Saturday, November 21, 2015

Alianza del Pastizal - The Grassland Alliance

It was an enormous honour to see the Alianza del Pastizal (Grasslands Alliance - see: in action at the 9th Southern Cone Grassland Ranchers Meeting. This alliance is an amazing conservation initiative that is doing the Birdlife International network proud! Those of us striving for meaningful conservation in North America’s grasslands could learn a lot from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil and their remarkable collaboration that offers great hope for South American grassland (“pampa”) threatened species as well as over-wintering Bobolink, Upland Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, American Golden-Plover and others. Thank you to the Alianza del Pastizal for the generous invitation and to my many Brazilian friends who were so generous and hospitable and to all those new colleagues for a profound dose of inspiration. Special thanks to John Beaver of National Audubon who co-presented with me in Spanish in front of 460 people! Special thanks to the Schad Foundation for supporting Bird Studies Canada’s grassland bird research and conservation initiatives. I gave my impressions at the meeting here:
(y en espaƱol para mis amigos hispanoparlantes a: Here is the group photo on the final day, followed by a photo of John and I presenting and a snapshot of the meeting summary that talks about our presentation (in Spanish):.  

After having so greatly enjoyed the chance to see how the Alianza del Pastizal is working in the Southern Cone grasslands of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil, I decided to share a few photos of some of the avian beneficiaries of this conservation initiative.

Let’s start by painting a little picture of the landscape in the southern cone where a variety of native grassland types occur. I took this photo in the Cerro Verde area near Santana Do Livramento (special thanks to Glayson Benke for guiding us there) in extreme southern Brazil near the border with Uruguay, where the 9th annual Southern Cone Grassland Ranchers Meeting was held. You can get a sense of the grassland interspersed with trees, shrubs and wetlands that occurs here. As you can see from the fences, and as with the North American prairie, today, this is a “working landscape” where “gauchos” (cowboys) and others make their livelihood. The Alianza del Pastizal uses a system of best management practices and other techniques to support ranchers that participate in conservation. Organic, grass-fed beef is raised following careful protocols in such a way as to maintain the ecological integrity and biodiversity of the lands. The intent is to benefit the birds and other biodiversity (and these birds risk losing their habitat if the pasture changes to other land use types as a result of market whims) but the ranchers also benefit because they sell their product under a registered label (carne del pastizal) and consumers pay a premium to support conservation and receive a high quality product. After 10 years, the alliance is starting to demonstrate just how effective this strategy is in maintaining the occupancy of threatened species on these lands. I will share just a few photos of some of the area’s birds. 

Red-winged Tinamou (Rhynchotus rufescens)
If you are surprised by the association of birds and cattle it is important to remember that these grasslands have been home to endemic bird species for a long time and they have been home to their share of megafauna over evolutionary history. Today, one of the key practices is controlled stocking rates so that the grasslands are not degraded and still provide cover for species like this large Red-winged Tinamou and you can see the tall grass in this photo. At 36 cm in length this somewhat chicken-like tinamou is about the size of a small grouse. The tinamous are a single ancient family (Tinamidae) within the order Tinamiformes. They only occur in the Neotropics and although they may look like grouse and quail they are not closely related at all (they are closer to the ratites).  

Spotted Nothura (Nothura maculosa), Cerro Verde, Brazil
Another grassland tinamou in this area is the beautifully cryptic Spotted Nothura, also in the tinamou family but much smaller than the previous. You may have to look twice to spot this bird hiding in the tall grass.

Greater Rhea (Rhea americana)
The southern cone grasslands are home to two ratite species – the rheas (there is also a third species of rhea in South America’s montane desert). The ratites are of course large flightless birds that include the largest extant species of birds. The Greater Rhea stands about 130 – 140 cm tall (not nearly as large as an ostrich) and they roam the pampas and some other open habitat types of southern South America. They are mostly reliant on natural grassland; however, they make good use of the well managed pastures of the Alianza ranchers. Apparently they have a skill to be able to walk between or under the wires of the cattle fences, although I have not witnessed this myself.    

Giant Wood-Rail (Aramides ypecaha)
In the wet grass surrounding one of the many lagoons and shallow wetlands of Cerro Verde, we were greeted to magnificent looks at the elegant Giant Wood-Rail. Although a member of the rail family (Rallidae), these large inhabitants of the pampas are not nearly as secretive as many other rails.

Grassland Yellow-Finch (Sicalis luteola)
In the tall grass we find the Grassland Yellow-Finch,  a small but elegant grassland species that is easily located by their display flight and song. Like many grassland birds around the world, delivering their song from above the grasses (in flight) helps it to carry further.   

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
A familiar face occurs here too. Unlike in Canada however, these Burrowing Owls are not migratory and their populations are doing well in the area (they also occur in urban areas here).

Sadly though, I didn’t manage to photograph any North American migrants on this short trip, nor was there time to seek out some of the rarest inhabitants of the region. I shall return one day to explore the Southern Cone grasslands more thoroughly! I especially want to see the progress of the Alianza del Pastizal and what they are doing for grassland birds!

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