Whitewater Lake Shorebird Blitz – A Small but Mighty Birding Force!

On August 28th the Manitoba IBA program held our first IBA blitz at Whitewater Lake since the start of the pandemic. We thought it would be a challenging day to find shorebirds due to the dry weather but we ended up finding a few key pockets of a good number and variety of birds.

As we all know it has been a very dry year across Manitoba, and our western IBAs are no exception to this. I suspect it played a role in our low attendance numbers at our Whitewater blitz – it is a long drive when you expect shorebird numbers to be very low. However, we had our small, but mighty force our to bird on August 28th! Myself and the IBA program’s two summer students (Ariel Desrochers and Vicky Tang) made one blitz team. This was a fun last outing as August 28th was their very last day on the job! The second team was made up of Kathryn Hyndman, Doug Ford and Carla Keast.

The IBA staff took the eastern half of the IBA while Kathryn, Doug and Carla took the western half. Our plan was to meet up just after noon at Sexton’s Point. I had predicted a few sites in each part of the IBA which were most likely to still be holding shallow water based on recent eBird reports that our volunteers had been sending in. I had hoped this would both maximize our chances of seeing shorebirds and concentrate our searching to the most likely spots, rather than try to cover the massive amount of ground in this IBA.

Our plan of attack for the Whitewater Lake IBA blitz.

Starting off on the western portion of Whitewater Lake Kathryn, Doug and Carla were able to cover a great amount of the IBA along the lakeshore. Unfortunately, they didn’t see a great variety of shorebirds, however they certainly saw a diversity of other birds! It was also Carla’s first trip to Whitewater Lake, so we are glad she had a great time!

On the southwest side of the lake, they came across a mixed group of migrating swallows including Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows and Cliff Swallows. They also saw a good-sized flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds, counting 100 individuals. No shorebirds were seen on this part of the route, the closest they got to water-associated birds were six Pelicans.

Carla, Kathryn and Doug saw several mixed grouped of migrating swallows at several points along their survey route. Photo by K. Hyndman

On to the west size of the marsh, a highlight was a Grey Partridge who was certainly not hiding as it perched atop a pile of vegetation. The pattern of bird sightings continued from the south side as another flock of swallows was seen, this time comprised of 65 Barn Swallows, and representing the blackbirds was a flock of 500 Red-winged Blackbirds. They did manage to find two shorebird species along this route. 10 Greater Yellowlegs and one Lesser Yellowlegs were spotted.

A Grey Partridge playing king-of-the-castle seen by Carla, Kathryn and Doug. Photo by K. Hyndman.

As they rounded the northwest corner of the marsh a few more shorebirds crept into sight. Three American Avocets, one Killdeer, eight Greater Yellowlegs and six Lesser Yellowlegs were spotted. Some other highlights included 120 Franklin’s Gulls, three Red-tailed Hawks and a Bald Eagle.

This young Red-winged Blackbird was spotted near a marshy area beside a slough along a road on the south side of Whitewater marsh. What a lovely subtle mix of colour and pattern! Photo by K. Hyndman.

I had expected the Manitoba IBA staff group to be able to get through more of our side of the IBA than we did! Our first stop along the lakeshore netted us a few shorebirds, but our second stop along the remains of the old viewing mound took us almost all morning! With some careful driving and walking (watch out for those holes!) we saw more shorebirds than we had first expected. This was my first time out to the mound, but I could certainly tell that there were areas of sand/ mudflat exposed that are not normally exposed, and shallow areas of water that are not normally shallow. We had a great time birding at the old mound, with both Ariel and Vicky remarking it was their favourite site they had visited with the IBA program all summer.

Ariel on the old viewing mound. The muddy/ sandy areas to the left of the mound are normally underwater. Photo by V. Tang.

Most of the shorebirds were seen in clusters on the east side of the road and mound, difficult to see with the sun climbing in the east. However, we were still able to ID a good number and variety of shorebirds and other species. This includes 974 American Avocets, two Semipalmated Plovers, seven Killdeer, four Stilt Sandpipers, 81 Least Sandpipers, 28 Baird’s Sandpipers, two Semipalmated Sandpipers, nine Wilson’s Phalarope, two Spotted Sandpipers, two Greater Yellowlegs, 13 Lesser Yellowlegs, one Willet, 23 Short-billed/ Long-billed Dowitchers and 8 other peeps.

A non-shorebird highlight while driving along the road between our first stop and the viewing mound was two young Peregrine Falcons! It took us a bit to double check what we were looking at between our various books and bird apps to be sure of what we were seeing before reporting it. None of us had seen one outside of a city landscape before.

A group of shorebirds that didn’t require me to take a photo directly into the sun! Photo by A. Shave.
A Least Sandpiper that we encountered while walking back to the car. It was too busy foraging to pay us any attention. Photo by A. Shave.

The mound took up a large portion of our morning, but while we were making our way up to Sexton’s Point, we took a quick drive up the ISS sites on the east side of the lake. Gillian Richards, one of the Whitewater Lake IBA Caretaker and International Shorebird Surveyor extraordinaire, had mentioned in her last visit to Whitewater Lake that these ISS routes were totally dry. Due to a few good rains since then, they actually had shallow standing water in a few places, but only a couple of Yellowlegs were seen here and there. There are a few portions of the ISS routes that require walking, which we didn’t do, so perhaps there was still more to see there.

An area of largely American Avocets that were out on a sandbar that seemed like it would normally be underwater. We were able to walk to a fair ways to be able to count them before the water briefly covered the bar. Photo by A. Shave.

At Sexton’s Point there was also more water than we expected! Kathryn had been out to Whitewater Lake around a week earlier and remarked how much the water had come up with the recent rains. An area where she had previously walked out to see shorebirds was now flooded. That is not to say all was back to “normal” as the water was still very noticeably low. However, it did mean there was a decent collection of shorebirds to count, and for Kathryn, Doug and Carla to see, as their route was sparse with shorebirds.

Walking out past Sexton’s point. This area is normally underwater, but was at least there was more water along the shore than in the previous couple of weeks. Photo by V. Tang.
Kathryn and Carla viewing shorebirds at Sexton’s point. This area is normally underwater! A variety of plants had colonized previously open mudflats. Photo by A. Shave.

The most numerous birds at the point were Franklin’s Gulls with a total of 511 individuals. We also added three Semipalmated Plovers, 35 Least Sandpipers, three Pectoral Sandpipers, one Wilson’s Phalarope, 11 Greater Yellowlegs and 56 Lesser Yellowlegs to our shorebird total for the day.

A small portion of the gulls at Sexton’s Point. Photo by A. Shave.
Semipalmated Plovers foraging in the mudflat at Sexton’s Point. Photo by A. Shave.

After doing some birding together, and sharing some muffins and fruit, we headed our separate ways. Overall, we saw 51 species and 3,531 individuals. I am not sure about everyone else who joined that day, but I was certainly thinking about what a difference a couple of days of change in weather can make in a bird’s habitat! It is marvelous how adaptable they can be!

Whitewater Lake August IBA blitz bird list:

Species# of Individuals
American Avocet977
American Crow2
American Kestrel1
American White Pelican9
Baird’s Sandpiper28
Bald Eagle3
Baltimore Oriole1
Barn Swallow105
blackbird sp.2
Blue-winged Teal2
Bonaparte’s Gull7
Brewer’s Blackbird146
Canada Goose301
Cliff Swallow5
Common Raven2
Eastern Kingbird22
European Starling10
Franklin’s Gull639
Gray Partridge1
Greater Yellowlegs31
gull sp.6
hawk sp.1
Hooded Merganser1
Horned Lark18
Least Flycatcher2
Least Sandpiper116
Lesser Yellowlegs76
Mourning Dove73
Northern Harrier5
Northern Rough-winged Swallow12
Northern Shoveler10
Pectoral Sandpiper3
peep sp.8
Peregrine Falcon2
Red-tailed Hawk14
Red-winged Blackbird554
Ring-billed Gull149
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)12
Rusty Blackbird1
Savannah Sparrow1
Semipalmated Plover5
Semipalmated Sandpiper2
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher23
Song Sparrow2
sparrow sp.6
Spotted Sandpiper2
Stilt Sandpiper4
Vesper Sparrow5
Warbling Vireo1
Western Kingbird15
Western Meadowlark23
Wilson’s Phalarope10
Yellow Warbler1