Oak Lake Red-Headed Woodpecker Blitz

We were fortunate enough to run our second event of the summer at Manitoba IBA on July 24th, a bird blitz out at Oak Lake/ Plum Lakes IBA. Our objective was to record all birds we saw but focus on finding Red-Headed Woodpeckers.

Oak Lake is a decent hike away from Winnipeg so the day began quite early for the IBA staff. After a three hour drive, we arrived at the Oak Lake/Plum Lake IBA. We were pleased to see that the area was relatively clear of smoke, after having so many days of limited visibility. We were a small group this day, with Group 1 consisting of Gillian, Kathryn and Katharine and Group 2 consisting of the IBA staff (Amanda, Vicky and I). A fourth volunteer, Glennis, formed an unofficial Group 3 at the last minute, and birded on her own to the north of Highway 1. We set out on two routes, with Group 1 taking an Eastern route and Group 2 taking a Southern route.

Photo by Vicky Tang of a curious cow. While no Red-headed Woodpeckers were seen in this pasture (no trees) the woodpeckers are often seen in areas with tree snags and cattle.

We also had two objectives on this blitz. The first was new for this year. We wanted to try setting up some Red-headed Woodpecker survey routes in and around the IBA. The objective of these specific routes is to follow very detailed protocol, hopefully picking up all possible Red-headed Woodpeckers in the area. It involved stopping every 300m in appropriate habitat, watching/listening for two minutes, using playback for 30 seconds and then watching for another two minutes. As this detailed protocol is not conducive to being able to move widely through the IBA (it can be quite slow if you are lucky enough to have a lot of good Red-headed Woodpecker habitat), outside of the survey routes, we completed our bird blitz in the familiar fashion.

Despite some suitable habitat, Group 2 (IBA staff) saw 5 Red-Headed Woodpeckers, including 3 in a previously known site and 2 in a new spot next to a farm. We could barely hear the two birds at the new site over the barks of a very curious dog. During our survey, It became clear that some of the habitat had changed over the years (compared to where Red-headed Woodpeckers have historically been sighted), with certain areas having lots of bushes grown in and new younger trees rather than taller dead ones, which isn’t ideal for the Woodpeckers. Other interesting sightings for our group included a Vesper Sparrow, 2 Swainson’s Hawks, 7 Red-tailed Hawks, and 4 American Kestrels. We also saw a large number of Red-winged Blackbirds, 175 at our best count! In total, our group spotted 24 different species.

Glennis investigated a possible Red Headed Woodpecker site where she thought she may have heard one, but could not get a positive IDs. Glennis and a few other group members searched this area (north of Highway 1 within the IBA) last year for Red-headed Woodpeckers but had no luck then either, despite seeing some possible decent habitat.

Group 1 had the most success with the Red Headed Woodpeckers. They saw at least 10 in total at 5 separate stops. Three Red-headed Woodpeckers were seen along the survey route just outside the IBA. There was a possible fourth individual but it was determined to likely be a repeat count as it flew into from the east (where a stop already occurred) in response to the playback. Seven Red-headed Woodpeckers were spotted inside the IBA. At this site two adults appeared to be feeding young in a nest (the young were not counted) so there were more individuals we could not count. A second site in the IBA had two individuals. Group 1 was able to identify a total of 45 species on their route. Some of their other interesting sightings include a Sprague’s pipit, an Eastern Wood-peewee and 2 Eastern Bluebirds. Sadly, bluebird numbers this year seem to be lower than previous years based on anecdotes from local birders. Another interesting sighting is the numerous European Starlings, which can be usually found in similar habitat to Red-Headed Woodpeckers. With recommendations from Group 2, we will likely be amending the Red-headed Woodpecker survey route next year to include some of mile road 137 W.

You might be wondering if we reached our IBA trigger threshold for Red-headed Woodpeckers. The threshold is 14 individuals inside an IBA. Unfortunately we only saw 12 individuals inside the IBA, so we didn’t quite make it, but we were close!

A lovely photo of an adult Red-headed Woodpecker captured by Katharine Schulz

Complicating the search for Red-headed Woodpeckers was the the dry, hot weather (and eventually windy). As we were doing our blitz round up and snacking at noon, all of a sudden a huge gust of wind started up – perhaps telling us that we should be on our way back to Winnipeg!

Thank you to our volunteers who braved the heat and strong wind to be with us! The full list of species counted is below! The map of our sightings and routes for the day is also below.

Mourning Dove17
Black Tern4
Turkey Vulture2
Northern Harrier1
Swainson’s Hawk2
Red-Tailed Hawk13
Red-Headed Woodpecker 13 (+3 outside the IBA)
Downy Woodpecker4
Northern Flicker5
American Kestrel 10
Eastern Wood Peewee2
Least Flycatcher9
Great Crested Flycatcher 1
Western Kingbird1
Eastern Kingbird24
Warbling Vireo 15
Black-billed Magpie11
American Crow 20
Common Raven 24
Black Capped Chickadee 4
Tree swallow 5
Barn Swallow 23
Cliff swallow25
House Wren13
Marsh Wren 1
European Starling  30
Grey Catbird3
Eastern Bluebird2
American Robin 8
Cedar Waxwing1
Sprague’s pipit 1
American Goldfinch 14
Chipping sparrow1
Clay-coloured sparrow2
Lark sparrow  1
Vesper Sparrow 2
Savannah Sparrow9
Song Sparrow8
Western Meadowlark37
Baltimore Oriole 7
Red winged Blackbird189
Brewers Blackbird20
Common Grackle 2
Yellow Warbler 4
Pileated Woodpecker1
blackbird sp. 20
Hawk sp. 1
Total Number of Birds617
Total Number of Species48

Green pins represent Group 2 sightings while Red pins represent Group 1 sightings.