NCC Mixed-Grass Prairie Conservation Workshop, guest blog by Callie Bowman

Callie Bowman has been working as a data reviewer for Christian Artuso since the beginning of July 2015 thanks to a Science Horizons grant (a federal youth employment grant that gives recent grads work experience in their field of interest). During the summer, she assisted with field work looking at avian malaria in Golden-winged Warblers for Chelsea Enslow, a Masters student from the University of Manitoba. Since then, she has assisted Christian, gaining experience in grant writing, database management, bird surveys and preparing various publications. Here Callie blogs about a meeting she attended earlier this week organised by Nature Conservancy of Canada on the future of Manitoba’s Mixed Grass Prairies.

On Wednesday, October 28, 2015, at the crack of dawn (well actually before dawn), Christian Artuso and I, along with some other folks from the Wildlife Branch of Manitoba Conservation headed off for Melita for the day.  The Nature Conservancy of Canada had organized a Conservation Workshop, aimed at bringing together knowledge and expertise from various groups, organizations and locals who live and work in the Mixed-grass Prairie of the West Souris region.  Luckily the long drive was broken up by a quick stop in Brandon to have breakfast but after that, it was straight on to Melita.

There were roughly 30 people in attendance, representing a wide range of groups including various governmental organizations, NGOs, local Conservation Districts and landowners.  The mix allowed for great conversations, bringing to light new perspectives from lots of different interested parties.

The morning started with some presentations about NCC and specifically what they are doing in the West Souris region, followed by a presentation by Christian about the state of prairie birds in the area.  Unfortunately (as we probably all know), the presentations on the sad state of the mixed-grass prairie and grassland birds in the area left everyone ready to swing in to planning action to come up with ideas of how combat these declines!

CSaveGGUwAACyPg

Christian presenting his talk on grassland birds. Photo taken by Cary Hamel of NCC (@caryhamel)

The afternoon involved a lot of discussion-based activities in small groups.  In my group, we had representation from NCC, Environment Canada, Manitoba Conservation, local Conservation Districts, a local farmer and the local PFRA. We discussed topics such as the pros and cons to economic and energy development in the area, barriers to conservation and strategies moving forward.  The afternoon was concluded with a large group discussion, summarizing what each group had come up with.

As someone who was totally unfamiliar with this ecosystem before arriving at the workshop, I gained a lot of valuable information about the issues that face the Mixed-grass Prairie and possible ways to conserve what we have left for the future.  It was especially valuable having so many parties represented because it allowed for everyone to share knowledge and perspectives from groups who don’t always have the change to sit down and talk to one another. By the end of the day, it seemed everyone was a little more optimistic about what can be done to protect the habitat and species that live there.  One of the continued solutions that kept coming up throughout the afternoon was education (unsurprisingly); all types of education, ranging from programs at local schools, to training farmers on best practices to aid conservation, to signs along roads to educate visitors on important species or habitats in the area.  Lots of positive strategies and lots of excitement!

Then it was home to Winnipeg. Despite it being a long, 14+ hour day, I am very grateful for the opportunity to attend and participate in such an informative and positive day!

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/)

Long gone on migration now, the Sprague’s Pipit is one of the most threatened birds of the Mixed-grass Prairie. Hopefully the outcomes from discussions on Wednesday will lead to a more positive future for birds such as this. Photo copyright Christian Artuso (http://artusophotos.com/)

New IUCN Red List implications for Manitoba’s IBAs

For anyone who has ever visited the great open grasslands of Africa or who cares about the critical role played by scavengers as the great ecosystem cleaners, today has been a wake-up call. IUCN have published their latest Red List of species threatened with extinction and the headlines are sober reading for conservationists:

’24 bird species are now classified as having a higher risk of extinction (either Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered) in the 2015 Red List update of birds, with seven species being upgraded to Critically Endangered. Another 16 bird species have seen their status change from Least Concern (the lowest level of threat) to Near Threatened. 23 species have been downgraded to lower threat categories.’

Back to the vultures, and now 4 of African species are listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ and 2 species as ‘Endangered’. Having seen at least 4 of these species (need to check my notes but Egyptian, White-backed, Lappet-faced and Ruppels Griffon are certainly there), this really is a reality check. The reasons for this terrible state of affairs are varied and rather than state them here, I will leave that up to an excellent guest blog piece by Chris Bowden, RSPB’s Globally Threatened Species Officeron Mark Avery’s blog (Mark is the ex-RSPB Director of Conservation).

vultures-of-africa-extinction

As a native Brit, the new list has now highlighted declines in some of the most iconic species in the UK. Well, iconic in my view anyway! Population declines of farmland and cliff-nesting seabirds were certainly two pressing (and depressing) priorities, rising up the conservation agenda. Familiar species like the Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Eurasian Oystercatcher and Northern Lapwing had their conservation status uplisted, with puffin ‘Vulnerable’ to extinction. The lesser-known (but bird of the year in New Zealand, 2015) Bar-tailed Godwit is also included. Atlantic Puffin was one of the 10 species shortlisted in a recent vote for the National Bird of Great Britain, and although it came tenth (I voted for it), it is still a much-loved species. Just not as loved as the plain garden Robin apparently! The causes of these declines are going to be different for all these species, yet at the root of all of them are the impacts of people on the natural environment.

Northern Lapwings are declining in Europe due to agricultural changes. Photo copyright Tim Poole

Northern Lapwings are declining in Europe due to agricultural changes. Photo copyright Tim Poole

There were 3 other species present in the UK on the list which should be of special interest to people in Manitoba. These are:

  1. Horned Grebe (known as Slavonian Grebe in the UK) (IUCN – Vulnerable)
  2. Common Eider (IUCN – Near threatened)
  3. Red Knot (IUCN – Near threatened)

Of these species, the Horned Grebe and Common Eider both breed in Manitoba.

Horned Grebe has not previously been recognised as a trigger species for any of Manitoba’s IBAs but with this new Red Listing, one or two of our IBAs may now be considered globally important. Birdlife International have identified that this species is undergoing rapid declines due to forestry operations, human disturbance, fluctuating water levels in lakes and introduction of Rainbow Trout. In fact the decline in North America has been -75.9% over 40 years. According to the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas, Horned Grebe breed across Manitoba but concentrate in a few areas, including in and around the southwestern IBAs and the Saskatchewan River Delta IBA. For most birders, Horned Grebe are more regularly recorded on passage, including recently at North, West and Eastern Shoal Lakes IBA (and in the fall near my house in Winnipeg).

Horned Grebe copyright Garry Budyk

Horned Grebe in winter plumage at North, West and East Shoal Lakes IBA. copyright Garry Budyk

Much like another sea duck, the Long-tailed Duck, the Common Eider is not considered endangered in Canada. According to Birdlife International, the recent uplisting to ‘Near-threatened’ is due to slight declines in the European population (>40% over three generations). Here in Manitoba we have the Hudson’s Bay subspecies (c. 6% of the global population) which breed in coastal areas including pools and lagoons in the far north of the province. Although previously considered a trigger species in any of Manitoba’s IBAs, the best place for viewing them is within the Churchill and Vicinity IBA. Indeed, our very own Bonnie Chartier recorded 125 during a trip in June this year. Another IBA with records on eBird for this species is Seal River Estuary IBA, north of Churchill.

Common Eider Ducks on Hudsons Bay. Note the dimorphism between male and female. Photo by Christian Artuso

Common Eider Ducks on Hudsons Bay. Note the dimorphism between male and female. Photo by Christian Artuso

Our final species is the Red Knot. The ‘rufa’ subspecies in North America was already considered as threatened but today we learn that the entire species is now globally ‘Near threatened’. Birdlife International justify the new status as ‘two subpopulations use the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and have experienced significant declines owing to loss of habitat in the Yellow Sea’. They also acknowledge declines in other subpopulations including our own. Red knot do not breed in Manitoba, yet they are often recorded on passage. Again, Churchill and Vicinity IBA is the most important place in Manitoba for this species (3500 were recorded in spring 1974, continental important numbers). Other sites where Red Knot were recorded in 2015 include Riverton Sandy Bar IBA, Whitewater Lake IBA and Delta Marsh IBA.

Red Knots in breeding plumage photographed at Chalet Beach in Netley-Libau Marsh IBA in 2004. Photo copyright, Christian Artuso

Red Knots in breeding plumage photographed at Chalet Beach in Netley-Libau Marsh IBA in 2004. Photo copyright, Christian Artuso

It is not all bad news. Hidden away in the gloom are some conservation success stories, such as the Audouin’s Gull. But the implications are there to see. IBAs are only likely to become more important in the future for declining species of bird, and careful stewardship of Manitoba’s IBAs will be our contribution to a global program of site conservation.

North, West and East Shoal Lake Bird Blitz Part 2

On Saturday October 3rd we returned to the scene of our first fall bird blitz, deciding to give it another go! The first blitz was a great success revealing healthy numbers of birds and a good diversity of species. If you have not read the blog why not take a look here. Tim Poole gives us the lowdown on a good morning out.

Big sky over Erinview on the morning of the blitz. Photo copyright Jo Swartz

Big sky over Erinview on the morning of the blitz. Photo copyright Jo Swartz

Having arrived at the IBA on the 29th August in thick mist, I have to confess to being slightly apprehensive at what might greet us. Fortunately we had nothing to worry about. We were greeted by clear skies, even though the outside temperature was 1 degree celsius. This time I had decided to bring some support along in the shape of Frank and Jacqui Machovec and Callie Bowman.

Shoal Lakes IBA blitz group_2071

Our team birding away. Photo copyright Christian Artuso

Our first job was to visit a spot south of West Shoal Lake where Jo, Liis and Betsy had counted in August. I had decided an 8am start should be ok. Unfortunately the birds had other ideas and large flocks of Canada Geese were on the move as we drove towards the count point. Not deterred, we counted the geese from the car. Beforehand we came up with a counting plan. Jacqui was responsible for recording non-water birds, Callie recorded waterbirds, Frank drove and I yelled out numbers of birds from the front seat while the others desperately tried to make sense of the nonsensical gibberish emanating from my mouth. Arriving at the first spot, we counted a plethora of waterbirds moving out of the lake area including over 2000 Canada Geese. This area seems so key for waterfowl that next time we will post someone here from first light to count geese leaving. It is obviously important to continue to learn how to improve things as we go along.

Open wetlands like this are great for roosting waterfowl. Photo copyright Garry Budyk

Open wetlands like this are great for roosting waterfowl. Photo copyright Garry Budyk

After completing our count, we headed towards our main area for the morning, Bluff Road between North and West Shoal Lakes. This area had been absolutely teeming with waterbirds last time and given the time of year, I was expecting good numbers today. The first sign that it might not work out the way I hoped were the 2 cars parked halfway down the road. As we exited our car, a couple of guys headed towards us on quad bikes with their hunting gear. Hmm, lesson number 2, don’t organise a bird counting event in an area open for hunting during hunting season.

A few gunshots were not going to prevent us getting a count of the birds and there were a few although not many compared to August. The highlight were a group of 3 Long-billed Dowitchers, a long-billed shorebird. Callie and I came prepared with rubber boots to ford as area of water to get to the lake shore. There were a few Pied-billed Grebes, Blue-winged Teal and a nice groups of American Widgeon but the Red-necked Grebe family had moved on.

Greater Yellowlegs were the most abundant shorebird for the second blitz in a row. Photo copyright Donna Martin

Greater Yellowlegs were the most abundant shorebird for the second blitz in a row. Photo copyright Donna Martin

Returning to the car we caught up with Christian Artuso who had walked across the old 415 again. A lineup of hunters limited Christians capacity to ferret birds out from all corners. In fact the fear of acting as a ‘beater’, flushing birds into the waiting guns suppressed any desire to move from the track.

Christian Artuso in full flow. Photo copyright Jo Swartz

Shock of the day, Christian forgot to bring his tripod on a birding trip. Photo copyright Jo Swartz

Still Christians numbers were very impressive, 2605 birds in total, including 115 Rusty Blackbirds. The last figure is important as it would make the IBA a globally significant site for this species which has been designated by IUCN as Vulnerable. He had also met with Matt Gasner, Jillian Detwiler and Dana Schroeder who had been covering the ground on the other side of the 415. Apparently Jillian, Matt’s wife, has made past visits to Shoal Lakes as a parasitologist at the University of Manitoba. This reminds me of those distant university labs dissecting Sticklebacks in the search for parasites……

The internationally threatened Rusty Blackbird in all its rusty glory. Photo copyright Donna Martin

The internationally threatened Rusty Blackbird in all its rusty glory. Photo copyright Donna Martin

Our group moved towards Inward and lunch to see how everyone else had got along. The general consensus was that numbers were down on last time but this might be mitigated by the fact that hunters were present along most of the routes. Obviously a few hunters are not going to have a massive impact on the number of birds but the disturbance will move birds to less accessible ‘refuges’ and reduce ther total counts.

The other groups had it seemed enjoyed a productive morning. Two groups had been fortunate enough to spy White-winged and Surf Scoter on the lake. The first group to do this was that of Joanne Smith, Bill Rideout and Sabina Mastrolonardo. Their job was to survey the area west of North Shoal Lake. This time Joanne failed to record a single bovine-bear but the scoters (at least one person had a lifer) more than made up for this. They also recorded the sole Mourning Dove of the day in a total of 363 birds, a big drop on last time.

No one caught a great photo of the White-winged Scoters on the day but here is a photo from Seal River Estuary IBA in northern Manitoba. Photo copyright Christian Artuso

No one caught a great photo of the White-winged Scoters on the day but here is a photo from Seal River Estuary IBA with a couple of Eider Ducks in northern Manitoba. Photo copyright Christian Artuso

Further south at East Shoal Lake, the combination of Jo Swartz, Betsy Thorsteinson and Rob Parsons had also recorded both scoter species. This group seemed to run the monopoly on finding species that no other group were able to locate; Ruffed Grouse, Common Loon, Western Grebe, Osprey and Yellow-headed Blackbird were on their daily checklist. Other highlights were 13 Tundra Swans and 1577 Canada Geese.

Tundra Swans in flight. Photo copyright Donna Martin

Tundra Swans in flight. Photo copyright Donna Martin

Across from them on the western side of West Shoal Lake, were John Weier, Garry Budyk and John Hays, ‘the dream team’. A couple of Hooded Merganser, Horned Grebe, a Peregrine Falcon and a House Wren were among their total of 1665 birds and 61 species they recorded.

Horned Grebe copyright Garry Budyk

Horned Grebe copyright Garry Budyk

Lapland Longspur numbers were starting to build up by this point. Photo copyright Donna Martin

Lapland Longspur numbers were starting to build up by this point. Photo copyright Donna Martin

That was a quick summary of all the different groups. Well almost all the different groups. We planned to meet for lunch around 1:30 but by 2pm there was still no sign of our final group Donna Martin and Ray Methot. As I was dialing for the rescue helicopter, they appeared having birded the backtracks in Ray’s quad. Stylish! I must get myself one of those for the IBA Program! This groups seemed to be the best for winkling out the teals, with 252 Green-winged and 102 Blue-winged Teal as well as a good mix of other species.

Another of the wetlands surrounding the lakes. Photo copyright Garry Budyk

Another of the wetlands surrounding the lakes. Photo copyright Garry Budyk

After lunch and an unsavory incident which we shall studiously avoid mentioning involving a piece of pumpkin pie, a candle and some very bad singing, a few of us went looking for the scoters along North Shoal Lake. We managed to find the White-winged Scoters but had to leave before the others had located Surf Scoters, completing a very successful day.

From left to right: Donna, Ray, John H and John Weier. Photo copyright Garry Budyk

From left to right: Donna, Ray, John H and John Weier. Photo copyright Garry Budyk

Thanks again to everyone for coming along and giving up your time on a beautiful Saturday morning. To finish this blog, I learnt 2 important lessons. These were:

  1. Don’t organise a bird blitz during hunting season as the birds will shift around the area
  2. Never joke to Donna about birthday cake
North, West and East Shoal Lake sign below the RM of Armstrong sign. Note that the bullet holes in the RM sign. Classy! Photo copyright Christian Artuso

North, West and East Shoal Lake sign below the RM of Armstrong sign. Note the bullet holes in the RM sign. Classy! Photo copyright Christian Artuso