Tundra Swan Counts in the Oak Lake and Plum Lakes IBA

Keeping up on events around Manitoba has been a challenge. We still need to update on our goose count at Netley-Libau Marsh and catch up on a few other volunteer based activities. For today, it is to Oak Lake and Plum Lakes IBA and a recent visit with volunteer Glennis Lewis.

Glennis is certainly very knowledgable about some of the unique biodiversity of the sandhills and other habitats around Oak Lake and Plum Lakes IBA. Having worked in the IBA (before it was an IBA) as a student (close to the former large Franklin’s Gull colony) or completing a contract looking for western spiderwort, Glennis has spent many days in the Oak Lake area and knows it very well.


A panoramic view from the weir near Oak Lake Resort. Copyright Tim Poole

On Wednesday October 11th, Glennis and Manitoba IBA Coordinator met up early morning in Brandon and travelled the 45 minutes down the road to Oak Lake. The primary objective was to take a look at a few areas of the IBA which Tim had not visited previously and maybe also get a count of any large concentrations of fall migrants.

The northern area of the IBA is covered by pasture, hay meadows and the dominant feature, the Assiniboine River Valley. Within this area is part of the Upper Assiniboine Wildlife Management Area. An old wetland project is also to be found in this area – but alas there were few waterfowl to be found here on a warm Wednesday morning in October. The groups of Eastern Bluebird were worth the trip at least.

Location of DU Project

The highlight of the day were the large concentrations of waterfowl, especially Tundra Swan. These northern breeders can be abundant in large concentrations during passage in some of Manitoba’s IBAs (see Saskatchewan River DeltaWhitewater and Churchill and Vicinity). From the southwest corner of Plum Lakes to the wetlands just to the north of Oak Lake we were able to count a minimum of 1765 Tundra Swans, just 135 short of the 1% North American breeding population. See below for a map of where the larger concentrations were encountered.

TUSW locations

These large concentrations suggest that some concerted, targeted counts during fall by a group of volunteers should be able to identify significant concentrations of migratory waterfowl in the Oak Lake and Plum Lakes IBA boundary.


An example of several hundred Tundra Swans at Oak Lake near the weir. Copyright Tim Poole

There were also thousands of Snow Geese in the area, their presence made public thanks to a passing Bald Eagle. Snow Geese tend to be more abundant in southwestern Manitoba at this time – a count of 22,000 was made by Colin Blyth and Gillian Richards on October 22nd at Whitewater Lake. In addition thousands of ducks were feeding along the weir, too many to stop and count at times. Anyway below are a couple of (not the best) videos just to demonstrate the sheer scale of Snow Geese encountered.

In terms of shorebirds, there were still a few around – and Plum Lakes remains in a state of drawdown. Long-billed Dowitcher and both species of yellowlegs were most abundant, with a single Black-bellied Plover flying overhead adding a bit of diversity. Raptors were also present in low numbers including a glimpse of a Northern Goshawk in forest on the Grande Clariere Road and a lovely view of a Great Horned Owl.


Red-tailed Hawks were among the raptors encountered. Copyright Linda Boys

10 days later and this time Glennis was joined by Linda Boys another one of our IBA volunteers based out of Minnedosa. A focused Tundra Swan count was the aim of the day this time, avoiding the north which lacks good waterfowl habitat. In the intervening period it was apparent that although the numbers of waterfowl were still very high, there had been a certain amount of drop-off from the 11th. A very good total of 1133 Tundra Swans were present in the same areas, a drop of 600 from the high count. No trigger, but at least we now know that with some planning it would be possible to do target counts of swans and other waterfowl during fall.

79642 swans

Gorgeous Tundra Swans feeding in the shallow waters around Oak Lake. Copyright Linda Boys

Another major highlight of this trip was a surprisingly large concentration of Sandhill Cranes (for this late in the fall that is). These cranes were all concentrated in a single field in the west of the IBA. Sandhill Cranes are certainly a species to look out for in large concentrations in IBAs with open hay meadows and pastures. In 2016 around 2000 were counted in early October in fields in the Southwestern Manitoba Mixed-grass Prairie IBA and the adjacent Maple Lakes area and the Langruth-RM of Lakeview IBA has historically been a critical staging area for this species. Another species to look out and get more people reporting!


Another stunner from Linda, this time a small snapshot of the huge numbers of Sandhill Cranes present in the western part of the IBA. Copyright Linda Boys

Other late season birds included Turkey Vulture:

8558turkey vulture

Not strictly taken on the 21st but Linda had previously sent us this stunning image of a Turkey Vulture, well worth sharing. Copyright Linda Boys

The combined bird lists of these trips is outlined below. Thanks Glennis and Linda for your time!

October 11th October 21st
Snow Goose 5941 913
Canada Goose 81 105
Tundra Swan 1765 1133
Blue-winged Teal 18 3
Northern Shoveler 80 1
Gadwall 485 1
American Wigeon 8 0
Mallard 417 203
Northern Pintail 14 0
Green-winged Teal 10 2
Canvasback 598 2
Redhead 79 1
Ring-necked Duck 50 1
Lesser Scaup 65 0
Greater/Lesser Scaup 20 0
Bufflehead 66 21
Common Goldeneye 15 0
Hooded Merganser 3 0
Ruddy Duck 1 2
duck sp. 1000 0
Pied-billed Grebe 3 0
Double-crested Cormorant 0 2
American White Pelican 0 1
Great Blue Heron 2 1
Turkey Vulture 1 0
Northern Harrier 5 3
Northern Goshawk 1 0
Accipiter sp. 1 0
Bald Eagle 2 4
Red-tailed Hawk 5 0
American Coot 562 5
Sandhill Crane 24 1200
Black-bellied Plover 1 0
Long-billed Dowitcher 56 0
Wilson’s Snipe 1 0
Greater Yellowlegs 24 0
Lesser Yellowlegs 40 2
Greater/Lesser Yellowlegs 23 0
Ring-billed Gull 20 1
gull sp. 50 0
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 2 8
Mourning Dove 1 0
Short-eared Owl 0 1
Great Horned Owl 1 0
Hairy Woodpecker 1 0
American Kestrel 1 0
Blue Jay 2 0
Black-billed Magpie 22 3
American Crow 3 2
Common Raven 10 2
Horned Lark 1 0
Black-capped Chickadee 1 0
Eastern Bluebird 86 0
American Robin 21 7
European Starling 12 0
Lapland Longspur 200 0
American Tree Sparrow 4 28
Dark-eyed Junco 8 18
Harris’s Sparrow 1 2
Vesper Sparrow 1 0
Savannah Sparrow 5 0
Song Sparrow 1 0
sparrow sp. 20 0
Western Meadowlark 6 0
Red-winged Blackbird 9 200
Rusty Blackbird 24 0