International Shorebird Survey at Whitewater Lake, Survey 2

What a site, what a moment. The sky is alive with shorebirds – hundreds, thousands! As a birdwatcher, it is moments like this that you wait for, and moments like this that make shorebirds such an appealing and wonderful group of birds.


The sky is alive with shorebirds! Copyright Tim Poole

This is our second ISS report for fall migration, 2018. A quick reminder first. Manitoba IBA are working with Manomet, Bird Studies Canada, NCC and Environment and Climate Change Canada to establish the International Shorebird Survey (ISS) in Manitoba. In July, Manitoba’s first ISS surveys were carried out at Whitewater Lake and Oak Lake (a detailed report, with full results and photos, can be viewed here). These surveys were carried out successfully, although Whitewater was notably more productive than Oak Lake in terms of shorebird numbers (Plum Lakes were overflowing, likely due to drainage outside of Manitoba). The most impressive numbers of shorebirds at Whitewater back in late July pertained to both dowitcher species, notably, and surprisingly, Long-billed Dowitcher, a species more commonly associated with late fall in Manitoba.

On Thursday, August 22nd, Lynnea Parker and I (Tim Poole), left Winnipeg early morning, before the sun had risen and the birds were chipping (it being fall of course birds tend to chip more than sing). A quick detour to collect some forgotten binoculars and check the check engine light, and we were off. Highway number 2 was fairly quiet, just a few Red-tailed Hawks, and the occasional mass gathering flocks of pre-migratory blackbirds to keep us company.

Arriving at Whitewater Lake, we decided to begin with the eastern ISS route. This meant we would not have the sun low directly behind any birds when we eventually arrived in the west. The eastern route is based in the northeastern corner of the IBA (see map below). In July, we ran out of time to look at the hatched area referred to as WWL_E3 below, but we made time on this occasion.

WWL_East Route Map (1)

Stop 1, and there were fewer birds than last time. A possible sign of what was to come? Sharp-tailed grouse were feeding on the grass near the edge of the water, and a couple of Bald Eagles were  standing on the ground at the waters edge. Interestingly, the shorebirds appeared to pay little attention to the eagles on the ground. I suspect they would have been a lot less relaxed if the eagle was in the air! Water levels appeared, if my memory is correct, to have receded since July.

We had good numbers of shorebirds, but nothing spectacular. The most interesting count was of 66 Black-bellied Plover, feeding in the grasslands at the edge of the water. 174 Least Sandpipers was the highest total of any species. There were also 78 American Avocet, a sharp drop from over 400 in July. There were also a 22 Marbled Godwit.


Marbled Godwit in flight. Copyright Tim Poole

Onto transect 2, and a Semipalmated Sandpiper managed to get itself caught on the road ahead. The wetlands appeared if anything, even drier than the sparse state encountered in July, the road was bone dry, and a poor sandpiper did not know where to go! This was the only shorebird on this transect – and it did eventually move off the road. We decided we would do the entire transect 3. Before heading west to the start of the transect, Lynnea spotted an American Bittern, and then even better, she spotted a group of juvenile Black-crowned Night Herons!


How many herons can you spot? Copyright Tim Poole


Where did the spare come from? Copyright Tim Poole

As the designated drive, Lynnea took her life in her own hands, and decided to drive her truck down the overgrown track, marked as the cross hatch on the map above. I thought better of it, and walked in front, the road looking somewhat disastrous in my eyes. In fact, we would need the truck for monitoring purposes, for reasons which will imminently become clearer.

Smaller flocks of peeps were darting around our heads as we made our way along the track. A large muddy field on the south side of the track did not look promising – until inspecting a shrinking pool of water a bit closer. At least 400 shorebirds were mingling out here, including Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plovers (at least 80), and plenty of smaller sandpipers. A couple of Buff-breasted Sandpiper were also foraging in the sparse grass, although the strong sun and distance made identification a challenge. Eventually, we teased out that the flock was dominated by Least Sandpipers, with a few scattered Baird’s and Semipalmated Sandpipers.


A muddy puddle, habitat to over 400 shorebirds. Copyright Tim Poole

While counting these birds, my eyes kept straying north and west, being pulled over by a mass of birds flying around. Thousands of shorebirds seemed to be flocking together, a wish to be counted evident in their continuous straining for our attention. This would be a challenge. We finished up on the south, and Lynnea edged the truck forward, hoping to avoid getting stuck in one of the many holes. A warning to anyone wishing to do ISS, or any birding here, the track is rough, very overgrown, and full of deep holes, so please be careful if you walk or drive.


A small sample of a larger whole. Copyright Tim Poole


Gulls and shorebirds. Look carefully at the back for a lot more shorebirds in a second flock, and along the shore at the rear. Copyright Tim Poole

The truck was very helpful though, one might even say, critical. It allowed us to watch the shorebirds from an elevated height, standing on the bed to look over the tall cattails. Sizeable flocks of smaller sandpipers, dominated by Semipalmated Sandpipers was our reward to getting up higher and scoping across. Given an estimated of 80% of this species, and an estimated flock size of over 4,000, we had a total area count of 3,290 Semipalmated Sandpipers. There were also Least’s and Baird’s Sandpipers in small, but still reasonably good numbers.


Large flock of shorebirds. The flock kept flushing and scattering, so that at times, we were losing birds, and times finding more. At one point, there were at least 6,000-8,000 shorebirds in sight. Copyright Tim Poole

A large flock of Franklin’s Gulls would flush and seemingly ‘dance’ with the flocking shorebirds, neither mixing, but both together, like oil and water.


Franklin’s Gulls on top, shorebirds underneath. Note the shorebirds along the shore behind the gulls in the left of the photo. Copyright Tim Poole

I pulled out three Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and tried to point them out to Lynnea. This would turn out to be a lifer for her. She found four – even better. When I asked her where her ‘buffies’ were, she pointed to the left of my three. When the entire surrounding flock of peeps took off, we were left with seven, yes SEVEN Buff-breasted Sandpipers. It was a remarkable support of our counting, given we had picked them out from the hundreds of other sandpipers!


Ok, not great, but I still think you can see these are Buff-breasted Sandpipers, even with such a lousy photo. Copyright Tim Poole

By my count, there were several thousand shorebirds along the shore, too distant to identify, apart from a flock of at least 100 Pectoral Sandpiper which flushed at an opportune moment, and at least 50 Marbled Godwit in the water. There were also some Canada Geese, and various distant ducks and waterbirds.


Canada Geese and various waterbirds at Whitewater. note the dotted shorebirds along the shore. The furthest corner of this bay had very high concentrations, which were too far even to be worth trying to photograph. Copyright Tim Poole

Lynnea executed a thirty point turn, and we were back on the main gravel road soon enough. The last mile of the transect being pretty much birdless. We headed over to the west, stopping briefly at Sexton’s for an extra ISS point. Here we saw little in the way of shorebirds, a Spotted Sandpiper, Killdeer and yellowlegs alone. We then drove to our western ISS start (map below).

WWL-West Route Map

By my estimate, water levels have been dropping all summer, and still are. There was very little water left in many ephemeral wetlands, to the extent that shorebirds numbers were much thinner on the ground. We were able, for the most part, to drive through much of this route quickly, checking where there was water for shorebirds, but seeing relatively few. Our total number of dowitchers for example, would total just over 2% of the total we counted in July. These species appeared to have moved on already.


The dowitcher totals were miniscule compared to July. Seen here with Lesser Yellowlegs and Pectoral Sandpiper. Copyright Tim Poole

The lake water levels on the third transect were intriguing, with a line of ‘beach’ beginning to develop in areas which, just two years ago, were under water. Away from the lake, there were no shorebird spots. There was a nice coyote though!


Coyote trying to hide. Copyright Tim Poole

Lynnea was introduced on our drive back to Boissevain to the glories of swallows in fall! Tree’s, Bank’s and Cliff’s were dispersed all over the road. Not as many were present as in July, but it was still pretty impressive. You can view three of her photos below.



Here are the round 1 and 2 totals for ISS at Whitewater Lake:

Species Name July Visit August Visit
Black-bellied Plover 68
Semipalmated Plover 39 80
Killdeer 68 41
Upland Sandpiper 1
Hudsonian Godwit 1
Marbled Godwit 82 72
Stilt Sandpiper 23
Baird’s Sandpiper 28 255
Least Sandpiper 40 989
Buff-breasted Sandpiper 16 9
Pectoral Sandpiper 139 143
Semipalmated Sandpiper 5 3,302
peep sp. 2,023
Short-billed Dowitcher 533
Long-billed Dowitcher 1,440 2
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher 970 66
Wilson’s Phalarope 234 1
Red-necked Phalarope 2 1
Spotted Sandpiper 6 1
Solitary Sandpiper 1
Greater Yellowlegs 27 61
Willet 6 12
Lesser Yellowlegs 237 116
shorebird sp. 1 865

We hope to get the Oak Lake ISS completed for a second time by the end of this week, and then we are determined to get the third visit completed by mid-September. If you are interested in helping out, please let us know – email