North, East and West Shoal Lakes IBA – Trip Report

by Marshall Birch, IBA Program Assistant

The North, West, and East Shoal Lakes area – not to be confused with the town of Shoal Lake in Western Manitoba, or the Shoal Lake in Western Ontario that Winnipeg receives its water supply from – is a vibrant and easily accessible Important Bird Area (IBA) located in the southern portion of the Interlake area, under an hour North-West of Winnipeg. We visited the area to meet with IBA Caretaker Donna Martin, deliver IBA signs for the site, and take a look around.

IBA_-_shoal_-_pelican

American White Pelican – Photo by Donna Martin.

The N,W and E Shoal Lakes were originally one lake. With the construction of the Wagon Creek drain in 1912, water levels fell four to five meters and separated the Lake into three distinct cells now known as the North, West, and East Shoal Lakes. All three lakes have shallow, marshy edges and provide excellent habitat for waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds alike, with American White Pelican, Cackling Goose, Snow Goose, and Piping Plover being the IBA trigger species for the area.

IBA_-_shoal_-_kilderr

Kildeer – Photo by Donna Martin.

To access West Shoal Lake, we headed up Highway 6 and turned North onto PR 518 at the small town of Woodlands. The gravel road runs along the West side of West Shoal Lake, with the water coming right up to the roadside ditches. You could have a successful day of birdwatching just by driving slowly along and keeping your eyes peeled, though pulling over on this very low-traffic road to take a look is definitely worth your time. PR 518 / Ideal Road will take you all the way up to Highway 229, which runs along the North edge of North Shoal Lake. While there are a few turn-offs along the way to get in closer to the lakes in certain areas, including PR 415 which runs between the lakes, the conditions of these roads are likely to vary with weather conditions, and we found quite a few “road closed” signs. This, along with time constraints, kept us from visiting East Shoal Lake, though the West and North lakes provided us with a satisfyingly large selection of bird species.

IBA_-_Shoal_-_Great_Egret

Great Egret – Photo by Donna Martin.

American White Pelicans were definitely in abundance, whether soaring overhead in groups or resting on the lake. We were also able to spot a good number of Great Egrets as well. Other birds of special interest included a number of Great Blue Herons and Black-crowned Night-Herons, several Eared Grebes, many Killdeer on the road (one performing it’s “broken-wing act” rather exuberantly to distract us from its nest), a Double-Crested Cormorant, and one Least Bittern (at North Shoal Lake). Ina addition, we spotted Mallards, Blue-winged Teals, Canada Geese, Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, American Coots, Lesser Scaups, Canvasbacks – along with numerous Franklin’s Gulls, Black Terns, Red-winged Blackbirds and Tree Swallows.

iba_-_shoal_-_yellow_headed_blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird – Photo by Donna Martin.

The proximity to major centres, such as Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie, combined with the ease of access to viewing areas, make the Shoal Lakes IBA an ideal birding destination for those looking for a day trip out of the city. The diversity of birds visible from the roadside was impressive enough that any serious boating would be unnecessary for anyone but the more serious and experienced birders. Still, for those willing to go the extra mile, one could imagine a boat could allow opportunities for even more incredible birdwatching. The Shoal Lakes should definitely be a destination in mind for any Manitoban interested in birding.

Grant’s Lake and Oak Hammock Marsh IBA – Trip Report

by Marshall Birch, IBA Program Assistant

Our second Important Bird Area (IBA) trip of the season involved visiting two IBAs not far from Winnipeg – Grant’s Lake and Oak Hammock Marsh. The two provided an interesting contrast between a pair of IBAs that have received very different levels of exposure, funding, and conservation work. Oak Hammock Marsh is probably the most well-known wetland in Manitoba, and has become a popular day-trip destination for Winnipeggers looking to get out of the city and see some wildlife, due to its well-maintained trails and impressive interpretive centre. Grant’s Lake is somewhere near the opposite end of the spectrum. Somewhat difficult to locate down backroads half-an-hour-or-so North-West of Winnipeg, signage is sparse – the main welcoming sign, which signifies the site as a Wildlife Management Area, is toppled over along side a waterway at the edge of the site. Luckily for us, birds don’t visit IBAs for their infrastructure, so both sites provided exciting birding opportunities.

IBA_-_grant_s_-_broadwinged_hawk

Red-tailed Hawk – Photo by Donna Martin.

After a few wrong turns near the town of Grosse Isle, and a chance sighting of a group of five Sandhill Cranes in a nearby agricultural field, we were able to locate the Grant’s Lake IBA. Unlike our past trip to Whitewater Lake, water levels did not seem especially high – in fact, it was difficult to assess exactly where the lake actually was from the viewing points we were able to access. Information on the lake, including its condition this season, was not easy to find, though it is evident that what we were able to see were actually marshy, stream-like ditches that radiate out from the centre of the IBA where the lake itself lies. These waterways were created by Ducks Unlimited, with the goal of separating the area into various sites to promote a larger diversity of species within the region. Historically, the lake had been much larger. Recent and past activities such as irrigation for the agricultural land that surrounds the site have shrunken Grant’s Lake to a much smaller version of what it once was. Still, the area is a hotspot for waterfowl, especially migrating Canada and Snow Geese, the two trigger species for this IBA.

iba_-_grant_s_-_canada_geese

Canada Geese with Goslings – Photo by Donna Martin.

Even from the just within the edges of the IBA, barely beyond the managed hunting area that surrounds the site, we were able to view a wide array of waterfowl and other interesting bird species. The site was rife with Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, as well as many waterfowl species such as Mallards, Blue-Winged Teals, Northern Shovelers, and Canada Geese, along with some goslings. The Geese were especially noticeable due to a large amount of boisterous honking that seemed to be coming from the centre of the IBA. Several Red-tailed Hawks were seen, but they tended to quickly take off after being harassed by groups of Red-winged Blackbirds. Near the entrance with the fallen sign was a small bridge over a stream that was inhabited by at least a dozen Barn Swallows, which are a threatened species in Manitoba. Aside from these, we spotted an American Bittern and several Kildeer, as well as one deer, and a decent supply of wood ticks (mostly discovered on the trip home).

iba_-_grant_s_-_american_bittern

American Bittern – Photo by Donna Martin.

Oak Hammock Marsh is much easier to find and access than Grant’s Lake. Admittedly though, what you may gain in accessibility, you may lose in tranquility, as Oak Hammock Marsh is a well-loved and busy place. All the same, when we set out to explore the IBA around two o’clock, we were the only ones on the paths. The site is a man-made freshwater marsh, the construction of which began with efforts to restore the former St. Andrew’s Bog in 1967 with the cooperation of Manitoba Natural Resources, Ducks Unlimited Canada, the federal government, local landowners, and other conservation organizations. The paths, of which there are over 50 kilometres in the entire site, are actually dykes which have been built to separate different cells in the area. The cells represent different wetland ecosystems, with water which enters from nearby Wavey Creek being controlled to regulate levels. The cells are periodically cycled through wet and dry seasons in an attempt to mimic natural cycles, and to provide habitats for different species.

iba_-_oak_hammock_-_black_tern

Black Tern – Photo by Donna Martin.

We only had time to go for a relatively quick walk around the area, seeing the popular Coot and Teal Cells, as well as the boardwalk, these areas provided us with an impressive array of species. Ducks were plentiful, especially on the Southern end of the Coot Trail, with Mallards, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Blue-winged Teals, American Coots, Redheads, and Lesser Scaups being spotted. Both cells had been left with fairly high water levels, so few shorebirds were seen, though we did see several Kildeer, as well as a pair of Willets calling loudly and performing courtship rituals. The Teal Cell had an large number of Black Terns, which nest at Oak Hammock Marsh, as well as many Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. The boardwalk and area around the interpretive centre and parking lot had many Tree Swallows swooping about, as well as Purple Martins at the bird houses, and Yellow Warblers in the trees. We noticed a few Barn Swallow nests in a gazebo near the boardwalk, one of which contained Swallow hatchlings, though no adults were spotted.

iba_-_oak_hammock_-_willet

Willet – Photo by Donna Martin.

For the less serious birder, or someone just looking for a nice day out at a marsh, Oak Hammock Marsh is likely the better bet. Interpretive signage allows you to learn as you explore, and more amenities, such as bathrooms, drink machines, and a parking lot, may make the trip more comfortable for some. It’s worthwhile stopping in the interpretive centre before going for a hike as well, as the many labelled taxidermied species will help you determine what you’re seeing around the marsh. If you have the extra time however, along with an interest in local wetlands and bird species, Grant’s Lake is worth the trip. It would be especially rewarding to visit with a canoe or boat, which would allow you access to the central lake. For those looking for a quieter setting, Grant’s Lake may in fact be your first choice over Oak Hammock Marsh. For serious birders in the area, it would be highly recommended to visit both areas, whether at different times on a combined trip.

Whitewater Lake IBA – Trip Report

by Marshall Birch, IBA Program Assistant

On June 5, 2014 the Manitoba IBA team met with Dale Banman, Economic Development Officer with the Turtle Mountain Community Development Corporation, to visit Whitewater Lake on our first tour of a Manitoba Important Bird Area (IBA) of the season.

Whitewater Lake is a moderately-saline, alkaline lake, located in southwestern Manitoba between the towns of Boissevain and Deloraine, just north of the Turtle Mountain Provincial Park. The site has been designated an IBA, primarily due to large populations of waterfowl and shorebirds, with the IBA trigger species being Snow Geese, White-rumped Sandpipers, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Franklin’s Gulls, and Mallards. The lake is also a Provincial Wildlife Management Area, which provides some protection to the area by regulating activities such as logging, hunting, mining, agriculture, and hydroelectric power generation. Our goals were to explore the IBA, learn as much about it as we could from our guide Dale, put up IBA signs, and maybe see a bird or two.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron – Photo by Donna Martin.

Under normal conditions, the lake averages a depth of around two metres. It covers an area of roughly six to ten thousand acres of crown land, which is surrounded by private agricultural land, with some oil drilling development evident along the south shore. The lake has historically been subject to major fluctuations in size and depth. Throughout most of the 1930’s and 1980’s, arid and drought seasons lead it to periodically dry up entirely. Though less common in the past, the lake has also been known to flood into adjacent land during wet seasons, due partly to a lack of any natural outlet for the lake – an issue that has led some to suggest creating an outlet, though this is something of a controversial issue.

Ruddy Duck

Ruddy Duck – Photo by Donna Martin.

Unfortunately, the area has been experiencing high lake levels for about five years, a condition which leads to a poor habitat for shorebirds, and the trend has continued this season. Dykes, which were built by Ducks Unlimited throughout the 1990’s as part of their Habitat Restoration Project with the aim to control lake levels during especially dry or wet years, and which were also used as hiking paths with interpretive signage, have all been breached, leaving little space for viewing. Luckily for us, the area that remained supplied a wide number of species easily viewable from the main drive in.

Wilson's Phalarope

Wilson’s Phalarope – Photo by Donna Martin.

After installing signs which labelled the space as an IBA, we checked out the viewing mound, from which we were able to see a large amount of Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, as well as Barn Swallows, and the occasional indeterminable duck silhouette in the distance. It was when we moved back along the road we had come in on, surrounded by high water, reeds, and cattails, that we were able to view a wider array of species. A pair of Black-crowned Night-Herons were perched in the tall grass along the water’s edge, and Franklin’s Gulls flew over head, diving into the water to hunt near by – both trigger species for the IBA designation of the site. While the high water made for inopportune conditions for shorebirds, we did see some Kildeer and a Wilson’s Phalarope flitting amongst the reeds. The conditions were favourable for waterfowl, however, and we were able to identify many species – Mallards, Ruddy Ducks, American Coots, Canvasbacks, Canada Geese, Snow Geese, Redheads, Northern Shovelers, and Eared Grebes were all seen. One cormorant was spotted as well.

Shoveler

Northern Shoveler – Photo by Donna Martin.

Satisfied that we’d gotten a good look at most of what was accessible of the IBA, we headed off for a quick tour of the surrounding area, which provided viewing opportunities of hawks swooping about in the distance, and many more Red-winged Blackbirds. While it was a shame that so much of the IBA had been inundated with high water levels, there was still plenty to see in the areas that remained accessible. One can imagine how impressive the area could be under ideal conditions – certainly a destination that warrants a return trip.

On the way back along the Number 2 highway we saw a group of Wild Turkeys too!