There have been a few changes for the Manitoban IBA Program in the last month. Diana Teal has moved back to Toronto. All those associated with the Manitoba IBA Program wish to thank Diana for her hard work and achievements over the previous year. Our new Manitoba IBA Coordinator writes his 1st blog, introducing himself and sharing some of his background.
Hello, my name is Tim Poole and I am just beginning life as the Manitoba Important Bird Area Coordinator. I have been working on the Manitoba IBA Program for only a couple of weeks so it is about time that I produce a first blogpost. Rather than talk about myself, I thought it might be interesting to blog a bit about some of my past experiences working in IBA’s in Scotland.
I moved to Manitoba in May from the UK with my wife, who is from Winnipeg and son. Before that I worked as the Capercaillie Project Officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Scotland (see here). This was a partnership post, part funded by 2 government agencies, Forestry Commission Scotland (see here) and Scottish Natural Heritage (see here) and was a focal point for advocating conservation management for the western capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) in Scotland.
So what is a capercaillie? It is a large grouse, the world’s largest in fact. The common name comes from Scots Gaelic and is translated depending on what you read as ‘horse of the woods’ or ‘great cock of the woods’. Although globally not endangered, being found across the Boreal forests of Fennoscandia and Russia, the capercaillie has declined in the western and southern parts of its range. Recent estimates in Scotland are of a population around 1280 birds with the population increasingly being confined to a single area in the Cairngorm National Park (the BTO Atlas demonstrates the range decline since 1968 here).
Wherever capercaillie occur in the world it is likely that blue whortleberry (Vaccinium myrtilis) (known as blaeberry in Scotland and bilberry in England) is nearby. Adults feed on the leaves, shoots and fruits but these plants are vitally important for young chicks which require an abundance of invertebrates in the early weeks of life. Like spruce grouse, capercaillie feed on conifer needles in winter, hence one writer describing them as having ‘the most boring diet’ in the bird world.
The IBA situation in the UK is very different, and somewhat confusing. For starters, we never referred to those 3 letters because of another 3 letters, SPA. SPA stands for ‘Special Protection Area’ and all IBA’s are also SPA’s. SPA’s are legally protected under the European Union Birds Directive, and each country is obliged to implement it, meaning that the UK Government and Scottish Governments are legally responsible for maintaining site condition.
This is where my role became relevant. I was responsible for providing advice to government and landowners on best practice management for capercaillie in the SPA’s of which there were 11 all of them covered by IBAs.
Many, but not all the SPA’s, are also protected for their important habitat (less than 1% of the original Caledonian pinewood and bog woodland remains) and other bird species (e.g. Scottish crossbill, osprey, golden eagle). Cooperation between forest managers, government and conservation bodies ensured that conservation was prioritised in these sites and indeed in adjacent sites. Timber harvesting was possible as long as it was planned sensitively and forest thinning, opening up the canopy in dense plantations was indeed beneficial to wildlife.
Capercaillie are a lekking species (lek = ‘to play’ in Swedish), where males display in close proximity in spring to attract females. Each spring, a team of volunteers, including estate staff, counted the total number of cocks attending leks. Many volunteers sleep overnight in canvas hides, approximately 4 foot square. Scotland is famous for its fabulous weather, so anyone staying overnight was advised to use a bivvy bag to keep the rain off their body.
Capercaillie are an early riser, beginning to call around 0430 just after the tawny owl ceases to hoot. They carry on calling, strutting, ‘flutter jumping’ and occasionally fighting until the hens have left the area and the sun has risen. Hens can visit multiple leks on any given morning and will bide their time before mating. During the very peak days, cocks will remain on the lek for extended periods of time, ignoring both the need to feed and conserve energy. This can sometimes leave a tired observer trapped in a hide for much of the day!
Annual counts of lekking capercaillie are used to estimate the population of a site. Much like the Manitoba IBA Program, we relied on the hours and enthusiasm of volunteers to monitor these sites and provide a long-term picture of what is happening. We are therefore keen to recruit more volunteers to the scheme. If you are interested, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (204) 943-9029.