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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.