Brandon Shorebird Workshop

On May 17th and 18th, Tim Poole and Christian Artuso delivered a Shorebird Workshop to the new Brandon Birders Group. On the evening of the 17th, we gave a presentation on shorebird identification to the group in a room at Brandon University. The room was donated for free for the evening, so special thanks to the folk at the University Geography Department.

On the morning of the 18th, we were joined by a group of 9 people for a trip to Whitewater Lake. The plan was to find some large groups of shorebirds around the lake and help them to identify the various species in the field, looking specifically at field marks.

When selecting dates for birding events, there is always an aspect of cross your fingers, hoping that it’s not bad weather. Well, we picked a day which was cold and windy, and pretty unpleasant to be outside. We did though plough on, knowing that the shorebirds would still be present in the area.

Christian and I (Tim) had been out at Oak Lake the previous day, completing the ISS survey for this IBA. On the way back to Brandon we were again astounded to see thousands of geese at Deleau, just outside the boundary of the Oak Lake and Plum Lakes IBA. Included in the mass of geese were over 1,000 Ross’s Geese, a significant spring concentration for southern Manitoba. There were also hundreds of geese on the way into Whitewater from Highway 10.

Ross's Goose_8254c_Snow Goose

Spot the smaller Ross’s Geese in the foreground, and compare with the larger Snow Geese behind. Copyright Christian Artuso

Starting at the east end at 19N (for a map of the IBA, click here), we encountered the unexpected, a vast area of open mud, small pools of water, and distant shoreline. This was in stark contrast to fall 2018. Back then, this area is was covered in shallow water and mudflats, ideal habitat for shorebirds. We could make out some distant Black-bellied Plover. Most impressively, Christian spotted a group of shorebirds flying directly towards us. The unmistakable round, russet forms of 13 Red Knots were a definite highlight of the day, everyone managing to get great views in their binoculars as they flew past.

shroebird workshop at Sexrtons_20190518_103201

Watching shorebirds at Sexton’s and trying to stay warm. Copyright Christian Artuso

We carried on along 20N towards the west. At one stage we picked out a vast flock of Snow Geese, over 19,000 splayed across the dull grey skyline. Along the road we also had Ross’s Goose and Greater White-fronted Goose. We also saw our only White-faced Ibis.

Ross's Goose_8460_Snow Goose_Artuso

There were clouds of Snow Geese at Whitewater on the day. Copyright Christian Artuso

Sexton’s Point had a few shorebirds to show, the highlight being a Hudsonian Godwit. We were able to show everyone the distinctly darker plumage and rufous chest. Another highlight was a Clark’s Grebe.

American Avocet_8771_Artuso

The unmistakable blue legs, salmon head and upcurved beak of an American Avocet. Copyright Christian Artuso.

At this point we still had not seen the large groups of shorebirds that we were expecting. We eventually did find one such group along the western edge of the lake.

shorebird fiock_9006_REKN_STSA_LESA_MAGO_Artuso

Mixed flock of shorebirds. Copyright Christian Artuso

Least Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Dunlin, Pectoral Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper and Red-necked Phalarope were among the shorebirds foraging in a small wetland next to the road.


Shorebirds feeding along the shoreline, note how grey it is! Copyright Tim Poole

We were able to use the scopes to really zoom in and show people the intricate details. For example, we showed everyone how to distinguish Least Sandpiper from the White-rumped Sandpiper (a lack of Semipalmated and Baird’s made this a lot easier). We asked everyone to focus first on the wing length versus tail length. Then we zoned in on other features (plumage, bill shape and length, leg colour, etc).

Least Sandpiper_8160_Artuso

Least Sandpiper. note that the primary feathers on the wings reach the same point on this bird as the tip of the tail feathers. This is typical of Least and Semipalmated. Note the yellow legs, brown plumage and decurved beak, all distinguishing features when compared with with Semipalmated Sandpiper. Copyright Christian Artuso


Showing how cold we were, everyone sheltering behind the Atlas truck and sitting down. Copyright Tim Poole

There were small numbers of dowitchers mixed in with the general shorebird flocks. At this point, Whitewater Lake IBA Caretaker, Gillian Richards identified that one of these birds was a Long-billed Dowitcher. This was a great spot! We spent some time focusing on the differences between neighbouring Short-billed Dowitchers and the single Long-billed Dowitcher. The first thing that Gillian had noticed was that the flanks of the Long-billed were barred rather than spotted. The plumage was also darker red versus the salmon plumage of the Short-billed. Finally, the clincher was the contrast on the scapular and back feathers. In the case of the Long-billed, these have white tips, and the case of the Short-billed, they have buff tips. Christian very helpfully has provided a contrast collection of his photos from the day so you can really see what we are talking about!

Long-billed versus Short-billed Dowitcher comparison.jpg

Composite images by Christian Artuso

At this point, cold and wind battered, we headed in different directions. We hope everyone had a good trip, and learnt more about shorebirds, and we hope to do this again soon in eastern Manitoba!

While doing this, we completed the International Shorebird Survey route for west Whitewater Lake. If you would like to find out more about our involvement in this, and would like to contribute to shorebird monitoring, first take a look at this blog. There you will find maps. We would love to hear from you of course if you are interested in finding out more. Email us at

We are also providing links to some documents and resources which might prove useful to you as you learn more about shorebird identification.

IBA Shorebird Photo Identification Card (email if you would like us to mail you a laminated copy)

Copy of Christians’ shorebird presentation and notes

Christian’s shorebird notes handout

An old IBA blitz blog with some good info on fall identification of dowitchers

Christian’s Dowitcher notes

Surfbirds excellent Dowitcher comparison

Thank you to Glennis, Gillian and Alex for organising the workshop. We would also like to pass on thanks to our funders, notably the Baillie Fund, Enbridge and Tundra Oil and Gas for providing funds for our attendance.

Apart from Snow Geese, the most impressive numbers were of Least Sandpipers, and Stilt Sandpipers. Here is the eBird summary of the days birding.

Species Name Species Count
Snow Goose 22,154
Ross’s Goose 2
Greater White-fronted Goose 14
Canada Goose 180
Tundra Swan 31
Blue-winged Teal 66
Northern Shoveler 130
Gadwall 121
American Wigeon 6
Mallard 121
Northern Pintail 16
Green-winged Teal 3
Canvasback 43
Redhead 10
Ring-necked Duck 9
Lesser Scaup 6
Sharp-tailed Grouse 1
Red-necked Grebe 1
Eared Grebe 8
Western Grebe 95
Clark’s Grebe 1
Rock Pigeon 3
Eurasian Collared-Dove 1
Mourning Dove 4
American Coot 2
American Avocet 74
Black-bellied Plover 4
Semipalmated Plover 9
Killdeer 15
Upland Sandpiper 2
Hudsonian Godwit 1
Marbled Godwit 27
Red Knot 13
Stilt Sandpiper 183
Dunlin 9
Baird’s Sandpiper 5
Least Sandpiper 746
White-rumped Sandpiper 9
Pectoral Sandpiper 1
Semipalmated Sandpiper 5
Short-billed Dowitcher 18
Long-billed Dowitcher 1
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher 1
Wilson’s Phalarope 48
Red-necked Phalarope 74
Spotted Sandpiper 1
Willet 15
Lesser Yellowlegs 12
shorebird sp. 500
Franklin’s Gull 441
Forster’s Tern 57
Double-crested Cormorant 2
American White Pelican 8
Great Egret 3
White-faced Ibis 1
Turkey Vulture 1
Northern Harrier 3
Red-tailed Hawk 3
Great Horned Owl 1
Peregrine Falcon 1
Common Raven 3
Horned Lark 1
Tree Swallow 4
Barn Swallow 13
Marsh Wren 1
American Robin 6
European Starling 3
American Pipit 1
Vesper Sparrow 2
Savannah Sparrow 9
Yellow-headed Blackbird 83
Bobolink 3
Western Meadowlark 7
Red-winged Blackbird 105
Brown-headed Cowbird 2
Common Grackle 36
Northern Waterthrush 1
Yellow Warbler 1
Palm Warbler 2
Yellow-rumped Warbler 1
House Sparrow 2