The International Shorebird Survey (ISS) in Manitoba – an Encouraging Start

Many readers will recall two excellent reports from Sabina and Lynnea, describing a workshop we attended in May. The Workshop was organised by Manomet, NCC, Environment and Climate Change Canada, BSC, and ourselves, and was hosted by NCC at their Jiggin’s Bluff property in the Oak Lake and Plum Lakes IBA. It also included a trip to Whitewater Lake IBA. Our ultimate goal was to establish the International Shorebird Survey (ISS) in Manitoba, and this blog covers the first ever shorebird surveys delivered as part of this program.

ISS Methods

ISS requires long-term monitoring of predetermined transect routes. For anyone familiar with the Nocturnal Owl Survey or Breeding Bird Survey, it is similar in that the route is set, and does not change (with the usual caveats). The transects (and points) are driven (you can walk but it might take a few days). Every shorebird encountered within 200m either side of the transect is recorded. Shorebirds outside this transect are not recorded under ISS, but can be included on separate checklists. Data is entered on eBird under the International Shorebird Survey Protocol, and each transect is entered separately. Non-shorebirds can be added on the ISS protocol on eBird. We are also entering shorebirds which were not seen as a zero in eBird, which is not obviously something we usually do. If you are concerned about not getting significant data under IBA Protocol, contact us, and we will work something out!

Oak Lake and Plum Lakes IBA ISS Route

Christian Artuso (BSC), Rebekah Neufeld and Josh Dillabough (NCC), and Ward Christianson (IBA volunteer), trialed this route on July 26th. Shorebirds were thin on the ground due to high water levels in creeks which feed the ephemeral lakes and wetlands around Oak Lake. The high water levels were not due to rain (the grass was apparently yellow and dry), but most likely due to water being drained into waterways outside of Manitoba. The route started north of Oak Lake Resort, and four different transects were run within the total survey area. A fifth area was inaccessible as a road was covered with water. The idea was to cover all the best known shorebird spots in this IBA.

You can view the map of the survey area below (thanks to Rebekah Neufeld of NCC for making the maps).

Oak Plum Lake North

Oak Plum Lake South

The most abundant shorebird species across the four transects was the Lesser Yellowlegs, followed by Killdeer and Wilson’s Phalarope. In total, 12 species were recorded. This contrasted with a count of over 1,000 Lesser Yellowlegs in August 2017 by Garry Budyk, John Weier and Rudolf Koes, all in the NCC Jiggin’s Bluff Property. The contrast is stark, demonstrating how shorebird habitat can be localised, variable – and under threat due to changes in land management activities from outside the local area.

American Avocet 1
Killdeer 39
Upland Sandpiper 10
Marbled Godwit 3
Least Sandpiper 6
Pectoral Sandpiper 1
Short-billed Dowitcher 3
Wilson’s Snipe 2
Wilson’s Phalarope 31
Spotted Sandpiper 6
Greater Yellowlegs 12
Lesser Yellowlegs 53

The count is due to be repeated in mid-August.

Whitewater Lake IBA ISS West and East

Due to its large size, variable water levels and usual high concentrations of shorebirds, it was decided to establish east and west ISS surveys at Whitewater Lake. The idea is that a group could either run both on a single day, or if they chose, only run one. This would save time, and hopefully increase the number of surveys delivered in a year (we hope some visitors will elect to do an ISS as part of their birding trip to Whitewater).

On July 29th, Christian Artuso (BSC), Colin Blyth and Gillian Richards (IBA Caretakers), and Tim Poole (MB IBA), ran all of the western transect and part of the eastern, time running out to complete the east due to a prearranged engagement. The western route took around 3 hours, reflecting not so much the vast amounts of driving but actually the impressive numbers of shorebirds, and the time taken to tease out the differences between each species of dowitcher. The eastern took an hour, but let’s say it should take usually under 2 hours all things considered.

Here are the maps (thanks again Rebekah).

WWL-West Route Map

WWL_East Route Map (1)

Of interest here were the water levels. In contrast to Oak Lake, we had a different issue Low water levels due to low rainfall had dried out some ephemeral wetlands. Some of these provided excellent foraging habitat for shorebirds during the May visit. The photo below was taken in May of shorebirds in a wetland on the west side of Whitewater Lake. Note that the water level was pretty much at the level of the dowitchers belly.

shorebird workshop day 2-1090557

3 Marbled Godwit (Left), 1 Long-billed Dowitcher standing in front of 1 Hudsonian Godwit (Right), Photo by Lynnea Parker

In contrast, this is the same spot in July, a barren desert for shorebirds:


Baked brown earth where once stood shorebirds in May. Photo by Gillian Richards

Or is it? Check again, your eyes may not see everything:

Buff-breasted Sandpiper_3076_4 in flock of 16_Artuso

What’s are those brown blobs on the dried mud? Copyright Christian Artuso

Hmm, let’s zoom in….

Buff-breasted Sandpiper_3078_Artuso

There’s something in the grass…. Copyright Christian Artuso

Buff-breasted Sandpiper!

Buff-breasted Sandpiper_3076c_4 in flock of 16_Artuso

Buff-breasted Sandpipers in the mud. Copyright Christian Artuso

In total, there were 16 Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a pretty good exchange for Hudsonian Godwit, Marbled Godwit and Long-billed Dowitcher! This species, globally Near Threatened, is one of the long-distant migrants of high conservation concern. They breed in the High Arctic and spend the winter in South American grasslands. In Manitoba, they are most often seen during fall migration, foraging in wet grasslands, sod fields and, in this case, a dry basin, with wet mud under the mud cracks where grass has begun to regrow.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper_3091_Artuso

Elegance! Buff-breasted Sandpiper, certainly a prize catch for a Manitoba birder. Copyright Christian Artuso

The total of dowitchers in the west were also impressive, nearly 2,000, primarily on roads closest to the lake. Most shorebirds are still in ephemeral wetlands right now, but the lake is dropping and more habitat is set to appear over the coming months. As mentioned above, the dowitchers were the greatest challenge, but were in most cases identified to species using a combination of sound, juvenile tertial markings and adult breeding plumage – we estimated totals via percentage of each species identified per flock.

You can read more on dowitcher identification on a previous IBA blitz blog from Whitewater Lake.

Long-billed Dowitcher_3063_mixed flock_Artuso

A carpet of dowitchers (and other shorebirds). pick a short-billed out of that! Copyright Christian Artuso

Long-billed Dowitcher_3069c_mixed flock_Artuso

Close-up of a dowitcher carpet. Copyright Christian Artuso

The east had an excellent spot, which included a Hudsonian Godwit among others. This was in a bay on the lake itself rather than int he adjacent fields and wetlands. The ephemeral wetlands which were full of shorebirds in August 2017 had dried out completely, another demonstration of how these birds are tied to ephemeral, seasonal habitats.

Long-billed Dowitcher_3061_mixed flock_artuso

Ok, this is still in the west, but another great shot of Whitewater Lake shorebirds. Copyright Christian Artuso

Here is a summary of the shorebirds submitted under the ISS protocol on eBird, Long-billed Dowitcher being our surprisingly most abundant species, followed by dowitcher sp, Short-billed Dowitcher and American Avocet.

American Avocet 418
Semipalmated Plover 39
Killdeer 86
Upland Sandpiper 11
Hudsonian Godwit 1
Marbled Godwit 82
Stilt Sandpiper 23
Baird’s Sandpiper 28
Least Sandpiper 40
Buff-breasted Sandpiper 16
Pectoral Sandpiper 141
Semipalmated Sandpiper 5
Short-billed Dowitcher 533
Long-billed Dowitcher 1,440
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher 970
Wilson’s Phalarope 236
Red-necked Phalarope 2
Spotted Sandpiper 6
Solitary Sandpiper 1
Greater Yellowlegs 28
Willet 6
Lesser Yellowlegs 272
shorebird sp. 1

Finally, a few other highlights. In addition to the usual Whitewater specialties of egrets and ibises, we can report a Prairie Falcon on the east side, and over 24,000 Bank Swallows, phenomenal numbers in an area which is obviously a significant pre-migratory spot for this species.

Over to you – and an opportunity

We are keen to roll out ISS in Manitoba outside these southwestern sites. However, for now, our priority is to get these routes up and running, and deliver replicates throughout the fall, at least two more being required at each route outlined above in the maps. To this end, we will run another training route, probably at Whitewater in the week of August 20th. If you are interested in attending, to learn about how to deliver ISS, how to identify shorebirds, and how to enter the data in eBird (really easy), then please email Tim at

If you cannot make this, but are interested in participating, again, please email at the above, and let’s see what we can do!