by Marshall Birch
NOTE: Being the tech-savvy wizards we are, the camera got set to “video” for this whole trip, so rather than photos of species sightings, we wound up with videos of reeds, with ourselves muttering in the background. I’ve included some of Christian Artuso’s great photos of some of the species we encountered, and we can all pretend they were from our trip, right?
My first birding trip of the season was to be an adventurous one. The site was Proven Lake, a fairly rarely visited Important Bird Area and Wildlife Management Area just South of Riding Mountain National Park in Western Manitoba. Tim had arranged to meet up with Gord Hammel, a landowner in the area who happened to have a canoe and a good knowledge of wetland birds. Gord had spent a fair amount of time on the lake in the past – unfortunately it had been 40 years since his last trip there, so this was to be a learning experience for us all.
Since the IBA is without a caretaker and hadn’t been visited by the Manitoba IBA Program recently, the primary goal was just to check it out, assess the state of the area, species, and site visit viability. We only had time to explore one entrance point on this trip, though it provided some valuable insight into the area.
We followed Gord to a drainage canal which runs under Highway 10, loaded our binoculars and lunches into the canoe and set off towards the lake. Immediately we were greeted with an assortment of waterfowl – Blue-winged Teal, Mallard, Lesser Scaup, Shoveler, Coot, and Red-necked Grebe were all present along the first stretch. From the marshy edges Tim was picking out the calls of Song, Swamp, Clay-coloured, and Savannah Sparrows, and even I was able to identify the characteristic whinny of the Soras.
Our first obstacle was a dyke which had been set up some time ago by Ducks Unlimited, complete with pumping station to help control water levels on the lake. For the most part, what we were able to access was largely a man-made habitat of dykes and canals. Entirely natural or not, this is excellent wildlife habitat. We heaved the canoe over the dyke and continued on, with sightings getting more frequent.
Franklin’s, Ring-billed, and Herring Gulls soared overhead, alongside Black, Common, and Forster’s Terns. Sedge and Marsh Wrens, as well as Orange-crowned and Yellow Warblers, were heard or seen flitting through the reeds. Blackbirds were abundant, with Yellow-headed ones surprisingly outnumbering the Red-winged as we got closer to the lake. The aforementioned duck species were joined by Canvasbacks, Redheads, Buffleheads, Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Merganser, Green-winged Teals, and Canada Geese.
Gord, with eyes nearly as fresh as ours to the area, discussed how things have changed over the years. The flora of the area had been altered, primarily by a new invasive species of reed which had become pervasive in the area. Along with other pressures, such as agricultural runoff and irrigation needs, this has impacted species sightings in the area. Most notably was a complete lack of Black-crowned Night Herons – the original IBA trigger species for the area. In fact, no Heron of any kind was seen on our trip, a troubling development, as historically Proven Lake has been home to many Herons.
We pushed through some loose reeds into a marshy area that bordered the lake, marking our entrance spot with Gord’s sweater. As we paddled through the marsh we noticed there were branches sticking up through the water. Clearly this area at some point was entirely above water, and had been some sort of a semi-wooded thicket – another sign of a dynamic and changing wetland.
Despite our best efforts, we were unable to push our canoe through the reeds to the open lake, and had to settle for the occasional peak over, spotting a few Cormorants and Pelicans. No worries, the marsh provided plenty of top-notch bird watching for one afternoon – Ruddy Duck, American Bittern, Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Snipe, and American Goldfinch were all added to the day’s list.
After lunch in the marsh, it was time to head back. Overhead we caught sight of a couple of Turkey Vultures, a Northern Harrier, and a Broad-winged Hawk, as well as a few Sandhill Cranes, who landed in the marsh and proceeded to hunch down on what may have been a nest.
One last surprise awaited us en route back to the car. Shortly before we reached the highway, we saw something swimming in the water ahead of us. Tim was able to get a good look at it before it barked at us and disappeared under the water – a river otter, the first I’d ever encountered in Manitoba! A fine send-off from Proven Lake. We thanked Gord for his valuable help and knowledge, and headed on our way. A successful trip, it had definitely been proven to us that Proven Lake was a valuable site for many species, and would provide an excellent day of birding for those willing to do a little paddling.