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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.