Photo story: brown hare
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.
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.