Riverton Sandy Bar Day Trip

IBA Program Assistant Marshall Birch tells a tale of boatin’ n’ birdin’.

3:30 in the morning is not a time I would usually choose to wake up, but if it means I get to ride around in a boat and stroll on a beach instead of being in the office for a day, I’m in. This was the agenda for July 7th, when Tim and myself would be heading to the Riverton Sandy Bar IBA to meet up with caretaker Joanne Smith for a tour around the IBA. This would be Tim’s first visit to the IBA, and while I had seen it last year, it was in quite different shape this summer. Water levels were lower, meaning quite a bit more of the area was above water. What could this mean for bird populations? We aimed to find out.

Riverton Sandy Bar IBA labelled on map.

Riverton Sandy Bar IBA labelled on map.

We had planned to meet Joanne and her husband Dave at the junction of Highways 8 and 329, just West of the town of Riverton, at 6:30, and we had both actually managed to get out of bed early enough to beat them there. This left us some time to explore the exciting boomtown that is Riverton. In particular, we were interested in catching a glimpse of their famed “Lundi Moose,” Riverton’s town statue (every town in Manitoba needs one, right?). Sure enough we found it, surrounded by a nice assortment of Robins and Warblers singing in the trees. “Lundi,” meaning “grove of trees” in Icelandic, was the original name of this settlement along the Icelandic River, which feeds into Lake Winnipeg. We headed back to the highway to find Joanne and Dave with boat in tow, and followed them back through Riverton to a dock on the Icelandic River. There had been some speculation that the water might be a bit too rough for boating, but things seemed pretty calm so we headed out. We followed the river out to Lake Winnipeg, or more specifically, to a bay on the West side of the lake that is surrounded on the North and East sides by Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park. To the South is a long sandy bar jutting out from the main land, which has historically reached all the way to Hecla Island at times. It is this bar that gives the IBA its name, as it is here that much of the bird species are found.

A flock of pelicans. Photo by Joanne Smith.

A flock of pelicans. Photo by Joanne Smith.

A sand bar also reaches out from the Southwestern point of Hecla Island towards the main land, with little islands poking out between the two bars, though the strip no longer spans all the way across. We headed straight across to the Hecla side first, as it is contained within the IBA, and because it was the smarter/safer boating route to take (I think?). Despite viewing from a distance in a somewhat rocky boat, we counted around 100 American White Pelicans, 150 Franklin’s Gulls, 40 Ring-billed Gulls, 35 Common Terns (including 3 fledgling young), 20 Herring Gulls, 2 Bonaparte’s Gulls, and about 25 other gulls that were likely Herring or Ring-billed, but which we were unable to identify for certain.

Myself, Dave, and Tim havin' a look around the sand bar. Photo by Joanne Smith.

Myself, Dave, and Tim havin’ a look around the sand bar. Photo by Joanne Smith.

Following this we headed West to the sand bar which was attached to the mainland. There were a few sandy islands near the tip of the bar itself, and it was here that we found the largest numbers of birds – over 200 Herring Gulls, 24 American White Pelicans, 13 Double-crested Cormorants, along with one Bonaparte’s and one Ring-billed Gull. We were able to pull the boat on shore and hop off to explore the bar by foot. Not wanting to disturb the larger flocks, we headed a ways down the bar before pulling in. There were less species here, but we were able to get a good look at the habitat and check for signs of nesting. Several nests were found, but they looked like they had been abandoned, quite possibly due to a loss of eggs following heavy storms the previous weekend. Aside from the previously mentioned birds, we identified two Common Goldeneyes, one Song Sparrow, one Red-winged Blackbird, three Common Grackles, and one Common Tern, which seemed agitated by us, suggesting a nest nearby. Also of note was a heavily picked-on beaver carcass. What’s a beaver doing on a sand bar anyways? We figured it was washed up, or maybe even carried there by an Eagle or Hawk.

Manitoba IBA Program Steering Committee member, Bonnie Chartier,  hammering in a sign warning visitors of nesting birds.

Manitoba IBA Program Steering Committee member, Bonnie Chartier, hammering in a sign warning visitors of nesting birds. Photo by Joanne Smith.

We hopped back in the boat and trawled along the marshy coast for a while, hoping to see something of interest. For a moment we thought we saw a couple of shorebirds in flight, but they disappeared into the tall grasses before we could get a good view of them. Next we thought we spotted the head of an interesting species of waterfowl poking out of a clearing in the marsh. It looked goose-like but was oddly fully grey. Even stranger was that it seemed to be able to keep perfectly still, despite us moving in closer for inspection – an inspection that revealed it to be a grey, plastic goose decoy. We were left to question all we had known to be true, as Dave took us back to the Icelandic River. Before getting back to the dock we were able to spot an Orchard Oriole singing from a tree along the banks, as well as four Barn Swallows, which seemed to be living in a big old fishing boat that had been hauled on land. Boat Swallows?

Herring Gulls with chick. Photo by Joanne Smith.

Herring Gulls with chick. Photo by Joanne Smith.

Joanne and Dave hitched up the boat and we headed East of town on the 329, to the main entrance to the IBA. We ignored a gazebo inhabited by Barn Swallows (we’d already seen some that day, and Joanne had been watching them throughout the year), left Dave to do some fishing, and took a stroll down the beach. Due to the lower water levels, the entire sand bar was walkable – last year much of it was underwater. We walked down to about where we had parked the boat on the bar earlier, seeing a nice assortment of birds on the way. We identified one of each of the following: adult and immature Bald Eagle, Sora, Double-crested Cormorant, Canada Goose, Purple Martin, and American Goldfinch; along with two Barn Swallows, two Cedar Waxwings, three Marsh Wrens, four Yellow Warblers, five Song Sparrows, and five Red-winged Blackbirds.

Common Terns. Photo by Joanne Smith.

Common Terns. Photo by Joanne Smith.

To our disappointment, we also saw plenty of ATV (all-terrain vehicle) tracks, along with scattered litter (mostly beer cans). The species that nest on this sand bar are in an unfortunate position – if water is high, people aren’t able to easily access and disturb the area, but their nests may be washed out; if water is low, their nests are generally safe from inundation, but they face the risk of being trampled by feet or crushed under vehicle tires. Whether disturbance of the sandbar in this manner reflects a lack of concern for nesting species, or simply a lack of awareness of them, it can and does do real harm to these birds. This harm is reflected in diminishing numbers of many species, which have been recorded over the past several decades – a notable example being the provincially and nationally endangered Piping Plover, which has not been seen at the Riverton Sandy Bar since 1991. While the sandy bar faces threats just as any habitat near to human settlement will, it remains a thriving home to many nesting and migrating birds, and is well worth a visit to anyone interested in seeing large flocks of waterbirds while enjoying a fine day on the beach.

Oak Hammock Marsh Day Trip

Program Assistant Marshall Birch recounts the his first trip of the summer with the Manitoba IBA Program.

We’d been in the office for a couple of weeks, and with our trip to the Southwestern Manitoba Mixed-Grass Prairie IBA a few weeks away, Tim decided we should get out for a day to visit a nearby IBA. Today we’d be visiting what is likely the province’s most well-known IBA, and a generally popular place for birding and nature outings of all kind – Oak Hammock Marsh. There was no specific goal for the day, but its always worthwhile to periodically stop in at some of the local IBAs to take a look around. In addition, I was getting a bit of a refresher on bird counting, as this would be my first official trip out with the IBA Program since last summer.

Oak Hammock Directions

Directions from Winnipeg to Oak Hammock Marsh

For those unfamiliar with the site: Oak Hammock Marsh lies about half an hour North of Winnipeg, between Highways 7 and 8, or about midway between Stonewall and Selkirk. The marsh has been restored and managed since the 1960’s through a partnership between the Federal and Provincial Governments and Ducks Unlimited Canada. Today it boasts an extensive system of walking paths, an interpretive centre, and a cafe, helping to make it a popular destination for conservationists, school field trips, birders, nature lovers, and anyone who wants to get out of the city for a day. The marsh is semi-artificial, having water levels in separate cells being controlled with pumps. These levels are cycled to mimic natural conditions, and oftentimes one part of the marsh will present an entirely different habitat from another. While the main paths near the parking lot and interpretive centre are the most popular, the site is far more extensive than the area most visitors see, including grassland habitat to the North.

Killdeer. Photo by Donna Martin.

Killdeer. Photo by Donna Martin.

We headed out on a sunny morning on June 3rd, arriving before too many groups of school children took over the trails to run and shout and frighten away the birds. On pulling into the parking lot we were met with a pair of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, an Eastern Kingbird, and most interestingly, a couple of Killdeer protecting their nest. They seemed a little stressed out, but they may have brought that upon themselves by placing their nest directly on the path to the boardwalk, which is likely crossed hundreds of times a day by visitors and workers. It was symbolically protected by a couple sticks surrounding it and marking it out. I reminded myself not to step there on the way back.

Northern Harrier cropped

Northern Harrier. Photo by Christian Artuso.

We started along the short boardwalk towards the first observation mound which leads to the Cattail Trail. Along the way were a good sampling of marshy passerines, either seen or heard: Sedge Wren, Savannah, Song, Swamp, and Clay-coloured Sparrows, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Brown-headed Cowbird, and Alder Flycatcher were all identified. Way on up we could see a good amount of American White Pelicans soaring about (we counted around fifty by the end of the day), along with a few Northern Harriers.

Wilson's Phalarope. Photo by Tim Poole.

Wilson’s Phalarope. Photo by Tim Poole.

We continued to the fist observation mound, known for the Swallows which nest in the gazebo (primarily Barn Swallows, but also a few Bank and Tree Swallows were seen), and its Ground Squirrel colony. From there we followed the Cattail Trail between Cell 1 and the Coot Cell, and further on between Cell 1 and Cell 2, all the way over to the East observation mound. On either side of us was fairly high water, which meant the majority of our sightings were of waterfowl: Mallards and Canada Geese galore, as well as good numbers of Gadwalls, Blue-winged Teals, Northern Shovelers, Redheads, American Coots, and Wilson’s Phalaropes, a few Lesser Scaups, Ruddy Ducks, Soras, Wood Ducks, and Ring-necked Ducks, one Pie-billed Grebe, and one Eared Grebe.

A couple Marbled Godwits. Photo by Christian Artuso.

A couple Marbled Godwits. Photo by Christian Artuso.

Further off in the distance of Cell 2, shallower water made good foraging territory for a fairly large group of shorebirds, primarily dominated by Stilt Sandpipers, with a few Marbled Godwits, Willets, and Baird’s Sandpipers scattered about. Other species of interest included Ring-billed Gulls, Black Terns, and of course, more Red-winged Blackbirds than you could shake a stick at. Finally, upon reaching the East observation mound, we spotted a Bobolink – the first I’d ever seen. This seemed like a good enough reason for me to go celebrate with lunch at the interpretive centre, so we headed back. On our way we spotted a large flock of shorebirds circling about. They were difficult to identify in flight from such a distance, and when they finally came down they were primarily out of our view. Tim suggested I go eat while he chased down the flock to see what we were dealing with. I headed back to find that the cafe was closed due to some issues with their water supply, so I got myself a vending machine orange juice and hunkered down to watch a couple of Barn Swallows take turns sipping from a water fountain and battling each other (it was pretty entertaining). Tim arrived with news that the flock seemed to be primarily White-rumped Sandpipers, though there was also a Dunlin in there, and since he wasn’t able to see all of them, the flock were simply recorded as “shorebirds” – around 600 of them.

Bobolink. Photo by Christian Artuso.

Bobolink. Photo by Christian Artuso.

Following this, we drove North along Highway 220 to see what else the site had to offer. Here I’d thought the Oak Hammock Marsh was all, well, marsh. Not so. A turn on the 220 takes you West then North along a stretch of tall-grass prairie which contrasts with the marshier areas that most visitors are familiar with. We stopped and got out periodically to survey and found seven more Bobolinks, as well as eleven Savannah Sparrows, a couple Clay-coloured Sparrows, a Western Meadowlark, a few Yellow-headed Blackbirds, an Eastern Kingbird, and a pile of Red-winged Blackbirds. We drove to the Northern limit of the IBA, to a bridge swarmed by its own assortment of Swallows – this time primarily Tree Swallows – before heading back in hopes of beating rush hour.

All in all a fine day was had – we got out of the office, did some bird counts, explored an area of the IBA that I hadn’t been familiar with, and somewhere in there I had a pretty tasty apple. I was prepared for Southwestern Manitoba now.

Southwestern Mixed-grass Prairie IBA Weekend – Day 4, Whitewater Lake IBA and a Field Sparrow

Tim Poole, Manitoba Important Bird Area Program Coordinator, describes the final day of the Southwestern Mixed-grass Prairie IBA weekend.

So thanks Marshall for the fantastic trip reports from days 1-3 of our southwestern odyssey. After our 2nd Chicken Chef of the trip, Garry, Bonnie, Ken and Marshall departed on long journeys. This left Christian and me in the company of Colin and Karla for the remainder of the day. At this point I managed to introduce the others to a favourite pastime of mine – driving aimlessly around small towns looking for something. We were searching for the Antler River Historical Society Museum having been given reports of Chimney Swifts entering the chimney. Originally I intended to go in the evening but by this point, tiredness had caught up with everyone and I decided just to take a look instead.

Returning to Tilston, it was time to take a rest. Downtime is also a great excuse to explore and I took a walk through the town. Tilston has an interesting history. Apparently it was once a bustling town with a station on the Canadian Pacific Railway. The town is now much smaller than at its peak, the school has been abandoned (http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/sites/tilstonschool.shtml) and derelict houses have been demolished. The large grain elevators and other farm buildings are still a sign that this is old arable country which contrasted a bit to the prairie pastures further east and south.

Wetlands surrounding Tilston are home to an abundance of birds and other wildlife. Photo by Tim Poole

Wetlands surrounding Tilston are home to an abundance of birds and other wildlife. Photo by Tim Poole

The storm clouds were gathering over Saskatchewan and North Dakota by mid-afternoon and heading our way. There remained a fair few birds around including Say’s Phoebe, Sora, Western Meadowlark, blackbirds and various waterfowl. Soon after the rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning were over us and it was time to retire to a dry building.

Sora, a common species of rail heard whinnying frequently on wetlands around Manitoba. Photo by Tim Poole

Sora, a common species of rail heard whinnying frequently on wetlands around Manitoba. Photo by Tim Poole

The combination of storm, tiredness and the fact we had seen pretty much everything there was to see meant that we avoided any further birdwatching that night. The following morning Christian and I set off early for a visit to Whitewater Lake IBA. This was my first visit to this site apart from during the depths of winter and I was excited by the prospect of seeing some of its rich birdlife and getting to find out a bit more about one of Manitoba’ best known IBA’s.

It had been mentioned by various people that Whitewater Lake had expanded somewhat since the original IBA boundary had been determined. It is well known that we are currently experiencing a period of high water levels across Manitoba, maybe not quite the resurgence of Lake Agassiz, but still, enough to significantly alter habitats over a wide landscape. The area outside the IBA is currently very important for birdlife, with large bodies of temporary water, small wetlands, muddy scrapes for shorebirds and temporary pools in the middle of agricultural fields in abundance. There were also a number of Ducks Unlimited signs highlighting Conservation Easements and Wetland Restoration Projects. It was pretty obvious that the last few years must have hit local farmers hard, with entire arable fields now under water or covered in cattails rather than arable crops. It’s amazing to see how quickly nature will re-establish itself when the opportunity presents itself.

Part of the western end of Whitewater Lake which would previously have been a combination of agricultural field and wetland. Photo by Tim Poole

Part of the western end of Whitewater Lake which would previously have been a combination of agricultural field and wetland. Photo by Tim Poole

Unfortunately at this point I should say that I doubt we managed to get as far as entering the IBA itself. The main viewing mound to the south is now inaccessible and the roads were too tricky on the day due to the heavy overnight rainfall, to enter on either the north or west. Ironically from a birding point of view, this would not matter so much but from the point of view of our Caretakers Colin and Gillian, this must be frustrating. The area as I previously mentioned was teeming with birdlife. The highlights for me, still so new to Canada, were 2 lifers. The first being the White-faced Ibis. These colonial nesting birds are relative newcomers to Manitoba having only begun to appear as the water levels began increasing during the last 10 years. My 2nd lifer was a California Gull which is a rare breeder but more common visitor to Manitoba.

Not a California Gull or Ibis maybe but this Virginia Rail peeked his head through the grass at Whitewater Lake IBA. Photo by Tim Poole

Not a California Gull or Ibis maybe but this Virginia Rail peeked his head through the grass at Whitewater Lake IBA. Photo by Tim Poole

Other species of interest included cracking views of a Virginia Rail, a pair of Upland Sandpipers, Great White Egret, American Bittern, Great Blue Heron, Ring-necked Duck, Swainson’s Hawk, Sora, 4 species of grebe, Willet, Avocet, Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Phalarope, Brown Thrasher. In total 71 species in just a short visit and a great introduction for me for this IBA. It did occur to both of us though that we might need to look at that IBA boundary again at some point.

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We left Whitewater and headed north towards Highway 1. We took a quick detour to look for the Field Sparrow north of Souris and secured my 3rd lifer of the day in the process. Field Sparrows are another vagrant which usually breed in the eastern USA as far north as southern areas of Minnesota and North Dakota. This particular bird has been in this spot the last couple of years so he obviously likes it! We also had great views of Lark Sparrow and a further 30 species. Back on the road and heading for home via the Sioux Valley to look for Yellow-breasted Chat, another Manitoba rarity. This time, for the first time all weekend we were unsuccessful. It was pretty windy and we wondered if on a better day we might have heard it. Since then Garry Budyk and John Weier managed to hear one in that spot, so obviously we missed out!

Field Sparrow in song. Photo copyright Christian Artuso (http://artusophotos.com/)

Field Sparrow in song. Photo copyright Christian Artuso (http://artusophotos.com/)

Then it really was heading home. At this point I wanted to thank everyone for making this weekend a success, landowners, volunteers, Christian (driver and birdwatcher extraordinaire), Bonnie, Garry, Colin, Karla, Ken, Marshall, Alex, Colin and Gillian. Carrying out single day IBA blitzes to census bird populations is likely to be an important tool to increase the area covered and accuracy of our IBA monitoring. Watch this space for more news on this front in the future.

Southwestern Mixed-grass Prairie IBA Weekend – Day 3, Blitzing for Endangered Species

Manitoba Important Bird Area Program Assistant, Marshall Birch gives us the lowdown on his final day of our Southwestern Mixed-grass Prairie IBA visit.

My final day in the Southwestern Manitoba Mixed-Grass IBA began by being woken at around two in the morning by what I think was some sort of Grouse cooing and clucking and gurgling about, seemingly half a foot from my head. After a couple more hours of sleep I was up to another granola bar breakfast, graciously provided by Tim, as I hadn’t thought to prepare morning sustenance. No time for coffee this morning, I was running a little late and had to pack my tent up before we headed out.

The early start and dim light makes birding by ear the priority. Photo by Tim Poole

The early start and dim light makes birding by ear the priority. Photo by Tim Poole

While the previous two days I had accompanied Bonnie on our drives around the IBA, this morning I would be riding with Christian. Today was the day we hoped to ensure the site’s designation as a globally significant IBA. While it already hit the targets for national IBA status, as of previous counts it had fallen short of targets for global status – this we hoped to remedy by identifying at least thirty Sprague’s Pipits (a globally vulnerable species), and at least ninety Chestnut-collared Longspurs (a globally near-threatened species). To do this we would have to survey every stretch of viable habitat in one of the provinces larges IBAs, which meant splitting the area up into five sections, and sending one team of two to each section. Christian and I were assigned the Southeastern corner – Section Five. Other teams involved were Colin Blyth and Gillian Richards in the Northeast, Bonnie and Colin in the northwest, Ken and Karla in the centre (and freestyling wherever Ken felt like going) and Garry and Tim in the southwest. We also had help from the Burrowing Owl Program team in a top secret location….

The wonderful Chestnut-collared Longspur, globally listed as Near-threatened by IUCN. The characterful display flight and bold colouring really does make this one of the birding highlights of the prairie. Photo copyright Christian Artuso (http://artusophotos.com/)

The wonderful Chestnut-collared Longspur, globally listed as Near-threatened by IUCN. The characterful display flight and bold colouring really does make this one of the birding highlights of the prairie. Photo copyright Christian Artuso (http://artusophotos.com/)

First step was getting me up to speed on using the GPS (global positioning system) unit – something I’d somehow avoided throughout my entire Geography degree. My job would primarily consist of using the GPS, as well as good old pen and paper, to record locations of birds Christian identifies. I managed to hear or sight many of what Christian caught, but it made more sense to have the much more experienced birder in charge of finding the birds. After twisting and turning all around our section for hours, periodically getting out to look, listen, and occasionally tromp through a pasture when we’d find a suitable one, we managed to find nine Sprague’s Pipits and thirty Chestnut-collared Longspurs – if everyone else did as well we’d easily meet our goal, so we were feeling good.

The tumbling flight song of the Sprague's Pipit is increasingly rare to hear. Seeing a Sprague's Pipit on the ground is even rarer. Photo copyright Christian Artuso (http://artusophotos.com/)

The tumbling flight song of the Sprague’s Pipit is increasingly rare to hear. Seeing a Sprague’s Pipit on the ground is even rarer. Photo copyright Christian Artuso (http://artusophotos.com/)

To make things a bit easier, we had a map of sites where the Pipits and Longspurs had recently been sighted, colour-coded so we’d know which property we were allowed on (a few sites) and which we weren’t (the majority of sites). We’d generally spend a bit more time surveying these sites, usually turning up one or two species of interest. While we were only recording sightings of endangered or threatened species – Pipits, Longspurs, Baird’s Sparrows (we saw four), and Bobolinks (we saw lots) – there were a good deal of other interesting species to find as well. A few Great Horned Owls were perched on an abandoned house, several Soras were seen peeking through the grass or speeding across the road, a Mountain Bluebird crossed the Souris River with us, a Ring-necked Pheasant was spotted on a landowner’s driveway, several Sharp-tailed Grouse were seen together (which may have suggested a lek nearby), as well as the regular host of waterfowl, Kingbirds, Blackbirds, Meadowlarks, Snipes, Upland Sandpiper, etc.

The ungainly and slightly cartoon-like looking Upland Sandpiper is a regular occurrence in southwestern Manitoba. Photo by Tim Poole

The ungainly and slightly cartoon-like looking Upland Sandpiper is a regular occurrence in southwestern Manitoba. Photo by Tim Poole

A good portion of our section was dominated by tilled farmland which is not suitable for any of the species we were looking for, so we were able to breeze through a decent amount of it. This was convenient, as we had agreed to meet the other teams at one o’clock back at the Chicken Chef in Melita, and had already spent most of our time around the marked areas with past sightings. Satisfied that we’d thoroughly investigated all likely sighting locations, we headed back to Melita to see how everyone else had done and have some lunch. There was good news to be had – between the five groups we had reached 227 Chestnut-collared Longspurs and over 30 Sprague’s Pipits. The exact number of Pipits is still being determined, as there may have been a few repeats, but we are confident that even considering these, we will have over 30 sightings.

Back to Melita to be welcomed by a smiling Banana with a Blue Jay on its shoulder. The Blue Jay's t-shirt has 'IBA' written on it! Photo (taken from a moving vehicle) by Tim Poole

Back to Melita to be welcomed by a smiling Banana with a Blue Jay on its shoulder. The Blue Jay’s t-shirt has ‘IBA’ written on it! Photo (taken from a moving vehicle) by Tim Poole

The weekend was declared a success! After a gourmet meal at Chicken Chef, we parted ways. Tim and Christian stayed an extra day to do some more surveying, while Bonnie and myself headed home. Bonnie had been given directions to locate a Field Sparrow just West of Souris, so we decided to try to find it. We were not successful, but it was only a short side-trip, so no big loss. On the ride home, I noticed how few birds there were. I had previously had the feeling that we were just seeing more species in the IBA because we were focused on finding them, and that if you were as tried you could identify similar numbers all over the province. This did not seem to be the case. IBAs are special places, not just because they provide habitat for a few threatened or endangered species, but because they are filled with interesting birds of all kinds. While many different species of birds can be found in all areas of the province, IBAs are key sites where especially large numbers can be seen over relatively small areas.