Grasslands, not just for the birds, but the amphibians, and the mammals too!

While our program focuses largely on the “bird” portion of the IBA program – the full title is actually “Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas”. Today Nate is going to continue his grassland series and let us know about a few of the non-bird Species at Risk that call the live in our Manitoba grasslands.

As we’ve discussed in the previous posts, many a bird graces these grasslands with its presence. Along with our flappy friends, however, you will find a large number of unique animals without wings that call the Manitoba grasslands home. Some of these critters are rather helpful for birds, others pose great threats, while still others have little interactions with birds at all.

Manitoba grasslands house a number of Species at Risk that can be found on the ground or small patches of water. You might be asking “Water? But I thought we were talking about grasslands!”. Well, amongst grasslands you will find many small pieces of wetlands sometimes called prairie potholes, as well as agricultural dugouts, ditches, and depressions in the ground caused by animal activity. The water-storing ability of these areas to hold water provides breeding habitat for amphibians such as the Great Plains Toad and the Plains Spadefoot Toad, both of which are Species at Risk. These two toads can be found or heard in the southwest corner of the province after a heavy rain.

Great Plains Toad. Photo by Shauna Hewson, Manitoba Herps Atlas.

These toads also depend on soft soils in open grasslands that allow them to burrow and wait out cold and/or dry periods. Plains Spadefoot Toads are named for the shovel-like projection on their hind legs that aid them in digging burrows. Despite their common name, Plains Spadefoot Toads are in the family Pelobatoidea, a unique family that is neither a true frog or toad. In contrast the true toads, such as the Great Plains Toad, belong in the family Bufonidae. Frogs and toads can be an important food source for birds that are adapted to picking prey out of water or sand like herons, gulls and kingfishers.

Plains Spadefoot Toad. They use the “spade” on the heel of their feet to dig backwards into sandy soil. Photo by Manitoba Herps Atlas.
The “spade” on the heel of  the foot of a Plains Spadefoot Toad. Photo by Manitoba Herps Atlas.

You can find all sorts of holes in our grasslands created by a variety of fossorial animals, which is a fancy way of saying they are good at digging and will spend some time living underground. If you recall a previous post, you might be thinking that I’m about to tell you about our friend the Burrowing Owl. Well, sorry to disappoint you but I’m going to introduce you to an abundant, yet quite secretive, mammal found in the southwest prairies of Manitoba. The American Badger is a large member of the weasel family with immense strength and ferocity. Their compact body is highly adapted for digging burrows to live in as well as digging up prey. Although their abandoned burrows provide beneficial habitat for Burrowing Owls, these animals are highly opportunistic and will feed on small grassland birds and their eggs. The American badger is currently under review for special concern status under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).

American Badger. Photo by Nature Canada.

Oh “dear”, I nearly forgot about the cervids, or as they’re known by most, members of the deer family! The most common members of this family found here are the aptly named white-tailed Deer, which can be found galloping and bounding away from danger waving their white tail as a warning sign to nearby friends or family. A close relative of the White-tailed Deer, the Mule Deer can be found primarily in the southwest corner of Manitoba and is provincially listed as threatened. The Mule Deer holds many similarities to the white-tail but the easiest method for identification is to watch how it moves. Mule deer have a unique method of traveling called ‘pronking’ which looks a lot more like bouncing than running. All four hooves land and leave the ground at the same time to create a vision of ‘giant pogo sticks’ jumping across the grasslands. If the deer in question decides not to show off its running style, you can check for a large white rump patch decorated with a thin white tail with a black point on the end. On males the antlers are bifurcating and do not curl inwards like a white-tailed deer. Mule deer have larger, donkey-shaped ears (hence their name), a whiter nose and mouth and a contrasting brown forehead patch.

Mule Deer. Look at those ears! Photo by The National Wildlife Federation.

I’m going to finish off by briefly talking about an extremely rare visitor to the Southwest of our province. I present to you the fastest land mammal in North America, the Pronghorn! Originally thought to be extirpated from Manitoba since 1886, the pronghorn was rediscovered in 2019 just south of Manitou. This speedy mammal can reach speeds up to 100km/h and is happiest in the arid plains of Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. The pronged horns on these animals, which also are present in females albeit smaller, make them highly distinct. Their caramel and white colouration makes them blend into the dry grasslands of the Southern prairies when running their little heart out isn’t an option.

Pronghorn. Photo by Steven Mlodinow, iNaturalist.org.

The grasslands of Manitoba provide us with ample agriculture, hunting and recreation opportunities. Although these activities can be conducted harmoniously with the natural world, we must take steps in ensuring these creatures and ecosystems will be around for generations to come.

-Nathan (Nature Nate) Entz

“Look up, waaaaay up” – the songbird up high

Look to the skies for our next instalment in our grassland birds series. Nate gives us the low-down (or high-up?) on the Sprague’s Pipit!

We’ve talked a lot about secretive birds in this series of blogs, but this next bird could possibly take the cake in camouflage skills. The Sprague’s Pipit is a member of the motacillidae family, the only representative other than closely related and more common American Pipit. Due to the sneakiness of this bird, we are going to be spending lots of time on identifying features in hopes that you will have luck to scout out these rare visitors to the Manitoba prairies.

Sprague’s Pipit. Note the comparatively large eye and skinny neck, as well as the more darkly-feathered “jawline” mark on the side of the face around the eye. Photo by Christian Artuso.

Identification: Auditory

Have you ever spent an outrageous amount of time looking around your house, car or yard for your favourite hat only to remember it’s on your head? A similar thing might happen to you when you’re looking for a Sprague’s pipit! These fellows are experts at hiding low to the ground in short grass and blend in remarkably well to their surroundings. Thankfully, they let out a piercing song when singing up to 100 metres in the air which makes them easy to hear, but a little difficult to see unless you have good binoculars and a limber neck. The song, which is rarely sung from the ground, is a series of descending high pitched “chooro chooro chooro” held for three seconds and repeated during the display which can range from 30 minutes up to three whole hours!

You can here a Sprague’s Pipit here.

Identification: Visual

A more common sight of a Sprague’s Pipit in flight. Song is a key way to identify that the bird you are squinting your eyes to see is indeed a Sprague’s Pipit. Photo by Brian Sullivan, AllAboutBirds.org.

One of the more prominent features of the Sprague’s Pipit is its large head, big eyes and neck. The neck appears rather skinny compared to the head and body which is accented by a cream coloured ‘jawline’. The ‘jawline’ is then separated from the throat by a faint dark-brown line. The cheeks are outlined with a light buff giving the appearance of ears. The top of the head is heavily streaked with dark brown that travels from the back of the neck to the base of the beak. The back of the bird has light bronze edging on the wings and white barring on the coverts. The peach-coloured throat extends slightly further towards the breast, passing the ‘jawline’, in which it is met by a dark brown streaky necklace. This necklace is accented by the faint peach colouration which continues past the necklace and mixes with the pale colouration of the breast while the flanks of the bird are unstreaked.

In flight (good luck seeing it anywhere else!) you should be able to see the white outer tail feathers contrasted with black inner tail feathers. The bend of the wing may appear slightly orange in flight, while the majority of the flight feathers are slightly varying pale-cream colours. The beak is medium length and thin with pale yellow colouration on the sides and a black covering on the top and at the tip. On the bottom, the leg colour varies from a dull orange to a pale pink and will match the colour of the feet.

Habitat & Conservation

Sprague’s Pipits breed exclusively in the North American great plains with Manitoba being their most eastern nesting habitat. They are very picky with the grass in their habitat preferring it to be 6-12 inches long. Although they like short-grass, these pipits completely avoid overgrazed pastures but can handle small levels of grazing if kept above 6 inches and no longer than a foot. Nests are placed on the ground but surrounded by tall grass, usually the tallest grasses in that territory. Territories are established by singing males and can be as large as 16 acres.

Sprague’s Pipit grassland habitat. Photo by Tom Jones, AllAboutBirds.org.

They are very rarely found in non-native grasslands and will avoid croplands completely. In their wintering areas in Texas and Mexico they will utilize non-native grasslands and even more urbanized areas such as sports fields (hopefully they don’t get confused as a badminton birdie!).

According to the North American Breeding Bird Atlas, Sprague’s Pipit populations declined at a rate of 3.1% between 1966 and 2015 for a cumulative decline of 79%. They are currently listed as vulnerable under IUCN, and threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act and Manitoba’s Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act. Due to their reliance on large, continuous habitat, Sprague’s pipits are facing a decline largely due to loss of habitat from conversion of pastures and prairies to cropland, excessive grazing, and invasion of woody shrubs. Although overgrazing can reduce available habitat, responsible livestock grazing is highly beneficial in reducing grass height and limiting shrub growth while encouraging new grass growth.

-Nathan (Nature Nate) Entz

Weed Pulling for Plovers

The weather for our fall weed pull could not have been more different from our summer weed pull! The twelve of us “braved” the sun and 21oC weather on September 25th to improve the habitat on Sandy Bar, have fun and do a bit of birding. It was certainly not a hardship! Thank to Megan, Leila, Jessica, Andrea, Lauren, Joanne, Alain, Cindy, Jock, Julie and Mark for your work helping to restore this Important Bird Area!

Our weed pull group! Photo by A. Shave.

The goal of the weed pull is to clear invasive vegetation from this Special Conservation Area that was created to protect the historical nesting habitat for the Endangered Piping Plover. While Piping Plovers have not been seen in the area for several years, it is also important habitat for many other breeding shorebirds, gulls and terns, as well as migratory shorebirds and waterfowl. The presence of vegetation on this sand bar has reduced habitat quality over the past 10 years. Our goal with the weed pull is to return the habitat back to the sand bar and mudflats that are key habitat for a variety of bird species.

After picking up coffee and muffins in Gimli I drove out to meet our volunteers at the Sandy Bar Beach parking lot at 8:00 am. Our weed pull area is approximately 1 km from the parking lot, so after some coffee and snacks we divvied up our supplies and took a walk along the beach.

I had to take a quick detour to the shores of Lake Winnipeg in Gimli when I was picking up our refreshments for the morning to take a photo of the sunrise. Photo by A. Shave

From our summer weed pull back in August, the area that we historically have pulled the weeds from was still looking weed-free – which left us free to start on restoring habitat in a new area of the sand bar, directly adjacent to the original weed pull site. The majority of the vegetation we pulled is Sweet Clover, which you can see as the tall plant in the photos before the vegetation has been pulled.

Many of the birds who use the sand bar as habitat to nest make their nests directly on the ground. Having vegetation around the nests gives various predators the ability to sneak up on the nests, eggs and fledglings, so the birds prefer to nest in open areas where they have a good view of what is going on around them.

The weed pull area for the fall event before and after our volunteers got through with it! Photo by A. Shave.
What a root! The evening primrose is not a weedy species, but has also started growing on the sand bar. Piping Plovers and other ground-nesting birds like gulls and terns do not like any type of vegetation on the ground. Photo by A. Shave.
Leila, Megan and Julie hard at work near the beginning of the day. Photo by A. Shave.

After a couple of hours of weed pulling, we took a walk up the sand bar to the tip to do some birding and just enjoy the fantastic fall weather. Mark, Julie and Joanne were telling us about some of the history in the area, including that what we think of as a sand bar used to be completely underwater, with only two sand islands visible! That was certainly not the case this year with the beach sand bar being larger than ever due to the low water level in Lake Winnipeg.

An enthusiastic birding discussion happening, with the rest of the group waaayyy out on the tip of the sandbar. You can see that vegetation has really taken over near the point of the sand bar as well. Photo by A. Shave.
Cindy, Jessica, Andrea, Lauren and Julie enjoying some post-weed pull snacks! You can see the area past the leaf bags that was cleared out by volunteers in our August weed pull. Photo by A. Shave.

Of course, we were also birding at the same time on the walk and highlights included Black-bellied Plovers, American Golden Plovers, Bald Eagles, a Peregrine Falcon and large flocks of Lapland Longspurs.

A Lapland Longspur spotted by Cindy. It was really camouflaged with the washed-up debris. Luckily it stayed in one spot for a while, which allowed a time for identification and photos. Photo by A. Shave.

Once again, thank you to all of our volunteers! We hope you had a great time, and are proud of the conservation work undertaken for the birds at Riverton Sandy Bar IBA! We hold weed pulls at this IBA each year, so if you are interested in this activity or would like more information about other IBA activities you can contact me (Amanda) and iba@naturemanitoba.ca.

Our full species list is:

SpeciesCount
Canada Goose554
Green-winged Teal12
Black-bellied Plover5
American Golden-Plover1
Greater Yellowlegs3
shorebird sp.6
Ring-billed Gull30
American White Pelican41
Northern Harrier1
Bald Eagle2
Peregrine Falcon1
Common Raven2
Horned Lark21
Lapland Longspur76
Common Grackle1
  
Total # of species15
Total # of individuals756
  • Amanda