Guest Blog – A Day in the Life of Colin and Gillian, Caretakers for Whitewater Lake IBA

Since 2015, Colin Blyth and Gillian Richards have spent many hours monitoring Whitewater Lake IBA as part of their Caretaker duties. Here Colin, with help from Gillian, have described a day’s monitoring the IBA in May 2016.

8pm Saturday May 21, 2016 I took a look at the forecast in the Deloraine area for the following day. It didn’t look good, 70% chance of showers in the morning and thunder showers in the afternoon. Sunday’s have been the day that Gillian Richards, myself, along with other birders on occasion, go down to one of the best places to look for birds not only in Manitoba, but in Canada. This place is Whitewater Lake: one of 38 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) in the province of Manitoba.

I told my wife that I was still going to be missing around the house even though the weather didn’t look good. I even said things along the lines of “bad weather days can bring about interesting surprises in birding!”. I wasn’t going to miss out on my day down at the Whitewater Lake IBA. Gillian couldn’t have agreed more, because she was up at 5:30am prepping lunch and getting ready for a full day of birding. Also, joining the party on this day was my Dad Scott, and he was at my door at 6:15 sharp, gear ready to go.

We hit the road at 6:30am, which is not crazy early in the birder world, but early enough. Usually when we monitor the IBA, we have a game-plan which involves deciding where we will start and which direction we go from there. Today we decided to start in the northeast corner and travel west going counter clockwise around the lake. The usual chit-chat about eBird and which species were popping up on ManitobaBirds occurred en route. May is truly an amazing month in Manitoba, migration consistently entertains us all with the usual suspects and a nice surprise here and there.

We arrived at the “east” side of the IBA, and I got my binoculars cocked and ready. Savannah Sparrows broke the ice that day as they scurried from the side of the road. Their song of buzzes is hard to describe with words, but a welcoming sound when arriving to the area. Arriving at our first destination, surrounded by bulrushes, we got out of Gillian’s Suburu and scanned the scene. On this day, since Gillian was driving, it was my responsibility to keep track of the birds we see, the numbers of each kind of bird, time, temperature, wind, and usually anything else important we come across. My little moleskin journal has served me well, and in the process of saving space we learned the four-letter species codes for all of the birds we have come across. A four-letter species code is a four letter abbreviation that each bird has been given to speed up the data entry process. There are four-letter English Name codes and six-letter Scientific Name codes (I just learned this as I write this). These codes are also know as Alphabetic or “Alpha” codes. A couple examples: two-word bird American Bittern = AMBI, three-worded bird Red-winged Blackbird = RWBL. Here is a link to all the codes for the birds of Canada:

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Forster’s Tern, a species more associated with inland wetlands than the similar looking Common Tern. Photo copyright Gillian Richards

We decided to start the day by taking a stroll down 16N to the west; an old road that has seen better days. We had traveled this road before and saw shorebird potential along the north side. In the past, this area had also been good for Snowy Egret. Marsh Wrens called from a number of directions, Soras made their distinctive yet musical calls, Forster’s Terns bobbed and weaved in the air before dive bombing the open water areas between the marsh, WAUHK! the sound of a Black-crowned Night-heron before not one, but several, jumped up from the edges of the marsh and flew away to the west. We were blown away by the up close and personal experience they gave us. Along the way to one of our viewing spots we encountered Red-winged and Yellow-Headed Blackbirds, both of these species are numerous and sometimes we forget the beautiful reds, yellows, blacks and whites they give us. A small group of Common Grackles perched in the only tree along the road, Song Sparrows sung their scrambled songs from different heights of bulrushes, and in the distance we could see hundreds of Franklin’s Gulls flying in all directions picking up their breakfast on the go. We got to our sweet spot and today it looked great OH WAIT, WHAT’S ‘THAT?!?…… Birders react when they have that moment when they know they have something good in their sights, whether its a FOY (First of Year) bird, or a lifer (First time seeing a species), or even a rare sighting (a bird that shouldn’t be in that spot at that time, or there at all). For us today that moment was when we spotted a Snowy Egret along a narrow, almost canal like, passage through the marsh. The egret looked to be around the same size of a close-by Black-Crowned Night-Heron, the bird had a black bill, black legs, and one of the distinctive field marks… the yellow feet, also known as the “golden slippers”. They aren’t the only white egret that you find at Whitewater Lake. The Great Egret is also found here, though the Snowy Egret is more of a rarity here. It’s interesting to know that in the late 1800’s the plumes of this bird were worth more per ounce that gold. Thank goodness that fashion bit the dust.

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A Black-crowned Night Heron in flight at Whitewater Lake. Photo copyright Gillian Richards

After enjoying our FOY Snowy Egret for a while we decided to look in a different direction. To our south we had a patch of open water where some waterfowl swam, ate, and slept. There were Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, Mallard, Gadwall, Redhead, Northern Pintail, and Northern Shoveller. At this same spot, to the north, in late March we had over 1500 Northern Pintail on the only open water in the area. We walked all the way down to where the road disappeared into the marsh to get views of the different species of shorebirds. Ki-Dik Ki-Dik a Virginia Rail sounded off as we set up our scopes to get a closer look at the multiple kinds of shorebirds nearby. Shorebirds (aka waders if you are a Brit) can be a real challenge to birders. Identification is based on size, shape, colour and behaviour all complicated by lighting, distance, and sometimes strong winds messing with the stability of your scope. Today we didn’t have any issues, other than second guessing ourselves. We were treated to sightings of American Avocet, Marbled Godwit, Willet, Short-Billed Dowitcher, Semipalmated, Baird’s, Stilt, and Least Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstone, the most Dunlin I have ever seen in one place,  Killdeer, Semipalmated Plover, Lesser Yellowlegs, Wilson’s Phalarope and the beautiful migrant Red-Necked Phalarope. Phalaropes are interesting birds for a number of reasons including that the female has brighter/bolder colouring, and the male incubates and cares for the young. On the way back to the vehicle we took pleasure in the nearby White-faced Ibis.

The above photos show the Red-necked Phalaropes in all their glory. Note in the bottom right, the difference between male and female, with the male being on the left. Photos all copyright Gillian Richards

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Another shorebird, the Willet. Note the black and white wing patches on this bird, a key identification feature for this species. Photo copyright Gillian Richards

Back on the north side of the lake we made our way west along 20N , stopping where there was potential to hear or see different species. At a farm site we parked and heard a Warbling Vireo singing among the leaves, SWEET SWEET sounds of a Yellow Warbler delighted us, as a Eastern Kingbird hunted for insects in the air. We picked up a few more shorebird species along the north side of the IBA including; White-rumped, Pectoral, Upland  and Spotted Sandpipers. At an abandoned property we discovered a good spot for swallows picking up Cliff, Bank, and Barn. A Clay-colored Sparrow buzzed from a nearby field. Their song is the first one I learned and one of the easiest to remember “BZZZ….BZZZ”. Another little surprise graced our eyes as we came upon a Say’s Phoebe. This was the first time that Gillian or I had seen one in the IBA. My favourite bird, an American Bittern thunder-pumped from the east. I was hoping to get a good look at this member of the Ardeidae family at some point today. Also along the north side of the lake we stopped at a place we call Sextons Point, here you can view Sexton’s Island. Years ago when the water levels were quite a bit lower you could drive right up to Sexton’s Island for a better look. In the last couple of years there has been a Great Egret colony here. At this viewpoint, as usual we saw Red-necked Grebes, as well as Canvasback, Ruddy Duck and Double-crested Cormorants. A few weeks prior to today we had over 20 Horned Grebes at this spot. They had moved on to different areas because we weren’t able to find one anywhere around the IBA.

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White-rumped Sandpipers feeding in the water. Photo copyright Gillian Richards

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The comical shorebird, the Upland Sandpiper. Photo copyright Gillian Richards

Continuing on to the west side of the IBA we came to Road 132W. With marsh and open water on both sides of the road, this is one of the best places to get close views of  birds in the IBA. Its also one of the best places to see Great Egrets, White-faced Ibis, Western, Eared and Pied-Billed Grebes, American Coot, Ruddy Duck and Bufflehead. This year this stretch has been a good place to see migrant shorebirds. We added Black-bellied Plover to our list of shorebirds for the day. Along this road there have been some amazing sightings this year including Glossy Ibis and Black-necked Stilt. We weren’t so lucky on this day, but enjoyed the area as always.

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Gadwall to the left, White-faced Ibis to the right. Photo copyright Gillian Richards

The birds aren’t the only things that fly while you are down at the Whitewater Lake IBA, because time sure does too! We found ourselves out of time for the day and had to hurry through the south side. We were treated to our first Bobolinks of the year for the IBA along the way. Its good to plan for a full day if you want to make the trip. Call us bird crazy, but we can’t get enough of this place! We couldn’t picture ourselves spending our time in a better way!

And by the way, we didn’t have a drop of rain all day. Its not like that would have stopped us anyway!

Colin Blyth and Gillian Richards, Whitewater Lake IBA Caretakers


Elegance itself, a beautiful pair of Western Grebes. Photo copyright Gillian Richards