On July 9th, a group of people descended on the relatively unknown Kinosota-Leifur Important Bird Area from as far afield as Portage la Prairie, Winnipeg, Birds Hill and Brandon. Our goal was to locate and count the globally Near Threatened Red-headed Woodpecker, a Species At Risk and a stunning species to observe and enjoy.
The IBA at Kinosota-Leifur was the brainchild of Harry Harris who once worked at the Alonsa Conservation District. It was Harry who put together the IBA information and had estimated that at least 50 pairs were present in this area. Since 1995 though, apart from some atlassing, no one had, as far as we know, tried to do a comprehensive count of this species in this area.
Red-headed Woodpeckers are a species with an interesting habitat preference. They prefer open stands of aspen with plenty of deadwood and snags for cavities. The vegetation must be short and lack dense shrubs, hence they are often present in open woodlots with cattle or horses. The dead trees must all be fairly large, around 25cm diameter at chest height (the technical term is DBH or Diameter at Breast Height).
This is a migratory species in Manitoba, wintering in the United States and returning to breed in deciduous woodlands in the centre of the continent in spring. There are also resident breeding populations in southeastern USA and southern Ontario.
Data from Breeding Bird Surveys suggest that this species has suffered a marked decline of over 65.5% in a 40 year period. According to Birdlife International, this species decline is due to:
‘Habitat degradation, as a result of the removal of dead trees and branches in urban areas (Pulich 1988), and loss of nesting habitat to firewood cutting, clear cutting, agricultural development and river channelling in rural areas (Ehrlich et al. 1992, Melcher 1998).’
As to the blitz, we really did not know what to expect. An article placed in the Neepawa Banner in the days before had managed to drum up some interest, mainly from people form the wider area letting us know where Red-headed Woodpeckers might be discovered. We had developed a protocol which included periods of listening and playback for woodpeckers and hoped this would be sufficient even as we stepped into the unknown.
Twelve volunteers embarked on this exploration and we split into 4 groups. The search areas were split into a core area, highlighted in red and an extension area which took in areas to the west of the main highway. This second area turned out to be much wetter than expected and it was to the core area we would focus.
In the north, around Kinosota itself we had a team of Louanne, Margaret, Millie and Bill. This group turned out to be the group with the least luck – not a single Red-headed Woodpecker around Kinosota strangely. They did find some suitable habitat – one spot was especially good. On a positive note, they did get two Pileated Woodpecker, always a cracking species to find. Even more remarkable was an overhead White-faced Ibis, something more likely to pop up at Whitewater or Oak Lake. The comments from Louanne were as follows:
‘Margaret, Millie, Bill and I made 23 protocol stops during the Kinosota-Leifur IBA Blitz in search of Red-headed Woodpeckers. Most of the ‘core’ area and a little of the ‘extended’ area of Group/Zone A, were covered. Our effort began under sunny skies but after just over an hour, a cold wind brought in threatening clouds which led to rain, hampering our efforts though sunny skies did return. All observations were made from inside or a short distance from the vehicle.’
The period of windy weather midway through the morning was especially difficult for hearing birds and the second group consisting of Eric, Carrie-Anne and Tim actually revisited suitable habitat which had scored zero woodpeckers first time – scoring a few extra Red-headed Woodpeckers in the process.
This group found 11 individual Red-headed Woodpeckers, the most of any group. Interestingly they also scored their first one in Amaranth en route, on a telephone pole. Other species of note included a calling Scarlet Tanager and Black-billed Cuckoo.
All photos copyright Tim Poole
South again and our next group included Wally Jansen, Katharine Schulz and Sabina Mastrolonardo. They recorded 8 Red-headed Woodpeckers in a central area between Silver Ridge and Bluff Creek. A nice little patch of habitat. Other highlights included 6 species of flycatcher, 3 of which were another Species At Risk, the Eastern Wood Pewee, and 10 Bobolink. Interestingly, 10 Bobolink might also point towards issues for the Red-headed Woodpecker, if suitable woodland has been felled and replaced with hayland.
Finally, Garry and John surveyed the southern area, detecting 2 Red-headed Woodpeckers, interestingly the furthest west of the survey. They also grabbed a pair in the group to the norths area thanks to a tip off from a friendly farmer. The other highlight was that of finding a Great Gray Owl, not common in this type of habitat in July.
This gave us a total of 23 Red-headed Woodpeckers for the morning. not bad, but not a patch on the 50 pairs found historically. The next challenge is to try to work out whether we were missing a lot of woodpeckers or whether land-use changes in the 25 or so years since the IBA was put together have led to a large loss in habitat. Hopefully there will be more to come on this in the future. Below is the distribution of Red-headed Woodpeckers mapped. As can be seen, the current boundary is not correct and will be changed to reflect these results.
A summary of all species can be seen below. In total there were 91 species and 2048 individual birds counted, still pretty good and comparable figures to other blitzes. Ring-billed Gulls were numerous as were wetland songbirds such as Sedge Wren, Common Yellowthroat and Song Sparrow.
|American White Pelican||15|
|Great Blue Heron||2|
|Great Gray Owl||1|
Eastern Wood Pewee
|Great Crested Flycatcher||6|
|Le Conte’s Sparrow||15|