Election Section

Celebrating the Spectacle of the Returning Grebes By JOE EATON

Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 21, 2004

The grebes are back on the bay: the chunky eared and horned grebes, the elegant javelin-beaked Clark’s and western grebes. The eared and horned have traded the golden plumes of the nesting season for winter black and white, the permanent pattern of the two larger species. A couple of days ago at Cesar Chavez Park I was watching an eared grebe just offshore as it submerged with a forward leap, then popped up like a cork a few yards away. 

They’re odd birds. Ornithologists haven’t been sure where to classify them: For years they were placed near the loons, but recent genetic studies suggest their closest relatives are, of all things, the flamingoes. Grebes have stubby legs, set so far aft they can barely walk on land; they assemble rafts of vegetation into floating nests for ease of access. Alone among birds, they eat their own feathers, and feed them to their chicks—maybe to cushion the bones of the small fish that make up a large portion of their diet. 

Some of the eared grebes I’ve been seeing may be the same birds I saw early in October at Mono Lake, where I was in the presence of more grebes than I had ever seen in my life—and I mean that in a cumulative sense. I was at the South Tufa reserve, among the ancient formations that look like melted Manhattan skylines. The aspens on the east slope of the Sierra had turned, spilling down the mountainside creekbeds like flumes of fire. And the lake’s surface was paved with grebes. 

The bird traffic at Mono is seasonal. The California gulls had reared their young and dispersed, some to their urban parking-lot niche. The migrant Wilson’s and red-necked phalaropes had come and gone. October was the time of the grebes, over a million of them. They had gathered from freshwater marshes and prairie potholes all over the interior West to feast on Artemia monica, the lake’s endemic brine shrimp.  

The grebes have been known to consume 83 percent of the standing crop of shrimp in one season. They don’t even leave the lake to drink; the bodies of the shrimp satisfy their need for water. Fattening to the point of obesity, the birds molt their flight feathers and their flight muscles lose up to half their mass. If you’re going to be flightless, Mono Lake is a relatively safe place: There aren’t that many predators capable of snatching a grebe off the water. Toward the end of the season, the wing feathers grow back in, body fat is converted to breast muscle, and the grebes begin to work out, flapping their way along the lake surface. And one day they’re off again, on the last leg of the journey that will take some of them to San Francisco Bay. 

Watching all this natural plenitude—the grebes, the brine flies in windrows on the shore—it’s easy to forget that we almost lost this whole ecosystem. Twenty-five years ago, I wouldn’t have expected the spectacle of the grebes to last until the next turn of the century. 

The creeks that fed the lake were being diverted to supply water to Los Angeles, and the lake was shrinking, becoming too saline to support even the brine shrimp and brine fly larvae. One of the islands where the gulls nested had turned into a peninsula, a causeway for coyotes and other predators. Alkali dust from what once was lakebed blew across Highway 395. 

But, thanks to a visionary named David Gaines (who, tragically, didn’t live to see the result) and a handful of activists, Mono Lake is still alive. The courts reduced the diversion, and L.A. had to take water conservation seriously. The lake began to fill up again; some of the tufa towers that had been high and dry on my last visit now have their feet wet. We’re still a long way from the days when Mono attracted great flocks of ducks and geese, along with the gulls, phalaropes, and grebes. But it’s a beginning. 

Between the grebes on the lake and the grebes on the Bay, of course, lay the election. I had spent the intervening month in deep red states, carefully not talking politics with my relatives, and watched the returns in a Motel 6 in Bakersfield. And I came back to Berkeley in the state of shock that I suspect was prevalent here. 

Forget, for the moment, Social Security, the Supreme Court, the war in Iran (not a typo): It’s going to be a really bad four years, at least, for the environment. We’ll probably lose the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge now. As I write this, the Bush administration has just brushed off an independent report on the effects of global warming in the Arctic. Russia, Canada, the Scandinavian countries, the indigenous peoples want action; the U.S. wants to study the problem a bit longer. 

At a time like this, it’s salutary to remember when Mono Lake felt like a lost cause. And there are causes now that may not be as lost as we think. It’s going to be a long hard slog, but at least we don’t have to worry about being lulled into complacency and then sold out by the Democrats. The national arena isn’t the only game, if you look both to the local and the global. There’s a whole slew of groups doing good work—restoring native ecosystems, groundtruthing the data in bird and butterfly counts, straining their eyes on the fine print of government documents, lobbying, litigating—that could use your support, financial or otherwise. 

Hubris may yet take Bush’s gang down. Meanwhile, we can’t afford the luxury of despair. As Mother Jones (the labor leader, not the magazine) said, we need to be prepared to mourn the dead—and I’m afraid we’ll have many occasions to do that—and fight like hell for the living.