North, West and East Shoal Lakes IBA Blitz Report

On August 26th, 2018, the Manitoba IBA Program were joined by 20 volunteers to go forthwith and count birds in the North, West and East Shoal Lakes IBA. And what a lovely morning was had by all! Tim Poole summarises a morning of haze, sunshine, and a fair few birds.

Manitoba sunrises can be quite spectacular, and Sunday morning was no different. The drive to Shoal Lakes seemed to offer the ideal conditions for sunrise photography: the mist appeared to hover over the waters and trees; the sky above was perfectly clear and; the sun peaked over the horizon with perfect timing.

It seems I was not the only person to think this, and the below offerings were taken by volunteers out and about on Sunday morning.

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Early morning smoky haze. Copyright: Sabina Mastrolonardo

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Hovering clouds (note where they were on Sabina’s photo above). Copyright Jo Swartz

 

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Red sky in the morning, something about a warning. Copyright Jo Swartz

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Haunting clouds in the early morning sunrise. Copyright Lynnea Parker

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West Shoal Lake pelicans. Copyright Lynnea Parker

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Pelicans on West Shoal Lake in the dawn. Copyright Tim Poole

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Belted Kingfisher silhouette looking for a meal. Copyright: Sabina Mastrolonardo

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Spot the pro! Copyright Garry Budyk

Well, that was quite some trail of images. I guess anyone still reading by this point will be impressed with: a) the photography skills of our volunteers and; b) the inspiration of a Manitoba Interlake sunrise.

‘BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BIRDS’ I hear you shout. Well, they were pretty great too. After all, Shoal Lakes is a birding spot which rarely disappoints.

We had 20 volunteers turn out Sunday morning in total. Most had attended at least one IBA event previously, but we were also fortunate to have master birder, Rudolf Koes, and Master of Ornithology, Jenny Yoo, join us for their first ever IBA events. We decided with such good numbers to split the IBA into 5 areas, and even add a sixth on the northeastern boundary, looking to see if there were any significant avian gems in this relatively underexplored area. Below is our survey area for the morning.

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Each group set out to count as many birds as possible, focusing also on those all important Species At Risk. Here we offer a quick summary from each group.

Group 1 (checklist 1, checklist 2, checklist 3, checklist 4, checklist 5, checklist 6, checklist 7)

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Our first group consisted of Jo, Betsy and Sabina. We set them the task of birding the eastern side of the IBA. They began at East Shoal Lake east of Erinview. One of the highlights was a Peregrine Falcon, always a highlight bird on a blitz (usually because it has the effect of putting up every other bird present in the area).

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Peregrine Falcon with a Gull sp. lurking behind and to the right of the falcon. Copyright: Sabina Mastrolonardo

Raptors would feature heavily in most groups over the day, and Cooper’s Hawk was seen relatively frequently.

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Cooper’s Hawks are showing up really well right now. Copyright Betsy Thorsteinson

Of course, waterbirds were going to always be a highlight in a lake system IBA, and here was no different. 150 Western Grebes were counted at East Shoal Lake. A further 44 were spotted on North Shoal Lake from the now accessible PR416 where it turns to the north along the lake shore. Indeed, the shorelines were beginning to recede along the lake, providing habitat for long-legged waders such as the Great Blue Heron and Great Egret. Before lunch, they also managed to find one of the Least Bitterns along the north side of North Shoal Lake – a good thing, as the bird was obviously hunkered down when other groups drove through the area.

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Great-blue Heron with Bald Eagle in the background. Copyright: Sabina Mastrolonardo

Group 2 (checklist 1, checklist 2)

Group 2 map overview

Our southern group consisted of Lewis, Ken, Jock and Chris. This group were tasked with discovering whether there were spots to access the lake from the south, and counting from where the lake can be accessed at the south ends of East and West Shoal Lakes. The group managed to find 39 western Grebes, and 7 species of shorebirds, including Semipalmated – Plover and Sandpiper – and a few Baird’s Sandpiper.

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This group counted 9 Red-tailed Hawk alone. Copyright Garry Budyk

Chris was scribe for the morning and made a couple of interesting observations, comparing what he was seeing with what was noted at Delta Marsh earlier in the month:

‘Just a couple of observations, especially after doing the Delta count two weeks ago. As we mentioned in the car, total blackbird numbers were way down, with no Brewers seen. Also no swallows identified except Barn. There were also a lot of singleton sightings (15 species by a quick count).’

You will see at the end if the observations about low numbers of blackbirds and swallows was the same for other groups, but let’s just say that these comments appear pertinent…

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Although swallows were present, numbers were notably fewer than Delta Marsh earlier in August. Copyright Jo Swartz

Group 3 (checklist)

Group 3 map overview

The below was written by Lynnea Parker. En route to the start, this group were fortunate to spot a posing Bald Eagle in the early morning sunshine.

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Gorgeous Bald Eagle. Copyright Katharine Schulz

‘Group 3 was located on the west side of the three lakes and contained the north half of West Shoal Lake and the northwestern side of East Shoal Lake. Tim Poole was dropped off at the crossing of North and East Shoal Lake to walk across the decommissioned road as part of group 1. After dropping Tim off to fend for himself, Jenny, Katharine and myself (Lynnea) decided to head back south to the beginning of our survey area. We found good numbers of Western Grebe on West Shoal Lake despite their distance and obscurity in the scope. This first stop along the shoreline also provided a good learning opportunity to get reacquainted with the differences between Forester’s Tern and Common Tern. 

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Western Grebe in East Shoal Lake. Copyright Lynnea Parker

At East Shoal Lake, we had very limited access to look for waterbirds. The cattails were very tall and stretched out far into the lake. Despite this, we were able to find a piece of ground just elevated enough to count grebes on the lake with a scope. We were also surprised to hear American Avocets calling from the opposite side of the cattails.

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Feeding Lesser Yellowlegs. Copyright Katharine Schulz

Our most interesting observation of the day however was watching Common Grackles feed on acorns. The birds at first appeared to be Brewer’s Blackbirds, but we realized a short while later that they were actually Grackles which were molting and had rather unusual looking tails. Some birds even had a starling-like profile in flight, with no tail at all! 

We finished off our survey with a fantastic Red-headed Woodpecker that Katharine spotted as we were leaving. We quickly backtracked to the area she had seen it disappear and were able to confirm the sighting. This event was also Jenny’s first time participating in an IBA event, and she did a great job as notetaker and learning the avian 4-letter codes.’

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A juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron. Copyright Katharine Schulz

Group Tim (checklist 1, checklist 2)

Look at the map for Group 3, and you will spot points mentioning “DROP TIM’ and ‘PICKUP TIM’. My role in this blitz was to put my life in danger, and walk the flooded PR415 from west to east. This is a route previously walked in blitzes by Christian (for example August 2015, October 2015 and May 2018). In the past, the walk was impressive due to the large number of Sora and Virginia rails scuttling across the road. I had high expectations obviously that these birds would be much obliging on this occasion. The Common Yellowthroat numbers have previously also been impressive along here

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Ok, I confess, the line above was put in as an excuse to use Garry’s lovely capture of this Common Yellowthroat! Copyright Garry Budyk

Lynnea, Katharine and Jenny dropped me at my start point, and I was immediately impressed by the cacophony of calling songbirds, Western Grebes and corvids. There were two Eastern Wood-Pewee’s calling from the trees – or was it three pewees?Regardless, over a short period, I was able to detect six species of flycatcher (Yellow-bellied, Great-crested, Least, Alder, Eastern Wood-Pewee and Eastern Phoebe), and 11 species of Wood Warbler (American Redstart, Magnolia, Cape May, Blackburnian, Black-and-White, Yellow, Tennessee, Nashville, Palm, Common Yellowthroat and Northern Waterthrush). A Lincoln’s Sparrow was also quickly followed by a Le Conte’s Sparrow.

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Great-crested Flycatcher hiding in the shrubbery. Copyright Tim Poole

Onward I trotted. Well, not too far. Being elevated on a track, it was easy to spot the 78 Western Grebes bobbing up and down along the northern shore of East Shoal Lake. Cutting down into the mud, there was space to walk and check for shorebirds along the edge. Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper, and the obligatory Killdeer were present here. A quick check, and with ducks, overhead herons and pelicans, I must have counted around 60 species, and I was not even an hour in. In fact, I probably covered only a few hundred metres that first hour, focusing as it were, on getting closer to the lake.

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Typical wetland habitat on the side of PR415. Copyright Tim Poole

The shorebird list started to pick up. Pectoral Sandpipers flew overhead. Least Sandpipers were appearing and Semipalmated Plover were spotted distantly feeding on mudbanks in what must have been flooded fields. Pelicans and Caspian Tern also gathered on the shores in small groups. Great Egrets were also regularly popping up, as were the obligatory Bald Eagle and Northern Harrier.

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Great Egrets were relatively abundant along PR415, at least 26 being spotted. Copyright Tim Poole

Around the bend, and things would not slow up. eventually, about a mile from the east shoreline of North Shoal Lake, I could make out Western Grebes, both on within the adjacent wetlands, and in the lake itself. Over 150 were present here. A couple of juvenile Blac-crowned Night Heron flush, followed by a duck, and lo and behold, a Least Bittern, a marvelous miniature heron. Stilt Sandpipers also made an appearance south of the road, near an abandoned hut. In fact, the hut may not be completely abandoned as evidenced by quad tracks, and a couple walking their dog.

Eventually I could see my rescuers on the far end of the track, Jo, Betsy and Sabina, and I made my way to safety. Well, I say safety, but to my surprise, the Sora and Virginia Rail numbers were not what I expected, the road being completely dry in all but one slightly muddy spot.

In total I noted 86 species of bird, including 12 species of shorebird. numbers were not significant in any areas, but it is clear to me that if the lake levels continue to drop, the habitat is going to become very VERY suitable for shorebirds.

Finally, a note on the road. This road has been closed since the three Shoal Lakes became one (didn’t the Spice Girls sing a song about this?). Most of the road would be driveable now, if it were not for some small areas of extreme damage. The western end is especially bad, probably due to people attempting to drive on a flooded road. There is also a hole in the road in the east end, which would be impossible for a vehicle to drive over. On the other hand, it is an excellent walk. I wore rubber boots (wellies), and needed them briefly when I left the road, and at one low point, but even then, the water was very shallow.

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Typical image of PR 415. Some spots are more vegetated, and there are a few pinch points where the road is impassable, but a pleasant, easy walk all the same. Copyright Tim Poole

Group 4 (checklist)

Group 4 map overview

Has any IBA blitz group been as overloaded with very highly regarded birders as this one? Gene Walz (author of ‘Happiness is a Rare Bird), Rudolf Koes, and Peter Taylor (all three were contributors to the ‘Birds of Manitoba’, Rudolf doing the spectacular paintings, and Peter being the editor-in-chief, plus Rudolf and Peter are editors of the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas). That’s some team – no pressure guys!

This group counted around the northern end of North Shoal Lake. In total they found 86 species, including 10 species of shorebird. Highlights included 47 Semipalmated Plover, and 58 Killdeer. They also found 5 Red-headed Woodpecker.

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Recently fledged Red-headed Woodpecker. Copyright Garry Budyk

Group 5 (checklist 1, checklist 2)

Group 5 map overview

A couple of years ago, we designed an IBA extension to take in an area north of North Shoal Lake around Lindal’s Lake. this area was covered by Garry, John W and John H.

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The two John’s attempting to find a bird in the early morning mist. Copyright Garry Budyk

This group also managed to find a fair few Red-headed Woodpecker, a total of 9 including 5 juveniles. Another Species-at-risk recorded was the Bobolink, the group finding 4 in total.

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Bobolink on a wire. Copyright Garry Budyk

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Two Bobolinks on a wire. Copyright Garry Budyk

Another treat was the group of 12 Trumpeter Swans, a species which is a great success story having once been extirpated from our province.

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Trumpeter Swan on Lindal’s Lake. Copyright Garry Budyk

Group 6 (checklist)

Group 6 map overview

Bonnie, Pat and Dave were our final group, and we set them a task of looking for birds around Dennis Lake, north of Inwood, and outside the IBA boundary. This was an interesting section, very little in the way of waterbirds, but with a fair few Red-headed Woodpeckers, at least 6 in total. Sharp-shinned Hawk was another highlight. There appeared to be good numbers of Barn Swallows, over 200 in fact, and even a couple of Brown Thrasher.

Thanks!

Before heading to the results section, thank you to everyone, Jo, Betsy, Sabina, Chris, Jock, Ken, Lewis, Katharine, Jenny, Lynnea, Rudolf, Peter, Gene, Garry, John W, John H, Pat, Dave, and Bonnie. Thank you especially to the anonymous donor who paid for lunch for everyone at Rosie’s in Inwood.

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Blitz groups 1, 3 and 6. Copyright Tim Poole

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Blitz groups 2, 4 and 5. Copyright Lynnea Parker

Results

A total of 152 species and 7,868 individuals was  impressive. This included 15 species of shorebird. The most abundant species was the Barn Swallow, with 994 individuals counted, and followed by western Grebe, a very tidy 900 individuals. Least Bittern were spotted on two occasions.

Red-headed Woodpecker – Before posting the total number of birds, we thought it would be good to show a map of the distribution of Red-headed Woodpeckers. 18 were recorded in the IBA, and this would equate to a trigger under the national criteria. We also counted 7 outside the IBA boundary, to give a total of 25.

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Canada Goose 440
Trumpeter Swan 12
Wood Duck 13
Blue-winged Teal 441
Northern Shoveler 29
Gadwall 63
American Wigeon 1
Mallard 546
Northern Pintail 6
Green-winged Teal 26
dabbling duck sp. 150
Canvasback 52
Redhead 13
Ring-necked Duck 21
Lesser Scaup 5
Bufflehead 1
Common Goldeneye 8
Hooded Merganser 13
Ruddy Duck 27
duck sp. 128
Pied-billed Grebe 51
Red-necked Grebe 3
Eared Grebe 2
Western Grebe 900
Rock Pigeon 12
Mourning Dove 31
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 1
Virginia Rail 1
Sora 5
American Coot 220
Sandhill Crane 38
American Avocet 9
Semipalmated Plover 59
Killdeer 84
Stilt Sandpiper 20
Baird’s Sandpiper 13
Least Sandpiper 98
Pectoral Sandpiper 34
Semipalmated Sandpiper 13
peep sp. 41
Long-billed Dowitcher 1
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher 6
Wilson’s Snipe 23
Spotted Sandpiper 3
Solitary Sandpiper 12
Greater Yellowlegs 62
Willet 2
Lesser Yellowlegs 87
Greater/Lesser Yellowlegs 23
shorebird sp. 30
Bonaparte’s Gull 22
Franklin’s Gull 10
Ring-billed Gull 113
Herring Gull 4
gull sp. 113
Caspian Tern 11
Common Tern 3
Forster’s Tern 16
Common Loon 1
Double-crested Cormorant 40
American White Pelican 480
American Bittern 4
Least Bittern 2
Great Blue Heron 13
Great Egret 64
white egret sp. 1
Black-crowned Night-Heron 6
Turkey Vulture 8
Northern Harrier 16
Sharp-shinned Hawk 2
Cooper’s Hawk 7
Bald Eagle 28
Red-tailed Hawk 51
Belted Kingfisher 12
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 21
Red-headed Woodpecker 25
Downy Woodpecker 9
Hairy Woodpecker 13
Pileated Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 16
woodpecker sp. 1
American Kestrel 26
Merlin 9
Peregrine Falcon 1
Eastern Wood-Pewee 9
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher 1
Alder Flycatcher 1
Least Flycatcher 21
Empidonax sp. 1
Eastern Phoebe 8
Great Crested Flycatcher 6
Western Kingbird 1
Eastern Kingbird 24
Warbling Vireo 28
Red-eyed Vireo 5
Blue Jay 29
Black-billed Magpie 60
American Crow 108
Common Raven 52
Purple Martin 5
Tree Swallow 12
Bank Swallow 2
Barn Swallow 994
swallow sp. 55
Black-capped Chickadee 19
Red-breasted Nuthatch 4
White-breasted Nuthatch 7
House Wren 7
Sedge Wren 26
Marsh Wren 139
Eastern Bluebird 13
Swainson’s Thrush 2
American Robin 60
Gray Catbird 45
Brown Thrasher 6
European Starling 251
Cedar Waxwing 70
House Finch 1
Purple Finch 1
American Goldfinch 86
Chipping Sparrow 13
Clay-colored Sparrow 39
White-throated Sparrow 5
LeConte’s Sparrow 1
Savannah Sparrow 14
Song Sparrow 47
Lincoln’s Sparrow 2
Swamp Sparrow 9
sparrow sp. 13
Yellow-headed Blackbird 42
Bobolink 5
Western Meadowlark 14
Baltimore Oriole 1
Red-winged Blackbird 100
Brewer’s Blackbird 33
Common Grackle 126
blackbird sp. 52
Northern Waterthrush 9
Black-and-white Warbler 5
Tennessee Warbler 6
Nashville Warbler 7
Common Yellowthroat 64
American Redstart 4
Cape May Warbler 1
Magnolia Warbler 1
Blackburnian Warbler 1
Yellow Warbler 11
Blackpoll Warbler 1
Palm Warbler 7
Yellow-rumped Warbler 4
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 2
House Sparrow 42