Southwestern Manitoba Mixed-Grass Prairie IBA Blitz – Scouting Trip

On the weekend of the 9th and 10th July, 2016, a group of IBA volunteers blitzed the Southwestern Manitoba Mixed-Grass Prairie IBA in search of threatened grassland birds. In our first of two blogs, IBA Coordinator, Tim Poole describes the scouting trip ahead of the big day.

It’s Saturday morning and its raining. Quel surprise! Christian and I have been forced from the field and are having breakfast with local landowner Margaret Macrae and southwestern Manitoba bird conservation legend, Joan Murray. On Friday we had headed to Reston via Spruce Woods (failed Lark Bunting search, long story but I won’t go into it now as it’s rather a sore point for Christian), NCC office in Brandon and some good birding south of Oak Lake and Plum Lake IBA. Travelling with Christian is always an adventure and the species list always better than if I were travelling alone. Here are a few photographic highlights of the journey (click on photos for caption):

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Loggerhead Shrike calling from a powerline north of the IBA. A Sprague’s Pipit was also calling in this area and carrying food and a Grasshopper Sparrow was lurking somewhere as well. Photo copyright Christian Artuso

An early light breakfast and Christian and I headed out into the IBA from Reston. For those who do not know, the Southwestern Manitoba Mixed-Grass Prairie IBA was designated as a site with nationally important populations of Ferruginous Hawk, Loggerhead Shrike and Burrowing Owl. It encompasses some of the best examples of native mixed-grass prairie remaining in Manitoba, including the Lyleton, Blind Souris and Poverty Plains areas. In 2015 it became apparent to us that there were a few issues with the IBA designation. For one, it did not include a large part of the Blind Souris, some of the most extensive grasslands remaining, the last place for Long-billed Curlew in Manitoba and the place to find Buffalograss, a Species At Risk. This was easy enough to solve. W e also discovered that contrary to our original assumptions, the IBA was not considered a globally important area for grassland birds. This was because the populations of the original trigger species were below 1% of global populations and none of these species had a global conservation listing. Two species, the Sprague’s Pipit and Chestnut-collared Longspur, would meet this criteria and it was our intention to locate sufficient numbers of each to have the IBA considered as globally important, something which gladly managed to achieve. Our aim this year was to provide consecutive figures to support this, plus locate a wider list of species present in the IBA.

Just south of Reston, and north of the IBA, we had our first bird of the day was an early morning Great Horned Owl. Driving early in the morning presents its risks, with animals, especially mammals darting into the road. Deer are especially at risk for us and them. We picked up an early calling Baird’s Sparrow, the first of five for the day, a very good number for this elusive and rare species. We were heading to the area just north of Pierson to meet local landowner Margaret McRae. Margaret is a local landowner who has a small area of native prairie and wetland for which she has signed an easement with NCC in memory of her late husband Scotty. You can read more about here.

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Mammatus clouds building over the prairies on Saturday morning. A storm followed. Photo copyright Christian Artuso

People like Margaret who set aside their land for conservation benefit are the heroes in modern conservation. Another hero in my view is Joan Murray, a local from Lyleton who has done so much to raise the profile and the plight of grassland birds. Joan and her late husband John, along with another landowning couple Ralph and Mary Wang, were instrumental in building nestboxes along fences for Mountain Bluebirds, providing an oasis for migratory birds in their yards and for engaging the wider birding community in grassland bird conservation at a time before the more dramatic declines of recent times occurred. They also supported the likes of Ken De Smet and Christian Artuso in their work in the area.

Margaret’s property certainly provides habitat for a number of bird species. The current wet cycle means the grasslands provide habitat for Le Conte’s and Nelson’s Sparrow rather than Chestnut-collared Longspurs but we could also detect Baltimore Oriole, Clay-coloured Sparrow, Sora, a number of duck species, Bobolink and Least Flycatcher, and that’s all my memory can draw upon. But it was also a place for wild flowers, and boy do the prairies have some stunning flora.

Later that day we continued to look for likely spots where we might find birds for the blitz. We were to target the species listed as Species-at-Risk, especially Chestnut-collared Longspur and Sprague’s Pipit as these species have global conservation listings. more on that in the next blog. Passing by the Wang’s old place near the Saskatchewan border (they have now retired and moved to Saskatchewan), we were impressed that this area still provided an oasis for songbirds. The fences along the prairie were also a place for Mountain Bluebird boxes, although we saw none of these stunning birds. These boxes ere also a Murray-Wang legacy. We did spot a female Sharp-tailed Grouse on the road. Watching her for some minutes, it was pretty obvious that she had a brood with her as she moved nervously around and continuously called. A grouse without a brood would not have stayed in the same place for long – they are too sensitive to disturbance for that.

Next, the comical and resident ‘daft’ invasive bird of the day, a Ring-necked Pheasant. Ok, I think ridiculous bird is more appropriate. This male bird, originally from China but arriving in North America via the UK, is in my view, both beautiful and annoying having recorded them calling at the dancing grounds of threatened grouse. However, this individual was comical, running along the side of the road into the vegetation to get away from us. Looking for photos, Christian looked to drive ahead of it, only to find the bird rather than take the expected route parallel to the road, it suddenly ran across the roa behind us and away into the undergrowth. It did though provide a photo for Christian.

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Daft laddie pheasant. Photo copyright Christian Artuso

Next up, we encountered some flycatchers. First up, the southwest specialty, the Willow Flycatcher. This species is found along creeks in willow shrub and looks completely alike to the closely related Alder Flycatcher. They can only be split by most mortals via their distinct calls.

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We heard it, definitely a Willow Flycatcher. Photo copyright Christian Artuso

Next up, the Western Kingbird, a widespread species in southern Manitoba where there is open ground to forage.


Western Kingbird. Photo copyright Tim Poole

We tried for Lazuli Bunting and Black-headed Grosbeak at historic sites, but to no avail. We did decided we should do some work though and checked a few grassland areas for our target species. We found a couple of Baird’s Sparrow in a new spot in the southwest corner and heard a Sprague’s Pipit. We were not really detecting may longspurs which was a concern. At one spot where I remembered having longspurs in 2015, I decided to try playback as I was concerned for the Sunday morning. To my relief, a couple of males responded – so they were still in situ. 

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The elusive Baird’s Sparrow might not look much but it’s song is enough to lift your spirits on a damp day. A real prairie treasure. Photo copyright Christian Artuso

The morning had disappeared and early afternoon came. Either the early morning was catching up or the Mediterranean heritage was calling as Christian needed a siesta. While taking a nap in the truck near Coulter, I went for a walk along the ridge above the Souris River. There were some birds around, Vesper Sparrow, Bald Eagle, Bobolink, Swainson’s Hawk to name a few but the wind was picking up and seemed like a storm was brewing. Lightning began striking the prairie towards Saskatchewan and North Dakota and Christian came to bail me out as the rain started to fall. Fortunately, the storm seemed to swing north and west and passed up by.


Willet over the prairies. Note the Wilson’s Phalarope to the left. These are both typical shorebirds of southern Manitoba’s prairie wetlands.  Photo copyright Tim Poole

Instead we headed across the Souris towards the Blind Souris. This area of prairie seemed more extensive than others, but still there are the telltale signs of till breaking up the last vestiges of native habitat. Will it ever stop or are we destined to lose all remaining native prairie in this area?

On our way came the days biggest and best surprise. Passing an alfalfa field, Christian thought he heard a Dickcissel calling from the window. Reversing back we were thrilled to see a male calling from an overhead powerline. Dickcissel are usually rare in Manitoba, being known only as an irruptive species, that is that it is a rarity in most years but there are sudden dramatic population rises. This grassland bird is usually found further south and prefers tallgrass prairies. Volunteers who visited the site later heard a second bird.


Dickcissel, what a beauty! Photo copyright Christian Artuso

Heading back to Reston to meet our group, we picked up our fifth Baird’s Sparrow and had some good intelligence for volunteers for the following day. We met up with volunteers in the Rest’n Inn later that evening and planned for the morning. A Eurasian Collared Dove before bed (ridiculous) and we were ready for the morning. What could possibly go wrong….


Upland Sandpiper, the clown prince of the prairies. Photo copyright Tim Poole

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Barn Swallow brood. Photo copyright Christian Artuso