Peru: Long Live the Junin Grebe

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Grazing is an important part of the local communities’ farming activities.

As I took mental note of the differences between this and the many other dawns I had witnessed on lakes along the Peruvian coast, I reflected on the previous day’s fracas. We began very early by inflating our zodiac and carrying it down to the marshy shores, only to discover that, despite our best efforts, the wind and waves were too much for our oars and arms, which were used to the wetlands along the coast.

This Andean lake had surprised and impressed us with its sights, from the birds, which would take flight amid the cacophony created by their calls, to the nearby snow capped mountain peak, its mass and shape mirrored in the lake’s glassy surface.

In the middle of Lake Chinchaycocha, my partner in crime, Carlos Arias, a biologist from Ricardo Palma University, had already set up a base on one of the small reed islands that were ideal for our work. He had arrived earlier with another guide, while I stayed behind to shoot the aquatic landscape. With a mixture of indignation and concern we discussed the clear evidence and the effects of the pollution caused by the constant dumping of oxide-laden mining waste in the northern part of the lake.

One of the wildfowl species that has been particularly affected (and which was the principal reason for our trip) is the Junin grebe (Podiceps taczanowskii), a bird that is unique to this part of the Junin National Reserve.

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A Junin grebe breaks the surface alongside another species of waterfowl that makes its home in the National Reserve.

It is a tragic fact that this bird will become extinct unless the damage being done to its only habitat does not stop. The mining companies in the area, with the silent blessing of the environmental authorities hammer a new nail in the Junin grebe’s coffin every day.

Ensconced on our living island and camouflaged by reed blinds, we settled down to conduct a carefully study of this waterfowl. After long hours of heavy concentration we were able to identify several examples mixed in with other species of grebe, like the silvery grebe (Podiceps occipitalis). Until this moment we had only managed to see them from a distance using binoculars.

Suddenly everything happened very quickly: a Junin grebe swam quickly by us, just long enough for us to appreciate its beauty and something of its behavior; and for me to capture it on film. It dived under the water for a few minutes, surfacing again further off, before taking refuge in a clump of rushes.

This bird, which is peculiar to Lake Chinchaycocha at 13,500 feet (4,088 meters) above sea level, has been studied by leading ornithologists, including John Fjedsa, who is an international expert on the grebe. Fjedsa has recorded just about all the available data on this species.

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Which is which? The watery sky reflected in a blue mirror.

The Junin grebe breeds between November and March. It builds a floating nest in the tall reeds and lays a clutch of between one and three eggs. After the chicks hatch the male bird literally takes them under his wing, during which time he will not dive. The female takes it on herself to feed her mate and chicks, mainly with fish.

While carrying out research in 1997 as part of a wetlands study conducted by the Peruvian environmental association, Yanavico, we counted only forty living Junin grebes, together with a few others that were dying on the shore.

This red-eyed bird’s plumage features a blaze of white ventral feathers, while its dorsal area, head, neck and wings are all black. The small Junin grebe measures around 35 centimeters in length and is very similar to the silvery grebe, the only major differences being a larger beak and a longer neck. It is usually found in the open lake, away from the reed beds. During the breeding season, when rain makes the water level rise, the grebes venture into the lake’s small bays and canals. They almost never go near the shore.

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The typical houses of the town of Ondores, near Chinchaycocha, are revealed as the boat approaches the shore.

The bird’s grave outlook brought back to me the noise I had confused with a plane. It was actually the sound of the wind howling banshee-like across the lake.

However, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me like a scream of protest calling on the authorities to be more responsible, and appealing to industrialists to be more sensible and environmentally aware in their actions.

Though time is short, it is not yet too late to improve environmental conditions on the lake and save the Junin grebe and others like it from becoming a statistic.