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.
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.
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
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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