2021 Woodpecker-Palooza!

Similar to the Eastern Whip-poor-will surveys reported in our blog several weeks ago, the Manitoba IBA program made a concerted effort this year to survey for Red-headed Woodpeckers in several of our IBAs.

The Red-headed Woodpecker’s federal Species at Risk Status was changed from Threatened to Endangered in April 2018. Under provincial legislation the Red-headed Woodpecker continues to be classified as Threatened. You can look for their distinctive ruby-red heads and white and black wings and body, or otherwise listen for their territorial calling. Red-headed Woodpeckers are out and active for a fairly long period in Manitoba from mid-May until the end of August.

“Querr” or “tcher” call of the Red-headed Woodpecker. Call from xeno-canto.org.
Red-headed Woodpecker. Photo by Christian Artuso.

You might think that an Endangered/ Threatened species would be hard to find, but if you look in the right habitat at the right time of year you will probably have some pretty good luck with the Red-headed Woodpecker in Manitoba. Manitoba and Ontario support the majority of Canada’s Red-headed Woodpecker population. We often see them in patches of larger-sized standing dead trees in cattle pastures. The trees need to be large enough to support nesting and roosting cavities for the woodpecker. At the same time, they like habitat with little understory or living tree branches – which the cattle using the pasture tend to keep nice and short.

Some prime Red-headed Woodpecker habitat at North, East and West Shoal Lakes IBA. Note the low understory vegetation and larger diameter standing dead trees. Photo by Katharine Schulz.

The Manitoba IBA program started holding blitzes focusing on Red-headed Woodpeckers in 2017. Since then, we have tried several different ways of monitoring these woodpeckers on blitzes. You may have been on a blitz where we stopped more casually to look for Red-headed Woodpeckers whenever we saw decent habitat, or on a blitz where we surveyed more formally and stopped every 300m in appropriate habitat. The issue with blitzes for the Red-headed Woodpecker is always the trade-off between time and the distance covered. We often have to choose between surveying a smaller area really well or surveying a larger area less thoroughly.

Last winter we set up specific routes and protocol to survey for the Red-headed Woodpecker. Unlike with the Eastern Whip-poor-will, we had a pretty good idea from past IBA program records, eBird records and records from the Manitoba Conservation Data Centre for where to place the survey routes to monitor presence from year to year. Routes were set up in Oak Lake/ Plum Lakes IBA; North, East and West Shoal Lakes IBA; and Netley-Libau Marsh IBA.

Following the pre-set route, surveyors stopped every 300m in Red-headed Woodpecker habitat. The 300m distance was chosen so that individuals would not be double counted. Surveyors would sit passively for two minutes observing. If no woodpeckers were seen then the Red-headed Woodpecker “querr” or “tchur” call was played for 30 seconds before waiting two minutes again.

When we planned our Red-headed Woodpecker surveys the idea was that we would run them similar to a bird blitz with multiple groups each running a route and meeting up at the end. With our routes earlier in the season that was not possible due to COVID-19 gathering limits. Luckily, we had some volunteers who, well, volunteered! A big thank you to Ryo Johnston and Hazel Blennerhassett for surveying in Netley-Libau Marsh IBA; Gary Franzmann and Al Mickey for surveying at the North, East and West Shoal Lakes IBA; and Glennis Lewis and Gillian Richards for their help at Oak Lake/ Plum Lakes IBA.

Onto the results!

Netley-Libau Marsh IBA

As I mentioned above Hazel and Ryon surveyed for us here, in addition to some work our IBA program summer students did. Hazel and Ryon are the IBA Caretakers for the Netley-Libau Marsh IBA, so they know it inside and out. The surveys were conducted in early to mid June. There was a total of 11 observations of Red-headed Woodpeckers during surveys by both teams in this IBA. After accounting for repeat observations, we are confident that there were 9 unique individuals spotted during the survey. Of the 9 birds there were three sets of assumed breeding pairs (adult pairs seen in the same territory) and three single individuals.

The first ever Red-headed Woodpecker seen by the IBA summer students during a survey for this species in Netley-Libau Marsh IBA. Drumming was heard first at a bit of a distance and once play-back was used it was easy to confirm which species of woodpecker it was! Photo by Amanda Shave.

North, East and West Shoal Lakes IBA

Gary and Al were of great help surveying at the North, East and West Shoal Lakes IBA, along with Manitoba IBA program summer students. Between the two teams there were a total of 24 observations with 19 unique individuals based on locations and likely territory size. These numbers were largely driven by observations at two key locations. On the east side of Shoal Lake, at a well-known Red-headed Woodpecker habitat site (near the corner of highway 415 and 416) Al and Gary were able to spot 11 Red-headed Woodpeckers at one survey stop! At another site on the west side of the lakes on highway 518 they had four individuals! There were four other sightings of one individual each. They also had a sighting JUST outside the IBA.

It is important that I break down the sighting just outside the IBA because for the very first time since 2018 and only the second time in the history of the IBA we hit the IBA threshold for Red-headed Woodpeckers at Shoal Lakes IBA! The number of woodpeckers needed to hit the threshold in an IBA is 14. You can view the Shoal Lakes IBA’s list of species that have reached the IBA threshold at the IBA Canada site here. In 2018 20 Red-headed Woodpeckers were counted, so the population within the IBA appears to have stayed fairly stable in the last four years.

Southeast of Shoal Lakes IBA

If you have taken part in IBA blitzes at the Shoal Lakes IBA or read our past blogs, you may have noticed that we sometimes get a group to monitor an area just to the southeast of the IBA itself. This is because we have long suspected (and over the years confirmed) that this area had good Red-headed Woodpecker habitat due to all of the cattle pastures in the area. This year Ariel and Vicky (our summer students) spent a couple of days doing a thorough exploratory survey of the area and counted a huge number of Red-headed Woodpeckers! They observed at least 70 unique individuals with another possible two individuals that they were not 100% sure on.

Our data from this year, combined with provincial data on Red-headed Woodpeckers collected several years ago has shown this area to be key to Red-headed Woodpeckers in Manitoba over several years (and likely longer). While this area is not in the IBA, we still hope to be able to work more with the landowners and birds in future years since it is so close to the Red-headed Woodpecker population inside the Shoal Lakes IBA.

Oak Lake/ Plum Lakes IBA

The Red-headed Woodpecker surveys were held at Oak Lake/ Plum Lakes IBA in late July. This meant that we were able to hold the surveys together with volunteers during a Red-headed Woodpecker blitz as intended! We had two of the three blitz groups survey a pre-planned Red-headed Woodpecker route at the start of the blitz. Once each group had run their route (and the third group which had no route in their area) they switched to a less formal monitoring style for the areas that had less optimal Red-headed Woodpecker habitat. You may remember we had Gillian Richards, Kathryn Hyndman, Katharine Schulz, Glennis Lewis, Vicky Tang, Ariel Desrochers and myself at the blitz (you can check out the blog post for that blitz here, if you are curious).

A Red-headed Woodpecker seen along 45N in the Souris Sandhills area of the IBA. Photo by Katharine Schulz.

At the time of the blitz we had 12 Red-headed Woodpeckers spotted in the IBA and 3 woodpeckers spotted just outside the IBA. This was pretty close to the IBA threshold for Red-headed Woodpeckers, which is 14 individuals. However, we were not able to cover all the ground in the IBA during that blitz. One of our intrepid volunteers, Glennis, returned to the IBA to survey additional areas four times in later July and early August and found 15 more woodpeckers – putting us over the IBA Red-headed Woodpecker threshold for a second IBA this year! So in total there were 27 unique Red-headed Woodpeckers spotted at Oak Lake/ Plum Lakes IBA this summer. This is the first time that Red-headed Woodpeckers have reached the IBA threshold at this IBA. You can view Oak Lake/ Plum Lake’s list of species that have reached the IBA threshold at the IBA Canada site here.

An adult Red-headed Woodpecker bringing in a food item to a nesting cavity at Oak Lake/ Plum Lakes IBA in summer 2021. Photo by Gillian Richards.

Other Red-headed Woodpecker Observations

We did have some other Red-headed Woodpecker sightings brought to our attention that were outside these target IBAs (or IBAs in general) that were interesting this year. Four Red-headed Woodpeckers (2 adults and 2 juveniles) were reported at Delta Marsh IBA by Jo Swartz on August 14th. She saw them along road 77N just west of highway 430. A confirmed nesting cavity for Red-headed Woodpeckers was also reported by Ray Methot in Matlock this year – so assuming two adult woodpeckers there as well.

Overall, it appears to have been a good year for Red-headed Woodpeckers – or at least observations of them!

If you have Red-headed Woodpecker habitat on your land that you would like to help conserve let us know and we’d love to help. Also, if you are interested in searching for Red-headed Woodpeckers keep an eye out for postings of surveys and blitzes next year as we are planning on continuing to run activities based around this charismatic species!

Birds of the Manitoba IBAs 2021 Recap!

With the end of the old year, we thought we would highlight some of the exciting birding news from Manitoba IBAs in 2021. If we are missing a highlight for you, let us know!

What is an IBA threshold and why is it important?

You’ll read below that we reached IBA thresholds for species in several different IBAs this summer – but why is this important? There are a series of criteria that bird populations at a site must hit for that site to be qualified as an Important Bird Area. We commonly refer to hitting these criteria thresholds as an “IBA trigger”. If species in the IBA are continuing to reach the IBA trigger, it is likely that the site continues to provide key habitat going forward. There are two main types of IBA triggers that are most commonly used in our Manitoba IBAs. The first is for congregations of species, needing either at least 1% of the global population for the species or at least 1% of the national population for the species. The second trigger is for Species at Risk. Due to the challenges that these species face, they require fewer individuals to reach their IBA trigger. Species at Risk are also classified at either a global scale (IUCN listed species) or regional scale (COSEWIC listed species).

Red-headed Woodpecker

It was an exciting year for this charismatic bird and the IBA program. Thanks to volunteers conducting both formal and informal Red-headed Woodpecker surveys we were able to reach the IBA threshold for this species in two IBAs this summer. The IBA threshold is 14 individuals. At the North, East and West Shoal Lakes IBA (north of Winnipeg near Inwood) volunteers and program staff counted 19 individuals. At the Oak Lake/ Plum Lake IBA (west of Brandon) volunteers and program staff counted a whopping 27 individuals. If you are interested in hearing more about our Red-headed Woodpecker experience this summer watch for the next blog which will go more in-depth with our efforts monitoring this beautiful species during summer 2021.

Red-headed Woodpecker in a nesting cavity at Oak Lake/ Plum Lakes IBA in 2021. Photo by Gillian Richards.

Pectoral Sandpiper

While out doing the International Shorebird Survey (ISS) at Whitewater Lake this spring Gillian Richards counted 12,050 Pectoral Sandpipers while birding along and between ISS routes. Gillian’s sighting was on May 16th. She went back on May 19th and counted 5,652 Pectoral Sandpipers. The number required for the IBA threshold for this species is 625 individuals, so Gillian’s count was well beyond the threshold in both cases! The threshold is approximately 1% of the global and national population for Pectoral Sandpipers, so this observation was approximately 20% of the global population – pretty neat!

Pectoral Sandpipers. Photo by Amanda Shave.

Piping Plover

Piping Plovers were seen twice this year in IBAs. The first sighting was on April 30th at Whitewater Lake by IBA Caretaker Colin Blyth. There was just the one individual seen. When he went back to try and find it two days later it was gone. The other sighting of Piping Plovers was at Chalet Beach at the northwest end of Netley-Libau Marsh IBA. A pair of Plovers was seen over the May-long weekend. However, likely due to the high volume of people using the beach over the weekend the plovers left the area before any conservation work could happen for them.

Piping Plover spotted at Whitewater Lake in spring 2021. Photo by Colin Blyth.

Black-necked Stilt

In the same trip where Colin spotted the Piping Plover at Whitewater Lake (April 30th) he also spotted a Black-necked Stilt – a pretty lucky birding trip! Just like the plover, however, the stilt was no where to be found upon a second birding trip.

Black-necked Stilt spotted at Whitewater Lake in spring 2021. Photo by Colin Blyth.

Sabine’s Gull

A Sabine’s Gull was spotted at Delta Marsh on September 20th, 2021 by Cal Cuthburt. He spotted it flying amongst a mixed flock of Forster’s Terns and Franklin’s Gulls. Great spot!

Photo of a Sabine’s Gull taken in 2020 at Delta Marsh. Photo by Cam Nikkel.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

At least three individual Lesser Black-backed Gulls hung around Delta Marsh IBA this spring/ summer. They were largely seen in the community of Delta Beach and/or around the landfill on provincial road 227.

One of several Lesser Black-backed Gulls seen at Delta Marsh in 2021. This photo is taken of a first summer plumage gull at the landfill. Photo by Cal Cuthbert.


Dickcissels were seen in several IBAs this summer. Including three individuals in the Southwestern Mixed Grass Prairie IBA (on July 1st and 9th), one in Whitewater Lake IBA on June 23rd, and between 1-5 Dickcissels were spotted at Oak Hammock Marsh from July 7th-9th.

A male Dickcissel photographed by Rudolf Koes at Oak Hammock Marsh in summer 2021.

Sandhill Cranes

On October 17th at Oak Lakes/ Plum Lakes IBA, IBA Caretaker Gillian Richards counted 12,000 Sandhill Cranes. The IBA threshold for Sandhill Cranes is 5,300 individuals. Like with the Pectoral Sandpiper, the IBA threshold represents 1% of the global and national population of Sandhill Cranes, so this was approximately 2% of the population seen in this observation.

Not quite the same huge number of cranes spotted by Gillian, but this photo of a flock of Sandhill Cranes taken at Oak Lake shows the habitat that the large flocks will sometimes gather in. The combination of water and wetland habitats with leftovers from cropped fields makes some attractive habitat for flocks of cranes. Photo by Amanda Shave.

Burrowing Owls

Wild Burrowing Owls kept up their streak in southwestern Manitoba this year! A pair of wild Burrowing Owls (i.e. not part of the captive breeding population) successfully nested and raised six young. The Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program (MBORP) documented the season. You can read more about it, and see photos, on MBORP’s Facebook page and Walter Potrebka’s blog post.

Hopefully our 2022 birding season is just as successful! The Manitoba IBA program wishes everyone good health, happiness and great birding in 2022!