Conservation news

‘Tango in the Wind:’ New film captures courtship dance of critically endangered Hooded Grebe for first time ever

  • The Hooded Grebe wasn’t discovered by scientists until 1974, due mainly to the fact that it lives in one of the most remote and inhospitable environments on Earth: the windswept plateaus of southern Patagonia, often referred to as “The end of the world.”
  • During the breeding season, the birds set up their nesting colonies on just a few basaltic lakes on the arid Patagonian steppes in extreme southwest Argentina, so it’s safe to say that very few people on Earth have ever witnessed its incredible courtship display.
  • But now, thanks to filmmakers Paula and Michael Webster, who captured the mating ritual of the Hooded Grebe on film for the first time, you can watch it from the comfort of your own home.

The Hooded Grebe wasn’t discovered by scientists until 1974, due mainly to the fact that it lives in one of the most remote and inhospitable environments on Earth: the windswept plateaus of southern Patagonia, often referred to as “The end of the world.”

Hooded Grebes (Podiceps gallardoi) are quite striking in appearance, with their dark grey backs and hindnecks, black heads that contrast sharply with white foreheads and throats, peaked forecrowns that are reddish in color, and intense red eyes that help them to see more clearly amidst the deep blues of the Patagonian landscape.

During the breeding season, the birds set up their nesting colonies on just a few basaltic lakes on the arid Patagonian steppes in extreme southwest Argentina, so it’s safe to say that very few people on Earth have ever witnessed its incredible courtship display firsthand. But now, thanks to filmmakers Paula and Michael Webster, who captured the mating ritual of the Hooded Grebe on film for the first time, you can watch it from the comfort of your own home.

The full film is embedded below. Here’s a video meme the filmmakers have made featuring the Hooded Grebe’s mating dance in all its glory:

Given that Argentina is the birthplace of the tango, Paula Webster tells Mongabay that the title of the documentary film came to her instantly. “This world-first footage reveals the Hooded Grebe has a courtship dance as passionate as the tango,” Webster said. “Immediately I knew the title of the film had to be Tango in the Wind!”

The film was commissioned by Aves Argentinas, the BirdLife International partner in Argentina appointed as “Species Guardian” for Hooded Grebes through BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme.

Patagonia National Park, created in 2014, encompasses more than half of the Hooded Grebe’s breeding colonies, but the bird is still facing a number of severe threats to its continued survival.

There were an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Hooded Grebe individuals in the late 1990s, but a 2014-2015 survey found just 771 adults and 138 chicks. This rapid decline earned the Hooded Grebe a Critically Endangered listing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2012. The main threats to Hooded Grebes are climate change, which has caused less snowfall and higher winds that lead to the lakes the birds rely on for breeding to dry out, and the introduction of the American mink in Patagaonia by fur traders. According to the IUCN, “American Mink threaten the species at all stages of its life, with nests, chicks and adults all vulnerable to predation. In 2010-2011 an American Mink, a new arrival on the Buenos Aires plateau, killed more than half the adults in a breeding colony of two dozen nests.”

In the below Q&A, Paula Webster discusses what it was like to live and work in the harsh Patagonian environment for six months while making the film, provides more background on the threats to the Hooded Grebe’s survival, and reveals a few more of the remarkable behaviors she and Michael were able to capture.

Watch Tango in the Wind here:

Mongabay: For those who aren’t familiar with the species, tell us a little about the Hooded Grebe? Where is it found? How many survive in the wild?

Paula Webster: Hooded Grebes are beautiful birds, only found in Patagonia. They spend the winter on the Atlantic coast of Argentina, in particular the sheltered estuary of the Santa Cruz River. In springtime they migrate across the vast Patagonian steppe, out of which rise a series of huge, flat-topped volcanic plateaus. These plateaus are dotted with small shallow lagoons. It is on a few of these lagoons that the Hooded Grebes find conditions suitable for them to spend the summer and breed. These plateaus are virtually inaccessible, ‘Lost Worlds.’

For these reasons few people see the birds. Amazingly they were only discovered in 1974, no one had seen the bird before that. Work done in the 1990s led to the understanding that there was a population of 5,000 birds, but the limits of the survey led to the belief that this was a considerable underestimate. More accurate fieldwork since has concluded that the population now is as low as 800 individuals. A very low number, the IUCN has categorised this bird as Critically Endangered. It is one of the rarest birds in South America, tottering on the edge of extinction.

Mongabay: What are the biggest threats to the survival of the Hooded Grebe, and what conservation work is currently ongoing to protect the bird?

Mankind has surrounded the bird with difficulties. Few species of birds are suffering as much as the Hooded Grebe. In the 1990s two introduced animals started to impact the lives of Hooded Grebes. From the land came the North American Mink attacking breeding colonies on the lagoons. From the water came another foe, Rainbow Trout. They took the young chicks and depleted the quality of the water itself, killing off the Water Milfoil plant, essential for the survival of breeding colonies of the Grebes.

A native bird, the Kelp Gull, has experienced a population explosion in recent decades. This has been fuelled by the uncontrolled waste and rubbish in local towns and villages. These Gulls now fly up to the plateau and scavenge on any available food. Tiny Hooded Grebe chicks are easy prey.

These three threats are now understood and are being addressed by biologists and a small team of volunteers. These conservation heroes trudge day after day in ferocious winds across razor sharp rocky terrain to identity where the Mink are and control them. Another ground-breaking experiment involves the removal of fish from one of the larger lagoons. This also involves finding the small rivulets up into the hills where the fish go to spawn in the spring. These tributaries have steel grills put across them to prevent the fish passing through.

The most sinister threat is the most difficult to control. In recent years there is less winter snow and rain. Many lagoons are drying up and the Hooded Grebes are having to move about in search of suitable places to breed. Climate change at the ‘End of the World’ is an added threat to the birds.

The rare hooded grebe lives far north of Patagonia’s famous Torres del Paine National Park. Photo courtesy of Paula and Michael Webster.

Mongabay: How did you first become interested in telling the Hooded Grebe’s story through a documentary film?

We have been visiting Argentina for the past three years. This experience has enabled us to understand some of the key conservation issues and the people and organisations involved. We were asked by the Birdlife partner in Argentina, Aves Argentinas, if we would make the film for them. We were thrilled to be able to promote the cause of this beautiful bird.

Mongabay: What was it like to be a filmmaker living in Patagonia for six months while making this documentary?

Patagonia is a challenging environment to work in. The weather is harsh, most days were incredibly windy, driving sandstorms across the landscape and making the cold more intense. Keeping cameras safe was a challenge, sound recording was always fraught with difficulty.

The infrastructure is poor with few roads. A well-equipped 4-wheel vehicle is essential, planning and communication is important. Many days we could drive at no more than 10mph for five or eight hours hours at a time.

The counterbalance to this was the mind-blowing beauty of the wilderness we experienced.

An amorous Hooded Grebe couple courting one another. Photo courtesy of Paula and Michael Webster.

Mongabay: You captured the bird’s mating dance on film for the first time. How did you manage that — was it difficult?

Grebes around the world are renowned for elaborate courtship displays. Very little was known about that of the Hooded Grebe and so to see and film it was top of our list. Teams of volunteers scoured the plateaus searching for the birds. Spring started to slip by and we had achieved little.

One day we came across a remote lagoon, accessible only on foot. A small group of grebes were present. We set up camp in the shelter of a distant cliff. The following day we got our equipment into a suitable position on the lagoon and waited. Eventually the birds started to display. The weather eased and for three days only we were able to witness and film the spectacular display, after that the activity died down and we never saw the full display again.

Filming the mating dance of the hooded grebe was vital for Paula and Michael’s documentary. After days of driving between lakes and assessing the conditions, they successfully filmed the dance in full for the first time ever. Photo courtesy of Paula and Michael Webster.

Mongabay: What are some of the bird’s other behaviours you captured for the film? And do any of Patagonia’s other wildlife species make any memorable cameos in the film?

The Hooded Grebe is a highly social bird. They nest colonially and feed in close proximity to each other. They move around their chosen lagoon, each keeping an eye on the sky for a Peregrine Falcon, Kelp Gull, or Harrier that would occasionally sweep down on them in a surprise attack. Watching and filming their feeding behaviour was important for us, little is known about that. We were able to see that they fed in dense patches of Water Milfoil and brought up crustaceans for their tiny chicks.

The wind scoured plateaus rise high out of the Patagonian grasslands. Unique and isolated, the wildlife is specialised. Each plateau has its own distinctive species of lizard, some blue, some green, others dotted brown. Small herds of Guanacos live on the plateau, every evening they would come down to the lagoon to drink.

Mongabay: Do you have any favourite characteristics of these birds, or any anecdotes you can share with us after having spent so long observing them?

The adults carry their chicks on their backs, sometimes even two chicks struggle to fit on! Even though they are very protective of their young, we did see chicks taken by predators. When this happened the adults became desperate and agitated. They would try and adopt another adult’s chick. Even when rebuffed they would still attempt to feed it.

I would sleep in a tent very close to the lake. Some windless nights, with the moon high in the sky, the birds would call to each other. A melodic triple warble, interspersing my dreams.

On Paula and Michael Webster’s last few days filming the Hooded Grebe, some chicks emerged. With only around 800 individuals in the wild, the success of this species relies on a few lucky birds, protected by a passionate team of volunteers and scientists. Photo courtesy of Paula and Michael Webster.

Mongabay: What can Mongabay’s readers do to help the Hooded Grebe?

Watch and enjoy the film, Tango in the Wind, a story by dedicated volunteers working to protect our heritage of wildlife. A donation to the Birdlife ‘Preventing Extinctions Programme’ will help save this species from extinction.

The action we recommend: #keepTheDanceAlive by supporting BirdLife’s Nest Quest, or apply to join and work with the Projecto Macá Tobiano in its fight to save the Hooded Grebe from extinction.

Paula and Michael Webster, searching for birds in Patagonia. Photo courtesy of Paula and Michael Webster.

CITATION

Follow Mike Gaworecki on Twitter: @mikeg2001

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.