Surveying for Grassland Species At Risk in the Southwestern MB Mixed-Grass Prairie, and Oak Lake and Plum Lakes IBAs

Outside of the main Manitoba IBA volunteer programs, we have also been involved in a project with a number of partners to conserve grassland Species at Risk in southwestern Manitoba. We will publish a report on our monitoring efforts later this year, but we thought people may be interested in a short update from Lynnea Parker on what was done.

In June, I  helped Dr. Christian Artuso of Birds Studies Canada (BSC) conduct a series of bird surveys from Lyleton, north to Kirkella. These surveys were conducted as part of the Manitoba Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands (SARPAL) program, ‘Keep Grazing‘. The primary goal of ‘Keep Grazing’ is to offer landowners, primarily beef producers, incentives to adapt grazing regimes and incorporate beneficial management actions in the most important corridor for mixed-grass prairie Species at Risk remaining in Manitoba. BSC and the Manitoba IBA Program are providing bird surveys to support the incentives program. These surveys provide a baseline of what birds are present, and will, we hope, provide opportunities to further engage local landowners in grassland bird conservation schemes. 2018 marked the third year of the program, and the second year of field work, and bird surveys have been completed for 50 landowners encompassing 60 properties.

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A herd of cattle graze a pasture of mixed-grass prairie in southwestern Manitoba, photo by Lynnea Parker

I have always held a deep appreciation for field work as it connects me to the land and nature in ways that sightseeing from the road cannot. As I hiked across mixed-grass prairie this summer, I was reacquainted with how unique and diverse every remaining parcel of this threatened ecosystem is. While each section of grassland may appear homogeneous (the same) from the road, walking across the land enables one to see the differences in grass composition, plant and insect diversity, animals, and ground structure. No single parcel of land is the same as another, and this difference (heterogeneity) is a part of what makes grasslands and cattle grazing so important.

For specialist bird species, such as Baird’s Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit, and Chestnut-collared Longspur, heterogeneity is very important. Each of these grassland birds prefers habitat characteristics which are slightly different. These differences are usually noted in grass density and cover, among other factors such as the presence or absence of sage brush and wolf willow, and proximity to edges, such as roads and tree lines. It is these “special” habitat requirements paired with extensive habitat loss and degradation which has led to the declines of many grassland bird species.


A male Chestnut-collard Longspur in grazed mixed-grass prairie. Carefully look at the interaction between tufts of grass, bare ground, and species diversity. This demonstrates the heterogeneous habitats referred to in the remainder of the blog. Photo by Lynnea Parker

In contrast, generalist species, such as the Savannah Sparrow, Western Meadowlark, and Eastern Kingbird tend to be considered widespread and abundant. These species do not require specialized habitat features to remain successfully competitive in their environment. So why is heterogeneity actually important? it is important so that each species can find areas within a landscape which meet their own foraging and reproductive requirements. Cattle or bison create and maintain heterogeneity, both within a single grazing unit, and across the wider landscape. Simply put, different grazing strategies result in heterogeneous grass structures.


A Western Meadowlark perched on a fence, photo by Lynnea Parker

Getting back to my summer experience, Christian and I would wake up before sunrise so that we could survey from 5:00 am to 10:00 am every morning. Depending on the size of a given property, we would attempt to conduct between 9 and 21 point counts, a minimum distance of 350 meters apart. These point counts provided a snapshot of the bird diversity at each site. Once and a while a herd of cattle, or in one instance horses, would get overly curious and run over to investigate my presence. After a morning of surveys, we would typically return to the field house in Pierson to backup our data and take a nap. Christian was fond of taking a drive in the evening to bird in Saskatchewan for the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas and sneak in some owling. On occasion we would also take detours on our way back to the field house to see a new area or find a particular species, such as the rare Lazuli Bunting! (featured below)


A rare male Lazuli Bunting is shown on the left, and a Lazuli Bunting x Indigo Bunting hybrid is shown on the right. Both of these birds were seen at the same location along the Antler River near Lyleton! Photos by Christian Artuso

A male Lazuli Bunting has been spending the last few summers in a known location along the Antler River, southeast of Lyleton. While I had seen this rarity last summer with Christian, we both had wondered if it would return again this year. After arriving at the spot we had detected it previously, we found a bird… just not the one we were expecting to see! Darting between the branches, pausing briefly to sing, we saw a vibrant blue bird with white underparts and white wing bar. Now this was odd, as we both knew male Lazuli Buntings had an orange breast for starters. It was Christian who identified it as a probable hybrid, which was later confirmed! This individual was a Lazuli x Indigo bunting. Just to make matters more interesting, Indigo Buntings do not generally occur near Lyleton either.

After spending some time at the site to obtain photographic documentation, the true male Lazuli Bunting made an appearance. With both birds on site, it was a special opportunity to see them in close comparison.

I thoroughly enjoyed spending time this summer near Pierson, Melita, and Lyleton. I would highly encourage anyone with a love of nature to take a trip to the southwest corner to see for yourself what these grasslands have to offer.


Upper left: an Upland Sandpiper near Lyleton, lower left: male Brown-headed Cowbirds, right: mixed-grass prairie, photos by Lynnea Parker


List of August Events for the Manitoba IBA Program

Here is a list of some upcoming Manitoba IBA events for August

August 12th – Delta Marsh IBA Blitz

Join us for an exciting blitz in the world famous Delta Marsh. We will be counting some of the specialty species of the area including shorebirds, grebes and wading birds. We will begin early and be finished by lunchtime

August 16th – Riverton Sandy Bar weed pull

It is the time for our annual Riverton Sandy Bar weed pull. held in conjunction with IBA Caretaker Joanne Smith, this is an excellent opportunity to roll up your sleeves and help recreate the Piping Plover habitat for which this area was once known.  We’ll meet at 8:45 am at the parking area and then take the 15 minute walk out to the sandbar area together. We hope to pull weeds (which will most likely involve some birding) for three or four hours, depending on the weather. If you can even help for an hour or two, it would be greatly appreciated. Please bring gloves, hat, sunscreen, water and a bag lunch. Snacks and refreshments will be provided.

Below is an extract of the Express Weekly News announcing this excellent event.


August 26th – North, West and East Shoal Lakes IBA Blitz

Our fall program begins with an exciting opportunity to visit the excellent North, West and East Shoal Lakes. The data generated will give us a flavour of the populations of birds in this globally significant place for nature. Shoal Lakes IBA is a great place to see rare species including large wading birds, shorebirds and migrant water and songbirds. A late breakfast/lunch will be part of this package!

Fall events

We will be running a few waterfowl counting events around the province. Look out for announcements in September. We also plan to run a new event – ‘The Great Sandhill Crane Search’. This will focus on an area from Virden to the southwest corner of the province and will take place in October.

The 2018 Red-headed Woodpecker Blitz

On Sunday July 15th, the Manitoba IBA Program organised a blitz in the Kinosota-Leifur IBA. Our aim, to count the elusive and threatened Red-headed Woodpecker. Tim Poole, Manitoba IBA Coordinator describes what happened.

It’s 4am, and bleary eyed, I stumble out of bed and into my clothes for the day. Packing up the lunchtime picnic into a coolbox, it’s time to strike the road, to head to Alonsa, an area in the centre of one of Manitoba’s least known, but most intriguing IBAs. En route, I collected Lynnea Parker and Katherine Schulz, and we were soon on the Trans Canada, heading west past Portage la Prairie. As the dawn cracked, the birds came out, huge numbers of Franklin’s Gulls ‘hawking’ for food in agricultural fields.

It took over two hours to reach Alonsa. We met up with local Red-headed Woodpecker guru, Harry Harris. Harry was the instigator of this IBA back in the 1990’s. In Fact, Harry as manager of the Alonsa Conservation District had not only put together the information which led to the IBAs designation, he also spent much contributing to the species conservation, via advocacy, outreach, and conservation agreements. This was obviously the guy we needed on board for this search!


Today’s extremely handsome target species, the rare Red-headed Woodpecker. Photo copyright Randy Mooi

After talking one person up, it turns out I was not even in Harry’s group! Lynnea joined Harry, and local enthusiasts, Dick and Natalie Gordon. This was group C for the day, and no doubt this group were going to find a number of woodpecker territories. I had teamed up with Katharine and a new family for an IBA blitz, local shop owners, Frank, Lily and Mike Chen. They were new to the area, new to the woodpecker, but very keen to learn. We were the so-called group B and based to the south and east of Alonsa. In group A, Jo Swartz, Betsy Thorsteinson, Sabina Mastrolonardo and Christian Artuso headed north of Silver Ridge around Kinosota. Randy and Odette Mooi were in the southwest, having spent the night in a luxury pad in McCreary. This was our Group D.

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As stated above, our intention was to target and find Red-headed Woodpeckers in suitable habitat. Fortunately, this is a species with quite particular habitat requirements. They require mature, scattered trees, usually aspen, some standing deadwood, or snags on living trees, little or no shrub cover, and very sparse understorey. This habitat is usually associated with cattle grazing, but can also be found in well managed yard sites. Fortunately, the Kinosota-Leifur IBA is one the premier places for this species in Manitoba, primarily due to presence of cattle in woodlots throughout the summer.

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Cattle in a wood lot. This combination is the ideal place for Red-headed Woodpeckers (although these trees may be a bit too spindly). Copyright Randy Mooi

The plan for each groups then was to find the cows. Find the cows and you find the birds. Some of us seemed to spend a lot of time taking photos of cows in fact.

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More friendly cows saying hello! Copyright Randy Mooi

Initially our group headed out in two vehicles, with the intention of leaving one in Silver Ridge. Our first attempts at finding woodpeckers ended with no joy, although we were able to point out some of the other calling birds in the area to the Chen family.

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One of the first calling birds in the early morning sunshine was a Sandhill Crane. Unfortunately we never saw them, but Randy and Odette did get a very good view! Photo copyright Randy Mooi

We picked up our first Red-headed Woodpeckers on about our third stop. Frank, on his first ever search for this species, managed to find one with an absolutely cracking spot on top of a tree. Brilliant! What’s more, at this and our second stop, we managed to pull out 4 woodpeckers, assuming we had 2 breeding pairs in each patch of habitat.


Overexposed and distant, but this striking pose is irresistible. Copyright Tim Poole

Jumping into a single vehicle at Silver Ridge, we headed off towards the east side of the highway, zigzagging across country in search of our target species. A Black-billed Cuckoo was among the other highlight birds of the morning. Northern Flickers undulated between trees, and Le Contes Sparrow called from the ditches. Fields of Ring-billed Gulls also gathered, a sign that summer is beginning to wane, and birds are starting to gather for a trip to the sun.

In total, we found a not unreasonable 15 Red-headed Woodpeckers, and I can assure you, with very high winds making listening incredibly difficult, we left a few woodpeckers out there, undiscovered by us. We did find a woodpecker entering its nesting cavity, and we also noted one in with a paddock of bison.


A Red-headed Woodpecker appeared as if from nowhere next to some yard sites on top of this hydro pole. Copyright Tim Poole

What of the other groups?

Group A managed to find a very impressive 13 woodpeckers in the north, although a few were north of the new IBA boundary (note to oneself, the boundary might need further revision). They managed to pick out a California Gull (which is why one should always bird with Christian), a single Eastern Wood-Pewee, and even a Nashville Warbler and a Black and White Warbler. The oak woodland west of Kinosota, an old area for Red-headed Woodpecker offered no luck on this occasion. Bobolinks were also among the species found.

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This pair of Bobolink either had a major argument, or they really are convinced that no one can see them. Photo copyright Randy Mooi

Group C, driven by Harry were able to find an estimated 10 pairs, although we had to knock off a couple of the birds as they managed to stray into Randy and Odettes area! Other birding highlights included a recently fledged group of Sharp-tailed Grouse.

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IBAs are not good for birds, hence this stunning Great Spangled Fritillary (thanks Deanna Dodgson for the i.d.). Photo copyright Randy Mooi

Group D, Randy and Odette Mooi began their scouting on Saturday, looking for woodpeckers in an area south of the current IBA boundary. The area around Kelwood did not turn up any woodpeckers. However, they had far more success driving along 79W, counting 9 relatively concentrated adults, pertaining to at least 5 territories.

Photos above show Red-headed Woodpeckers in the early evening light on snags. Both Copyright Randy Mooi.

The following morning, Randy and Odette searched the southwestern corner of the IBA, coming up with 5 woodpeckers on 5 territories, although there was a wee bit of overlap with the birds from the night before (this is shy we have GPS’s to record coordinates). Another highlight of their morning was a count of 10 Bobolinks, a grassland Species at Risk. Oh, and the two Upland Sandpipers spotted on Saturday evening was another decent species for this area. Being Curator of Zoology at the Manitoba Museum, Randy could not resist checking out a few things en route to look at, including the below Plains Garter Snake, which was both pregnant and rather full of food!

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Plains Garter Snake – pregnant female that ate something big. Copyright Randy Mooi

So there we have it, a very tidy total of Red-headed Woodpeckers for a very blustery morning, with volunteers who on the whole had never seen the area before. So what were our totals? First, here is our map of Red-headed Woodpeckers found over 2 days (the 9 from Randy and Odette from the previous day are added as they were still on breeding territories). There is certainly one road I would now drive down to look for this species!

July 2018 K-L blitz RHWO locations

The total figures for Red-headed Woodpecker, excluding those birds found outside the IBA, and double-counts was:

In IBA Outside IBA Total
Number of Individuals 39 12 51
Possible Breeding Territories  26 8 34

With at least 8 territories outside the IBA boundary, in large concentrations, I think another small revision might be required!

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There is something almost frightening about a Red-headed Woodpecker surging headlong towards you! Is it the balck and white warning signs on the body and wings? Or the large red alert sign on the head? Photo copyright Randy Mooi

Here is our total IBA results for Sunday (Red-headed Woodpecker excluded). In total, 84 species were noted and over 3000 birds, most of which were Ring-billed Gulls in one field!

Canada Goose 20
Tundra Swan 1
Mallard 6
Green-winged Teal 1
Ring-necked Duck 1
Sharp-tailed Grouse 7
Double-crested Cormorant 1
American White Pelican 36
American Bittern 1
Great Blue Heron 2
Great Egret 1
Turkey Vulture 3
Northern Harrier 1
Bald Eagle 2
Broad-winged Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 10
Virginia Rail 2
Sandhill Crane 5
Killdeer 9
Marbled Godwit 2
Wilson’s Snipe 2
Franklin’s Gull 6
Ring-billed Gull 1,651
California Gull 1
Black Tern 6
Mourning Dove 13
Black-billed Cuckoo 4
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 11
American Kestrel 46
Merlin 7
Eastern Wood-Pewee 1
Alder Flycatcher 1
Least Flycatcher 7
Eastern Phoebe 4
Great Crested Flycatcher 4
Western Kingbird 5
Eastern Kingbird 18
Warbling Vireo 10
Red-eyed Vireo 15
Blue Jay 1
Black-billed Magpie 24
American Crow 30
Common Raven 23
Purple Martin 19
Tree Swallow 8
Barn Swallow 70
Cliff Swallow 6
swallow sp. 75
Black-capped Chickadee 8
House Wren 14
Sedge Wren 5
Marsh Wren 17
Eastern Bluebird 1
bluebird sp. 2
American Robin 32
Gray Catbird 7
Brown Thrasher 1
European Starling 23
Black-and-white Warbler 1
Nashville Warbler 1
Common Yellowthroat 11
American Redstart 1
Yellow Warbler 10
LeConte’s Sparrow 6
Chipping Sparrow 4
Clay-colored Sparrow 29
White-throated Sparrow 4
Vesper Sparrow 1
Savannah Sparrow 23
Song Sparrow 36
Swamp Sparrow 2
Bobolink 15
Western Meadowlark 30
Baltimore Oriole 3
Red-winged Blackbird 194
Brown-headed Cowbird 27
Brewer’s Blackbird 98
Common Grackle 8
blackbird sp. 350
American Goldfinch 20
House Sparrow 3

On completion of the blitz, each group made their way down to Hollywood Beach, part of the Sandy Bay Marshes IBA for a picnic. In addition to a slightly confused lone Tundra Swan, we had a really good list of migrant shorebirds on the shoreline. One Pectoral Sandpiper even threw one of our number into confusion (there were some similarities with Great Knot) – but Randy set that person straight. The number of northern shorebirds was very interesting in July, and indicative of news from the north that many High Arctic shorebirds have had a poor breeding season. In addition to the aforementioned Pecs, we had Stilts, Semipalmated Sandpipers and Plover, Baird’s, Least and Red-necked Phalaropes.

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Marbled Godwits on the shore. Now, is that a Great Knot in the background? Photo Copyright Tim Poole

Here is our Sandy Bay Marshes IBA checklist courtesy of Lynnea Parker:

Tundra Swan 1
American White Pelican 8
Semipalmated Plover 1
Killdeer 1
Stilt Sandpiper 28
Baird’s Sandpiper 3
Semipalmated Sandpiper 1
Least Sandpiper 1
Pectoral Sandpiper 2
Red-necked Phalarope 5
Bonaparte’s Gull 26
Ring-billed Gull 10
Caspian Tern 1
Black Tern 22
Sedge Wren 2
Song Sparrow 1

So there we have it, another blitz completed, and a rather fun one at that. We managed to cover two IBAs and find a trigger for the primary target species.

Thank you to everyone who came along at the weekend: Jo, Betsy, Sabina, Christian, Frank, Lily, Mike, Katharine, Harry, Dick, Natalie, Lynnea, Randy and Odette. Thanks to Randy also for the great photos.

There is more to come for the remainder of the summer for this program. Watch this space!

Clearing Your Gear, One Piece At a Time

On Wednesday July 11th, a small group of Manitoba IBA volunteers got together at Saint Ambroise Beach Provincial Park (in Delta Marsh IBA) for our inaugural beach cleanup. This event was in partnership with the excellent new Clear Your Gear Initiative, launched recently by Minister of Sustainable Development, Rochelle Squires.

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Clear Your Gear pail with logo. Photo copyright Lynnea A. Parker

This initiative was launched because many birds and other wildlife are at risk of being caught in angling material. Angling material, including hooks, floats and lines, can enter our water systems by accident. For example, line can break fairly easy, or nets can get washed away. In many cases, wildlife can become entangled, leading to suffocation, drowning or starvation. This is something that no one wants to see. Judy Robertson, an experienced wildlife rehabilitation specialist from Wildlife Haven, has been planning the Manitoba Clear Your Gear Initiative for a few years, partnering with Manitoba Sustainable Development and TransCanada. The initial focus for the project is Lockport, with its large catfish fishery being in close proximity to large concentrations of American White Pelicans. This has been modeled on an initiative from Sanibel-Captiva in Florida – they were even allowed to borrow the name!

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An American White Pelican with monofilament wrapped around its wing. This photo was taken in June at East Shoal Lake IBA. Photo copyright Lynnea A. Parker

Independently of the higher level discussions, the Manitoba IBA Program has been planning to do a workparty for a couple of years in an IBA. With the launch of Clear Your Gear, it was certainly a good time to do this, and we were delighted that they were willing to support our endeavours.

The primary intention of Clear Your Gear is to clear any monofilament line from our waterways. Monofilament, single strand fishing line, can now be recycled, and Clear Your Gear will now prepaid provide boxes to send the material to a recycling area.


Fishing net tangled on the beach. Photo copyright Tim Poole

Last Wednesday, 9 people came together at Saint Ambroise. Our team was Barbara and Phil Barnett, Michele and Mike Tumber, Bonnie Chartier, Lynnea Parker, Sabina Mastrolonardo, Christian Artuso and Tim Poole. We split the beach into different sections: Christian, Mike and Sabina heading west towards Clandeboye; Lynnea and Michele were dropped at the east end of the beach and walking back towards the parking lot and; Barbara, Phil, Bonnie and Tim working out from the middle. Overall we probably covered around 3km and managed to collect a pretty impressive amount of material.

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Large amounts of materials were collected on the beach. Photo copyright Lynnea A. Parker

Some of the material really took some heavy lifting to remove, even needing two people to drag it together. Other materials needed to be dragged in any way possible.

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Hooking up the nets to make dragging easier. Lynnea was photographed here by Michele Tumber

The interesting factor from this cleanup was that apart from one set of hooks, almost all the angling gear taken from the beach belonged to fishing nets rather than individual line. We discovered after the fact that the ice fishing fishery of Lake Manitoba leads to many nets getting stranded following ice break. We removed more than a dozen nets from the beach itself, and left a few which were either buried, or too large to drag away. Just to labour the point about damage to wildlife, the remains of a Red-winged Blackbird were pulled from a net. The problem is fairly extensive – we only covered around 3km after all, with the IBA also including Twin Lakes and Delta Beaches.


Remains of a Red-winged Blackbird in a fishing net. Photo copyright Sabina Mastrolonardo

As mentioned before, this was very much our inaugural and trial event. We learnt a fair few lessons. One was that we would need more heavy duty tools to cut through the ropes on the nets. We also realised that we would need a larger vehicle than any we had available to haul this material away. Indeed, it was very apparent that a truck would be required. Step in Mike and Michel, who drove the hour back to Saint-François Xavier to collect their truck and the hour back again. They loaded the truck, and then took it home for a few days, only being relieved of their load on Monday morning. Heroes!

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The team and their plunder. Photo copyright Lynnea A. Parker

We were also grateful to the very helpful guy from Manitoba Sustainable Development, who was delighted with our efforts, and let us store the gear in his compound.


Huge amounts of waste. Photo copyright Sabina Mastrolonardo

All in all this was a very successful morning. Christian and Michele began the process of removing the cement weights and floats from the nets on the beach (if anyone would like these, please let us know). Mike and Michele continued this work at home, and sent the lead weights to a scrap metal dealer. We still have the monofilament to remove from the ropes on the nets – and if anyone would like to join us for a fund day removing this material, please let us know. There will be a small workparty in a yard in Winnipeg at some point soon.

Thank you everyone who made this into a very successful day out! Thank you also to our various funders, including Environment and Climate Change Canada, Manitoba Fish and Wildlife Enhancement Fund, TD Friends of the Environment Foundation, and Noventis Credit Union.