­der­stand the plight of an an­i­mal it leads to the love that is needed to save it,” says Pablo Her­nan­dez, a for­mer colony guardian and teacher. “For the ones who look with­out see­ing, land is just land.” Pablo now works in the newly formed Patagonia Na­tional Park – cur­rently 133,748 hectares of pro­tected land strad­dling the Ar­gentina-Chile bor­der, which en­com­passes much po­ten­tial hooded grebe habi­tat.

Hooded grebes have an un­for­tu­nate quirk in that they usu­ally lay a clutch of two eggs, but it is rare that both hatch. Losses of hatch­lings to preda­tors brings the av­er­age clutch sur­vival rate down to 0.2 chicks per

Liv­ing un­der can­vas, sub­sist­ing on ba­sic ra­tions, is no easy task.

nest (up to 0.67 when colony guardians are present). So, since 2016, the con­ser­va­tion team has been re­mov­ing the aban­doned eggs and in­cu­bat­ing them ar­ti­fi­cially. This has proved suc­cess­ful – to a point.

Catch­ing them young

Most of the in­cu­bated eggs hatch, but so far no chicks have sur­vived to adult­hood, de­spite ef­forts by the vol­un­teers to tend them and catch enough tiny morsels of aquatic prey to feed them. “Next sea­son we will try again, with a lit­tle bit more sup­port from in­ter­na­tional or rgan­i­sa­tions and zoos,” says Kini Roesler. “BBut no one any­where has much ex­pe­ri­ence of f hand-rear­ing grebes. We’re de­vel­op­ing all of f the pro­to­cols on our own.”

The 10-year-old hooded grebe project can cl laim one stun­ning vic­tory: the cat­a­strophic de ecline of the species has been halted. About 80 00 birds sur­vive to­day, rep­re­sent­ing a tiny yet vi iable pop­u­la­tion. On their breed­ing grounds th he hooded grebes are guarded and cher­ished; the de­vo­tion of those be­hind the project is pal­pa­ble. How­ever, this is just half of the story for these beau­ti­ful, be­lea­guered birds.

Af­ter breed­ing, the adults and young leave the plateaux and head to the coast, pri­mar­ily to the es­tu­ary of the Santa Cruz River – where they rub shoul­ders with a wealth of wildlife, from fur seals to Mag­el­lanic pen­guins and other seabirds, all feed­ing on fish that abound in wa­ters en­riched by min­er­als car­ried down­stream from the glaciers on the plateaux.

Sadly, this ecosys­tem is un­der threat. There are pro­pos­als to build two vast hy­dro­elec­tric dams on the Santa Cruz River, which could be dev­as­tat­ing for hooded grebes, since 98 per cent of the birds win­ter on this one es­tu­ary. “The damming will have many ef­fects,” Kini says. “It will cre­ate an ar­ti­fi­cial lake that could trap mi­grat­ing grebes. They will land to re­fuel and there won’t be any food, be­cause the lake will not sup­port any suit­able prey for them for at least 10 years. The im­pact will be worst for ju­ve­niles, as they are weaker fliers.”

No amount of ef­fort on the re­mote breed­ing grounds of the grebes will mat­ter if they can­not sur­vive the win­ter. But in the face of what could seem like a hope­less cause, the will and com­mit­ment of the grebes’ sup­port­ers is in no doubt. Aves Ar­genti­nas and BirdLife In­ter­na­tional are fight­ing to high­light the dan­gers of the hy­dro­elec­tric dams. With the suc­cess of the colony guardian scheme and the na­tional park des­ig­na­tion un­der their belts, they’re not ready to give up on their beloved macá to­biano. “The peo­ple we met through this project are do­ing bril­liant things for con­ser­va­tion,” says Michael Web­ster. Noth­ing in­spires pas­sion quite like the tango. And with this strength of pas­sion be­hind them, there is ev­ery hope that the grebes are not quite ready for their last dance.

MAR­I­ANNE TAY­LOR is a nat­u­ral­ist and author. Her lat­est book is The Way of the Hare (Blooms­bury, £16.99).

FIND OUT MORE

Watch Michael and Paula Web­ster’s film Tango in the Wind – search youtube.com or vimeo.com Learn more about Aves Ar­gentina and other BirdLife In­ter­na­tional part­ners at birdlife.org

The tents on the Buenos Aires lake plateau where the colony guardians live for sev­eral weeks in or­der to pro­tect the grebes.

Vol­un­teers have been re­mov­ing aban­doned eggs and at­tempt­ing to hand-rear the grebe hatch­lings.

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