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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.