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Photo by Santiago Imberti

Losing the hooded grebe: Part 2

A team of scientists races against time to prevent a small Argentine water bird from vanishing forever

By Alanna Mitchell

In part 1 of the story, writer Alanna Mitchell travels to southern Argentina in search of the hooded grebe, a critically endangered water bird found only in the Patagonian wilds. Her guide on the journey is Argentine ornithologist Santiago Imberti, who is heading up a global effort to save the bird from extinction. After a couple of misses, Mitchell finally spots a pair of the perky red-crested birds, one of only 200 or so breeding couples left in the world. But when she and Imberti arrive at El Sauco, a sprawling derelict farm in the heart of hooded grebe territory, they are met with a devastating report. 

Santiago Imberti looks like he’s just been kicked in the stomach.

It’s the worst possible news. A mink, a descendant of one imported from North America early last century and let loose after a fur-farming enterprise went broke, has been spotted in a breeding lagoon of the rare hooded grebe. One bird is dead in its nest. Another is brutally injured.

This is just what the scientists gathered here in this abandoned farmhouse on the steppes of Patagonia had feared. They are the scientific brain trust that is trying to save the critically endangered hooded grebe, and it’s a grim race against time and bad luck. Two years ago, a single young mink devastated a grebe colony on the most important lagoon in the world for the bird’s survival. It killed 33 in a single bloodthirsty rampage, strewing the carcasses around the lagoon, not bothering to eat them.

That episode took out roughly four percent of the world’s remaining population of hooded grebes, now numbering a scant 800. Imberti was flabbergasted. The lagoon where the devastation occurred, like all those the hooded grebe nests on, is isolated from rivers and streams, a bowl in the middle of nowhere, on a steppe — meseta in Spanish — about a kilometre and a half above the flatlands and riverbeds below. Imberti and the other researchers knew that Patagonia’s rivers were infested with mink, but they had never heard of one making its way overland from a river to a distant lagoon. It was, as far as they knew, a world first.

Now, after a whole breeding season without a mink attack, it has happened again. Ignacio “Kini” Roesler, who is doing his doctoral research on the hooded grebe at the University of Buenos Aires, is just as inconsolable as Imberti. “I’m distressed with this bird,” he tells me. “All the time, there is bad news. There’s always something killing it.”



Nine of us are sitting around the table in the kitchen at El Sauco, a former sheep farm near the Chilean border that Imberti’s non-profit group, together with Aves Argentinas and Flora y Fauna Argentina, has recently raised $2 million to buy. Farms in Patagonia are unimaginably large. This one is 35,000 hectares. In Saskatchewan, where I grew up, a farm averages 675 hectares.

El Sauco contains a handful of the best breeding lagoons for the hooded grebe, and for Imberti, Roesler and the others, it’s just the start: they hope to raise millions more dollars from international donors, buy enough farms to preserve half a million hectares in critical breeding territory, persuade the government of Argentina to establish a national park, and then set up ferocious conservation measures to get the bird back on track. It’s a long list. And, sitting around this table tonight, eating Argentine beef and drinking Patagonian red wine, it feels, as we would say on the prairie, like having a greased rope to climb.

They are from all over the world, these scientists. Young. Passionate. Full of boundless energy. One hails from Spain and two from the United States. Another is an Argentine national park ranger who is taking her holidays to help. In all, a team of 25 scientists, including 12 volunteers chosen from 170 applicants in a dozen countries, will be based here at El Sauco in rotating teams for the four months or so that the hooded grebe carries on its uncertain quest to reproduce. They will count the successes and failures and, more important, try to help the birds along in any way they can — such as killing mink.

Roesler is musing fiercely, eyebrows furrowed, about attempts to eradicate the American mink, which savagely plunders native water birds and animals when let loose in other countries. In Iceland, a government mandate to kill off thousands a year only seemed to boost the population. In England, a similar plan was totally ineffective. The only place a mink cull seems to have worked is on the tiny, isolated islands of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.

He comes up with a plan for tomorrow. Part of the team will go to a lake stuffed with imported trout, catch some of the farmed fish, and then use them to bait wire cages that they will place all around the lagoon to snare the interloping mink. (Fish farms happen to be another scourge of the hooded grebe: trout foul the water, eat the newly hatched and generally drive the water birds away.)

But the shattering day has taken its toll. As the young Patagonian scientist Pablo Hernandez reaches into the cupboard for another bottle of wine, Roesler talks about all the things they still don’t know about the hooded grebe. How old can the birds get? What’s the proportion of young to old? When does a juvenile begin to breed? Almost everything they think they know is suspect, Roesler says.

He and the others don’t have a clue how high the bird’s population might have been at its healthiest. Two of the keenest threats — trout and mink— were introduced by humans half a century before the hooded grebe was even discovered in 1974. Locals around here say that the lagoons used to boast hundreds of the birds every breeding season. No one knows if it’s true, but it might be. What if a healthy population isn’t 4,000 or 5,000? What if it’s far, far higher? The current paltry flock of 800 might represent much more than an 80 percent decline from historic norms, putting today’s hooded grebe numbers at an even more dangerous fraction of a healthy population than estimated.

Early the next morning, the farmhouse is emptying out again. Roesler and others are heading out for the day’s trout-fishing expedition to stock mink traps. The two American volunteers are packing up supplies and tents. They will be living at Mink Lake, as we’ve started calling it, staking out the lagoon around the clock to see if they can prevent more mink attacks, and keeping an eye on the progress of the grebes’ courtship and nest-building rituals. Right now, they’re filling clear plastic bottles with enough muddy drinking water for several days. It’s black with sediment but, Imberti tells me, perfectly drinkable. “Meseta juice,” the Americans call it. I fill my metal water bottle and try not to think about it.

Imberti brushes thick silvery-grey ash off his taillights, the debris still abundant from a volcano eruption more than 20 years ago, and we pile into two trucks on our way to Mink Lake, further north on this same farm. I see now why it’s been abandoned. The owners tried to make it support too many sheep. The animals overgrazed the land, their hoofs cut into the ground and the thin topsoil blew away. Now, there’s little but gravel here and not a sheep in sight. It’s the same story over much of Patagonia, Imberti tells me. The system was more fragile than humans imagined and had limits we didn’t respect.

We bump along at first in the brilliant sunshine on unpaved roads. Soon, though, we move onto invisible trails and our truck climbs vertically, engine complaining. Finally, we reach the horizontal part of the plateau, and the really tough driving starts. Hour after hour, we make our painstaking way across outcroppings and hillocks tufted with long grass, around craters and rocks, trying to find a route that will not break an axle. It’s as if a giant has picked up the vehicle and is shaking it around with all its might. I’m holding on to the bar above my door with every ounce of strength I can muster. Imberti is tightly alert at the wheel. We could walk the distance three times as quickly — but not carrying all the gear that needs to get to Mink Lake.

I’m thinking about extinction, if only to keep my mind off the agony in my back. It’s fashionable these days among some geneticists to talk about the extinction of a species as a technical challenge. A reversible condition. Just whack the ancient DNA of, say, a woolly mammoth into a cell casing, make an embryo, implant it in an elephant and, Bob’s your uncle: a newborn baby mammoth.  

Of course, even if this type of resurrection were technically possible — and it isn’t quite yet — the question remains of how useful it would be. Let’s say the hooded grebe goes extinct: maybe we could clone one or two birds from its dead DNA, implant the material in another type of bird and watch them hatch. But what then? What if there’s nowhere for the hooded grebe to live or breed? Keeping a creature technically in existence is not the same as keeping it ecologically viable, doing its complex dance on the planet alongside all the creatures its life affects.

The problem we face is not that humans are forcing a single species into extinction, but that we are putting in peril the system that supports the species. All the life on this plateau, on this continent and in the ocean surrounding it evolved to work together. How many pieces of it can we knock out before the system crashes? Extinction can snowball. This is why the world’s biologists have begun talking to paleontologists about what happened the last time the planet’s life-support system was leaning in this direction. Of the five mass extinctions the Earth has experienced, the most famous is also the most recent: 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs went extinct, save for their evolutionary offspring, the birds. But the deepest mass die-off was the Permian extinction of 250 million years ago, when 96 percent of species were lost forever. The crash happened after sustained volcanic activity pumped massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In turn, the carbon destabilized the climate and made the ocean warmer, more acidic and low in oxygen, killing creatures off. This is exactly the picture that’s emerging on the modern planet.

Speed is the enemy in an extinction spasm. It reduces creatures’ chances of adapting to their new surroundings. When they can’t adapt, they go extinct. And recent analysis shows that our civilization is putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere much more quickly than those ancient volcanoes.

Because this current episode in the planet’s history is shaping up to be so cataclysmic, the world’s geologists are giving serious thought to declaring that one epoch has ended and another — dubbed the Anthropocene — has begun. The name means “the new age of man” in Latin and is a nod to the immense effect our species is having on life on Earth, akin to the hit of an asteroid or the long-term belching of carbon from volcanoes.

No one is clear whether humans will survive if a mass extinction takes hold. It’s another one of those messy unpredictables. It’s also not clear when the snowball will pick up enough speed to be unstoppable.

Some scientific models show that if trends continue, up to 70 percent of species on land could go extinct by about the middle of this century. That’s a hair away from the definition of a mass extinction, and doesn’t include marine creatures, which some expect to be even harder hit.

We’re still bouncing over the plateau on our way to rescue the hooded grebe, surrounded as far as the eye can see by the desolate steppe and an endless horizon. Even in our white trucks, we are just dots on the landscape. I have an irrational urge to laugh at this impossible mission we’re on. The space is so vast. The bird, so small. We don’t even know where all the lagoons are. Not to mention the mink.

And then we arrive. Mink Lake is a tiny, perfectly round basalt basin set in a rocky cliff and surrounded by mounds of volcanic dust. A bitter wind howls around our legs as we lug all the equipment and mink traps into a partially protected curve in the cliff. Imberti sets up his scope. There’s the dead grebe, still on its nest, sun glinting off the waves, waves gently lapping. We settle in to watch, wait and listen. It’s an exercise in endurance and stubbornness, just like the nesting rites of the grebe. Patiently, the birds weave their nests from plants rooted in the lagoon, offering up strands to their mates. Again and again, these nests will be blown apart by the ferocious winds of the steppes or shredded by high waves. Again and again, the grebes will rebuild them or fly off to seek calmer waters on another lagoon.

Imberti decides I should see El Cervecero, the bigger lagoon that produced 80 of the 110 hooded grebe chicks born last year, after at least two years of a zero global birth rate. Like so much else associated with the bird’s survival, this lagoon of hope smacks of Imberti. He discovered it in 2010 shortly after his father died and named it for his father’s favourite sports team and beer.

We leave the others at Mink Lake and head out. It’s another torturous two-hour ride overland and through two rivers. No truck in the world is designed for this. But when we arrive, we clap eyes on the largest colony of hooded grebes ever seen in the past decade, perhaps 145 birds, nearly 20 percent of the world’s population. This is where the mink hit two years ago and hasn’t been spotted since.

We sit on the mossy edge of the basin, savouring the scene. I clutch my knees to my chest. This is the end of the journey for me. This is what I came halfway around the world to find. Sun on my face, tiny white moss flowers at my feet, crimson-crested hooded grebes diving, splashing, playing, courting on the lagoon in front of me. It occurs to me that the billions of years of evolution that led to this bird’s creation may all come down to what happens in this single, bleak lagoon in the Patagonian outback in the coming months and years.

A powerful hope cascades over me. I remember the Cueva de las Manos — Cave of the Hands — a UNESCO World Heritage site not too far from here that Imberti and I visited together. On the barren face of the rock cliffs, you can still see paintings created 10,000 years ago. Guanacos, or South American llamas, figure large in the paintings because they were the main source of food and clothing, and so do human handprints, mythical animals and stars, still vibrant after all these millennia in reds, purples, yellows and black.

Isn’t this evidence that the human spirit is indomitable, creative, determined, capable of abstract thought? We know it’s our foot on the extinction accelerator. Surely we can take it off.

That evening, Hernandez, his black mop of curls flying everywhere, walks into the farmhouse, looks me straight in the eyes and wordlessly hands me a small bag. Inside is the dead grebe. He’s swum out into Mink Lake to retrieve it for analysis.

The bird is so tiny, so light, its feathers unbearably downy. Cradling its corpse in my hands, I can’t think of extinction as a hard-boiled scientific phenomenon ruled by statistics and forecasts. Right now, it feels personal. It feels like a corruption of the natural order of things, the creation of a perverse nothingness where something perfect once was.

And then, the trip is over. Imberti and I are back in his truck heading south to the airport at El Calafate. He wants to check in on one last lagoon, Las Coloradas, the only one on the Strobel Plateau where hooded grebes may still nest. So we take another intrepid detour over gravel trails. Las Coloradas used to be a huge lake, and the Strobel Plateau was home to the core of the whole hooded grebe population. Now, trout introduced for farming throng the plateau’s waters, and the lagoon’s water level has fallen six metres — likely from climate change — breaking it into two shallow ponds. A few weeks ago, there were 40 hooded grebes here.

We pull up and he takes out his scope. Today, there are only 20, plus one very carefully constructed nest. Abandoned. Imberti’s whole body slumps.


Epilogue

It’s autumn in Patagonia now — spring in Canada — and the census of this year’s hooded grebe breeding season is done. So I get back in touch with Imberti to see how things went.

First, the bad news. Despite early signs of hope, Mink Lake never did produce baby grebes. The birds abandoned it a few weeks after I left because the water levels fell too low. The mink came back to El Cervecero and marauded again, killing 15 adults and seven juveniles, and then hit a new lagoon on La Siberia Plateau, taking out another 15. Imberti and his team killed five mink, eradicating them, they hope, from all the breeding lagoons. Las Coloradas lagoon remained devoid of eggs for the whole breeding season.

Then, the good news. A whopping 144 chicks were born this season, of which 138 had survived at last count. And while El Cervecero was important — 52 chicks were born there — another lagoon further south produced 72. (It’s just been hit with mink, alas.) That’s almost a third more than the 110 born the year before. When you add in the kills so far, it works out to a global population of 814, almost exactly the same as last year’s count. But stable. Miraculously stable. So far.

And the park is a step closer to life. In March, the national government took formal possession of El Sauco, pledging to make it the seed of Patagonia National Park so that the hooded grebe, under attack from all sides, might have a safe place to land.

Alanna Mitchell is an award-winning journalist and science writer in Toronto.


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