The week before last (22-28 September) I was fortunate to attend the BirdLife International World Conservation Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was a perfect opportunity to get the message out about Birds and People to the 100 partnership organisations which make up the BirdLife family. But as well as attending the conference I was able to go with John Fanshawe, the key BirdLife staff member working on the Birds and People project, to the best remaining areas of pampas south of Buenos Aires itself. One of the smallest provinces in Argentina, it is nonetheless a place of breathtaking vastness. Open grasslands, now almost entirely converted for cattle grazing, stretch to a featureless horizon which vanishes only with the eventual downward curvature of the Earth. The sense of emptiness and space in this landscape seemed only to emphasise the sheer abundance of birds.
One of the highlights was a chance to visit some particularly rich areas that form part of the Samborobón park, a largely coastal grassland patch of about 25,000 sq km that borders the Bahia Samborobón. We had two very special days in the company of the park rangers, Gabriel Castresana and Pablo Rojas, who not only kindly showed some of the best areas they proved wonderful informants on local relationships between pampas dwellers and some of the birds.
One of the most characteristic species of the region is the beautiful large plover, Southern Lapwing, which seems virtually ubiquitous and perches at times on rooftops in town centres. In Argentina it is called tera commún, a name echoic of the bird’s springs calls, which formed almost a permanent soundtrack to our experience. Their eggs are collected and eaten, although Pablo, whose family have been intimately connected to pampas life for generations, explained how they were harvested with ecology in mind. As children they were taught how to tell if the egg contained a developed embryo (only the freshest eggs were taken) and eggs were often left in the nest to ensure continuity of supply.
Another remarkable practice stemmed from the bird’s urgent vocalisations. A young bird would be taken and pinioned and kept around the farmhouse as a sort of early warning system for the occupants. The bird would eventually learn the identity of the householders and would only call if it saw strangers approaching. Southern lapwings have a remarkably sharp red spur on the edges of the their wings and with this weapon the birds can easily take on and frighten away cats and dogs.
The abundance of these plovers and the interactions of local people reminded me of an older Derbyshire (my home county in the UK) where the northern lapwing played much the same role. Plover eggs have probably been harvested wherever humans and plover co-exist, and often, as proven by the birds’ remarkable abundance at Samborobón, without detriment to the species. Sadly it is habitat changes which have caused the species to decline in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. But I wonder if anyone has encountered similar plover-human interactions elsewhere?
The other remarkable species of the pampas is the national bird the rufous hornero. It’s a beast with massive personality. Wherever there are people and human structures this bird has found a home. Their loud duetting calls are heard everywhere, but they are not quite as universal as the nests. Hornero mean ‘baker’ and draws on the dome-like oven structure in which they breed. The nest closely resembled the traditional mud ovens once used widely across southern South America, and hence the name.
We visited a small environmental centre based at the former house of the Anglo-Argentinian writer, W H Hudson. The dwelling is now virtually in the southern suburbs of greater Buenos Aires, but at one time it was on an open grass plain. It was this landscape which was so memorably described in Hudson’s autobiography, Far Away and Long Ago, as well as in several other wonderful books on the region’s wildlife including The Naturalist in La Plata) It was really lovely to find what were presumably children’s sculptures based on the hornero’s prototype.