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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.