Being a Grebe Guardian in Patagonia

After having volunteered abroad on several occasions, I felt I owed it to my country and to myself to do something in Argentina. Without searching very hard, The Hooded Grebe Project came across. And after reading the general description, I knew that this was exactly what I was looking for…

A Hooded Grebe’s Life

I am not particularly a bird lover. I am not familiar with grebes. And I certainly didn’t know the story behind the Hooded Grebe. This is one of the most emblematic species of Argentina, and an icon for the conservation of one of the most beautiful Argentinian regions: the North Western Santa Cruz plateaus and soon to be part of the Patagonia National Park.

Grebes belong to a group of aquatic diving birds that construct nests on floating mats of vegetation. They represent one of the groups that have the highest ratio of species at risk of extinction. The Hooded grebe (Podiceps gallardoi) is the star in this story. The bird was found and described for the first time in 1974 in the “Laguna Los Escarchados” in Santa Cruz, Argentina.

During the breeding season, the bird settles in ponds or small lakes in presence of the floating plant Mycrophillum elatinoides (in Argentina its common name is vinagrilla).

Grebes are gregarious and only breed once they’ve founded a colony. Breeding is only possible when the vinagrilla is present as this plant is an essential building material for the platform that they need for breeding and nesting. After the chicks have hatched, the whole colony migrates and winter in the Santa Cruz river estuary that is located East of the province.

The Hooded Grebe is admired for its very particular and stunning courtship dance, which the pairs perform synchronously before mating. The elegance of the performance is mesmerizing. You get transfixed staring at the whole ritual, admiring how they stretch their necks and move around in the most coordinated but fluent way. I could lose track of time writing about it, but the best is that you simply see for yourself…

A Rapid Decline

This particular Hooded Grebe project started in 2009 after a study revealed an 80% decline of their population, only 25 years after they had been discovered. While in the 80’s, the numbers were around 3 to 5 thousands individuals, today they are below 400 breeding couples. The critical situation was more than enough for a group of people to take action about it.

Nowadays the project operates in the three main areas where the Hooded Grebe is threatened. Two of the threats are exotic species, the American mink (Neovison vison) and the rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). Both were introduced in our country and rapidly disrupted the ecosystem. The other threat is the kelp gull (Larus dominicanus). These gulls are not exotic, but their population density on the plateaus is what is threatening our grebes: a consequence of human actions and increased pollution, the gulls are now overwhelming the ecosystem and the grebes that live there.

Monitoring and Protecting

Nest building activity in the Summer marks the beginning of the Grebe’s breeding season. This is also when colony guardians and volunteers are sent to camp along the most important lakes where the colony seems to establish itself.

The organization performs different important tasks, which are all geared towards ultimately improving how we protect the grebes:

1 – Exotic and invasive predator control. The population of gulls (they predate on the Grebe’s eggs and chicks) is managed so that it does not overwhelm the colony. Then, minks are also controlled as best as possible. They can be very harmful predators as highlighted during a census of Hooded Grebes during the 2010/2011 breeding season, where a single individual of the American mink neovison vison killed 33 Hooded Grebes and consequently destroyed one of the five colonies found in that breeding season. As for the trouts, good collaborative work is undergoing with local fishermen, who fish and manage the trout supplied lakes.

2 – Banding program. Grebes are banded so as to understand their migration routes and habits, with the goal to improve conservation measures. Those routes are studied in order to understand what they do when they fly at night, where they go, and what are their preferred nesting sites.

3 – Abandoned chick rearing. Another great feature of the project is the existence of the “recria”. The recria is the name of the station located on the Strobel plateau, where a group of veterinarians work with a team and raise chicks that had been abandoned by their parents (as eggs or chicks). Those vets are working tirelessly to find a protocol to raise those chick in captivity (for later release). To date, it has not been successful yet, mostly due to the difficulties with replicating the diet and conditions necessary for the survival of the chicks.

4 – Community education. Last but not least, community environmental education and broadcasting is one of the most important aspects of the Grebe project. Sharing the delicate situation of this species, which works as an icon for a whole ecosystem that has been altered, is vital to get the people involved and being active about it.

How Volunteering Changes You

Being involved in volunteering or citizen science activities can challenge your perception of wildlife and nature. It can push you outside your comfort zone, and it often changes your perspective about how humans relate with wildlife and nature.

The Hooded Grebe Project takes place in one of the most amazing places I have ever visited, and I’m proud it is located in my country. The plateaus of the province of Santa Cruz in northwest Patagonia are a hostile environment: the wind is strong and blows without respite, the weather is extremely dry, the vegetation is spiny. In spite of the harshness of the area, the ecosystem is rich and includes a great variety of species of birds, mammals, and plants with the most interesting adaptations.

During the interview prior to joining the project, I was diligently warned about things like unbearable winds, more than 20 km trekking days, and the regular changes of plan due to weather, logistics, or other reasons.

Life on the plateau ‘is’ very harsh for sure, but as hard as it is, I also discovered that it is equally beautiful and an exhilarating place to be. It is a place that challenged me in so many ways, both physically and mentally. There’s no communication over there, everything is so far away, and the nature around you is your only company.

The base camp of the project is the Juan Mazar Barnett biological station located at the base of the Buenos Aires plateau. The station is home to volunteers, scientists, and everyone that comes along to visit whenever they’re not camping out in the plateau looking after the grebes. Anyone participating in the project has to collaborate in whatever way is needed; cooking, cleaning, building, doing field work and logging data. Goodwill is the code of the place. You will find yourself surrounded by people who have a lot of experience and know a lot about birds. Over there you can have close encounters with species like the majestic Andean condor, the Black-chested buzzard eagle, the White throated caracara, Red and Grey foxes, the Lesser rhea and so many more.

I was lucky enough to camp out in the plateau during 10 days monitoring a colony of grebes that was living on a lake in the northwest edge of the Buenos Aires plateau along with one guardian and one other volunteer. Those days were by far the best ones during my stay. During the guard, our daily duty was to survey the life on the lake, recording natural events, the bird behavior of course, and also counting all the individuals of all present species of waterfowl.

Days as a guardian are long, you need to be alert. You constantly scan the colony; you watch individual behavior as well as pair and group interactions; you log how they react to the wildlife surrounding them, and above all you learn from the grebes. Our activities involve walking and exploring the area, bird watching, checking ponds and lakes nearby (or far away) that need to be surveyed as well.

Camping right next to the colony, going to sleep, and waking up right next the lake and its busy life, is something unique that not many have the chance to experience. Getting to know people passionate about what they do, and who believe firmly in what they are trying to achieve despite all the hardship –and the difficulties encountered when working with wildlife– is truly inspiring.

A common experience shared by all those who spent some time there is how being on that remote plateau changed our perception and way of thinking. For instance, being a guardian revived many questions that I often have, and that I am still unable to answer. Here are a couple: Is the hooded grebe a savable species? Are the resource and effort spent trying to save a species that has so much difficulties to survive and breed worth it?

Where Do We Go From There?…

Yes, we (humans) contributed to their plight, and maybe even caused it; but despite this responsibility, should we instead let that species disappear and use the resource, time and money to help another species or rather preserve another habitat?

These questions should be part of a public ethical discourse. Such discussions have the benefit of raising awareness about the species and the habitats they live in. Such discussions make us understand better the consequences of our actions, the cost of saving them and prioritizing a species or habitat over another.

Knowledge is power, and the will to do better and change our way of behaving is the kicker… Maybe that new understanding can also foster a change in our attitude and behavior so that we act with the preservation of species in mind, the hooded grebe included.

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References & Further Reading

[RI12a] Hooded Grebe Podiceps gallardoi population decreased by eighty percent in the last twenty ­five years. Roesler, I. & al. Bird Conservation International 22(4):371-382 · December 2012 DOI: 10.1017/S0959270912000512

[RI12b] A new threat for the globally Endangered Hooded Grebe Podiceps gallardoi: The American mink Neovison vison. Roesler, I., & al. in Bird Conservation International 22(4):383-388 · December 2012 DOI: 10.1017/S0959270912000019

[BJ92] Actualizaciones sobre la distribucion, biologia y estado de conservación del maca tobiano (Podiceps gallardoi). Beltrán J, Bertonatti C, Johnson A. et al. (1992) Hornero 13:193–199

[FJ84] Three endangered South American grebes (Podiceps) case histories and the ethics of saving species by human intervention. Fjeldså J. (1984) Ann. Zool. Fennici 21; 411-416

[AA17] Informe Proyecto Macá Tobiano – Aves Argentinas (2017)

[YP98] Kelp Gulls Larus dominicanus breeding on the Argentine coast: population status and relationship with coastal management and conservation. Yorio, P., & al. (1998): Marine Ornithology 26: 11–18.

[WA31] American Ornithology: Or The Natural History of the Birds of the United States. A. Wilson, C. L. Bonaparte, G. Ord, W.M. Hetherington (1831) Volume 4 – Constable and Company, and Hurst, Chance, and Company.

July 18th 2018 | by  Carolina Pantano 

The photos in this article are the property of the author.

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