Adult Junin Grebe (Podiceps taczanowskii).
We are in a small boat in the middle of Junín Lake in the central Andes of Peru, and we approach a grebe whose beak is noticeably longer than that of a neighboring Silvery Grebe. It is a Junín Grebe, our target. I have a restrained feeling of achievement, as I am now close to my bird number 1250 for Peru. No big thing really but a sign, if anything, of certain perseverance as a birder. The actual sighting has not been difficult as it has been mostly a matter of getting to the right place, for which I have to thank my guide. It is also a restrained feeling of achievement because when I count birds and become proud of myself, I am almost getting into competitive birding, for which I have ambivalent feelings. But let me attempt to put things in perspective.
One or two million years ago, in the last Ice Age, this part of the Andes, previously the seabed, was already uplifted to a high altitude. One can imagine a larger lake than today´s, and a population of Silvery Grebes thriving in a large lake teeming with small fish. Then a glacial period froze everything around the lake (“The Junín Altiplano…was a closed glacial refugium at least in the last cold Pleistocene Period”, Fjeldsa, 1984 , Ann. Zool. Fennici 21) and isolated these grebes which evolved into what we have today, a bird which does not fly and has a longish beak and which lives in only this very small area of the Andes, and which we have named the Junín Flightless Grebe.
Panoramic view of Lake Junin. Photo: Sernamp.
Let´s fast-forward to the middle of the 20th century. A. Morrison, en 1938 (cited by Harris, M.P. (1961) found that the Junin Grebe was “extremely abundant”
“extremely abundant”. A population of over 1000 was estimated in 1961 (IUCN/SSC Grebe Specialist Group).
But the effects of activities soon were felt: the lake has been dammed, to use it as a water reservoir, and its levels are artificially altered by maneuvering the dams – this affects the nests that need a certain depth to the lake so it extends to the reed beds to which the grebe attach their nests . Mining toxic residues reach the northern part of the lake. At its worst massive deaths of birds, including grebes, occurred. Mining detritus also clouds the water and grebes find it difficult to catch its main prey, small fish of the genus Orestias. Also, trouts, not present before (MP Harris 1981, Wildfowl) made their way or were released into the lake and feed on these small fish. Alarmingly, in the early 90s a population of only 50 individuals was found. Since then, all estimates indicate a population of around 250 to 400 individuals.
At some unknown point in time, after the last Ice Age the Silvery Grebe (Podiceps occipitalis) colonized the lake. This grebe feeds mostly on invertebrates and thus does not compete significantly for food with the Junín Grebe. A third species, however, the White Tufted Grebe (Rollandia rolland), which does feed mainly on fish, is reported to move to the center of the lake during dry and thus to compete directly for food with the Junín Grebe.
All the accumulated knowledge has resulted in some important documents addressing the survival of the species. Organizations involved included Profonanpe (an NGO), Sernanp (The Peruvian wildlife authority), Ecoan (an NGO), and the IUCN/SSC Grebe Specialist Group.
It should be noted that the Junín Grebe is in an evolutionary bottleneck and threatened with extinction by natural causes. Yet it is evident that human activities are making its condition worse and these documents suggest or indicate what needs to be done.
Cesar Donato Zevallos, local guide, and resident in the Lake Junin area.
Help Finding the Junín Grebe Junin Rail, and other regional specialties
I would like to mention Cesar Donato Zevallos, phone 955 835 819, who lives in Ondores, a little town by the lake, and who participates with Sernanp staff, and with biologist Alan Chamorro and other Ecoan researchers in monitoring and studying the grebes. Several years ago, Gunnar Engblom raised money to equip Cesar with a good pair of binoculars and a telescope, which he now puts to good use. You need Cesar to see the grebe. He has access to a boat and a motor and will carry the motor to the boat, at considerable effort, and will take you into the lake and show the grebe to you (If you just attempt to see the grebe from one of the few places where deepish waters are close to shore you will probably fail, as I did for several years). Cesar also works as a bird guide and he can help you find the other bird endemic to the Junín Lake basin, the tuerosi subspecies of the Black Rail. Three other birds endemic to Peru are also possible in the area: Black Breasted Hillstar (Oreotrochilus melanogaster), Dark-winged Miner (Geositta saxicolina), and Junín Canastero (Asthenes virgata).
Male Black (Junin) Rail found and photographed by Cesar Zevallos.
The lake is a wonderful place to bird. In the words of J Fjeldsa it is “possibly the very best breeding site for Andean waterbirds”.
There are about 150 bird species reported for the lake and you will get great views of many of them.
The Junin Canastero is a range-restricted endemic bird to Peru. It can be located in bunchgrass near Lake Junin.
You do have to consider the great altitude, about 4000 m. Preferably you should take oxygen with you and at the first sign of high altitude sickness (a headache, nausea, extreme fatigue) make use of it. Eat very little or nothing at all and move very slowly. One possibility is to leave Lima very early (before dawn) and see the grebe (and the rail) before mid-afternoon and then proceed to lower terrain or, if you are used to high altitudes, then you can stay in Junín, some 10 km from Ondores, where Cesar lives and where you will take the boat. Orbel Hotel has a garage, but no oxygen nor heating (they do have lots of blankets).
During days of festivities, traditional dances are performed in nearby towns.
Places of interest near Lake Junín
There are other places of interest nearby: the wind eroded stone forest of Huayllay, for example, and some examples of Andean neo-baroque architecture, which you´ll either love or hate, in the main square of Carhuamayo. Towns around the lake periodically have fantastic parades where you will see Andean culture at its best. From this lake, two important rivers arise: The Mantaro, which flows south and the Huallaga which flows north. Eventually, they both turn east and go down the eastern slopes of the Andes, the biologically richest place on Earth, and meet, under different names, to form the Amazon river.
This area was occupied early by man. A few thousand years later the Incas, to whom Cuzco was the center of the world, called the lake Chinchaycocha, the “lake of the north”. They forcibly occupied the land and destroyed the great city of the Huanca people who vainly tried to keep their independence; hence no great architectural remains of former times are found nearby.
Many good places to bird are found near Junín, mostly on the eastern slopes of the Andes (this department has the highest number of birds reported in Peru– 1004 are listed in eBird, but also along the western slope. The Santa Eulalia route, for example, which you could take you back to Lima you can see as many as 14 of Peru´s endemics. While conceivably one could rent a car and drive oneself, I strongly recommend you hire a car with a driver well familiar with the route, and a guide who will help you with the birds.
- Fjeldsa, J. 1985. Origin, Evolution, and Status of the Avifauna of Andean Wetlands. Ornithological Monographs No 36. Pages 85-112.
- Fjeldsa, j. 1984: Three endangered South American grebes (Podiceps): Case histories and the ethics of saving species by human intervention. – Ann. Zool. Fennici. 21:411-416.
- Harris, M.P. 1961. The waterbirds of Lake Junin, Central Peru. Wildfowl 32 (1981):137-145.
- International Union for Conservation of Nature/ Species Survival Commission. Grebe Specialist Group.