What’s in the Water? – Whitewater Lake Blitz

On June 4th the Manitoba IBA Program held our first blitz of the 2022 season! After a spring of rocky weather we ended up with a great day to observe a wide variety of birds.

A photogenic Bobolink singing its heart out with Whitewater Lake in the background. Photo by Randy Mooi.

We had five groups of volunteers head out to Whitewater Lake to start birding around 8:30 am and finish up with lunch at Sexton’s Point at 12:30 pm. If you think back to the end of May and beginning of June, we had been receiving a lot of rain. So while the weather was great, we had to be somewhat careful of road conditions, especially on the dirt roads. Probably unsurprising to everyone, the water levels at Whitewater Lake were quite high compared to last year (last year was unusually dry). We were hoping that would help to increase the number of birds we would see on our blitz!

An Upland Sandpiper (left) and Grey Partridge (right). Photos by Randy Mooi.

Normally we would head out to a Whitewater Blitz concentrating on shorebirds. During pre-blitz scouting and International Shorebird Surveys we were expecting shorebirds to be thin on the ground this year (not just at Whitewater Lake, but this pattern was seen across southern Manitoba). We are not entirely sure why this has happened, but we had a few hypotheses. Perhaps this was due to a late arrival with our unseasonably cold conditions? Perhaps it was due large amount of water across the landscape providing a lot of habitat, and meaning the shorebirds were more spread out this year? For that reason while we did run routes suitable for shorebirds, we were also recording a wider variety of species.

Wilson’s Phalaropes. In contrast to most other birds, the female Wilson Phalarope is more colourful than the male. Photo by Josh Dewitt.

The south side of the lake was the domain of Group 1. This included Randy and Odette Mooi making their way from the east side of the south end of the lake, and Colin Blyth making his way from the west side of the south end of the lake. The two groups met in the middle of the south side.

Randy and Odette saw a nice variety of shorebirds and other species as well. Near the beginning of their morning they picked out our only Black-crowned Night Heron, Great Crested Flycatcher, Orchard Oriole and Belted Kingfisher of the day. They also counted 13 Bobolink over the course of their morning. They also had relatively high counts (for the day) of White-rumped Sandpipers (200+), Pectoral Sandpipers (30), Sanderling (51), and Semipalmated Sandpiper (40).

A group of White-rumped Sandpipers feeding. Photo by Randy Mooi.
An orphaned Western Meadowlark egg, perhaps dropped by a predator? Photo by Randy Mooi.

On the west side of the lake Group 2, composed of Gillian Richards, Duane Diehl, and Tom and Renee Wills. Their area included west of the lake, south of road 20N and the area nearby to Deloraine. This included the western International Shorebird Survey routes. This group saw a lot of large numbers of our shorebirds on their first ISS including 39 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 75 White-rumped Sandpipers, 17 American Avocets and 4 Stilt Sandpipers. The second ISS route also netted them a good variety of shorebirds, but in smaller numbers. They saw Killdeer, Stilt Sandpipers, Sanderling, Baird’s Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, Red-necked Phalarope and Spotted Sandpiper. They also saw a Red-headed Woodpecker – not often a species associated with Whitewater Lake.

Group 2 was a bit late joining up with us for lunch, but with good reason! They wanted to finish up the 3rd of the ISS routes in the west. The highlight here was not a shorebird, but a single Greater White-fronted Goose and a White-faced Ibis, among other birds.

Cowbirds are considered a bit of a menace by some people due to their parasitic nature of abandoning their eggs in the nests of other birds to be raised. It is a completely different way of reproducing to other birds in Manitoba and it works well for them. Photo by Josh Dewitt.

The north side of the lake was the domain of Mike Karakas and Tami Reynolds. They surveyed all along the road that runs along the north (Highway 48 and mile road 20N). Some highlights from Mike and Tami include a nice variety of shorebirds including 31 Black-bellied Plovers, 3 Ruddy Turnstones, 3 Semi-palmated Sandpipers and a Dunlin. These species were on a marshy area on the way out to their survey site (my group later stopped here too, don’t worry, we didn’t double count!).

Despite it being a bit late in the year (perhaps because of our weather) Mike and Tami also counted 106 Snow Geese in both the white and blue colour morphs. They also picked up a Bobolink, Grey Partridge, and Eastern Towhee on the first part of their route. On the second part of their route interesting finds were 15 Stilt Sandpipers, a few more Snow Geese, and four Ruddy Ducks. As they arrived in the western portion of their route Mike and Tami saw a further four Bobolinks, two Black Terns and fair numbers of White-rumped (31) and Baird’s Sandpipers (45). They also had a Canada Jay – not the habitat I typically think of!

Eared Grebes on Whitewater Lake. Photo by Randy Mooi.

Myself, Josh Dewitt, Melanie Rose and Laura met up in Boissevain and surveyed the area on the east side of the lake, largely following the three International Shorebird Survey routes. Our area included both walking and car birding. The dirt tracks on our side of the IBA were luckily all dried up, and the small rental car that replaced the SUV I was supposed to have handled the uneven roads like a champ. At our first stop we actually ran into Mike and Tami who had stopped at a particularly lucrative wetland area on their way out to their route. We were able to spot three Red Knots blending into the stubble at the far side of the wetland. It turns out that Red Knots haven’t been seen at Whitewater Lake for several years, and it lead to several people going back to this spot after lunch to try and spot them again (with success!). At the same spot we also picked up 30 Baird’s Sandpipers and 40 Least Sandpipers.

Josh and Melanie on the hunt for shorebirds. Photo by Amanda Shave.

Along the first ISS route we picked up 85 Semipalmated Sandpiper and a Bobolink. For our second ISS route the highlight was a group of 35 Baird’s Sandpipers. Our last ISS route yield a group of 60 peeps who flew around and eventually landed on a mud flat way too far out for identification with scopes, much to our frustration. Luckily we got to see a few charismatic birds to make up for it including two American Avocet, three Northern Pintails, a Great Egret and a Baltimore Oriole.

An American Avocet in full breeding plumage. The head and neck colouration usually draws the most attention but note the interesting blue legs as well. Photo by Josh Dewitt.
A Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel that kept popping up while my group was surveying for birds at the edge of a track out to the lake. I think it was anxious for us to be moving on! Photo my Josh Dewitt.

After all had gathered at Sexton’s Point were did a bit more birding as we ate our sandwiches. Here we spotted a further 93 Snow Geese out on Sexton’s Island, two Ruddy Turnstones, as well as two Sanderlings. The Sanderlings are an interesting species. For most shorebirds the breeding plumage is the easier plumage for identification, but for Sanderlings their non-breeding plumage is much more unique. These individuals were in their breeding plumage, so there was bit of debate before this ID was settled on with confidence.

Scoping, recording and eating – so much happening here! Lunch time at Sexton’s Point. Photo by Amanda Shave.

All in all, we saw 105 species, with over 3000 individual birds counted. The most numerous species was the White-rumped sandpiper with 325+ individuals counted (although not everyone counted each individual Red-winged Blackbird, so they may have had the sandpipers beat). Thank you everyone for a great day out at Whitewater Lake!

Full bird list for June 4th at Whitewater Lake:

Snow Goose209
Canada Goose 137
Blue-winged Teal122
Northern Shoveler 153
Mallard 101
Gadwall 67
Northern Pintail 27
Ruddy Duck29
Lesser Scaup 6
Black-crowned Night Heron1
American Avocet46
Black-bellied Plover 36
Killdeer 32
Ruddy Turnstone7
Semipalmated Sandpiper130
Wilson’s Phalarope 51
Red-Winged Blackbird249+
Yellow-headed blackbird58
Brown-headed Cowbird69
Green Winged Teal 2
Canvasback 38
Redhead 20
Hooded Merganser 3
Eared Grebe23
Mourning Dove 29
American Coot21
Stilt Sandpiper 22
Sanderling 55
White-rumped Sandpiper325+
Pectoral Sandpiper40
Shorebird sp. 10
Black Tern4
Double-crested Cormorant3
American White Pelican 34
Bald Eagle 1
Western Kingbird6
Eastern Kingbird30
Horned Lark 19
Barn Swallow24
House Sparrow3
Vesper Sparrow2
Savannah Sparrow43
Song Sparrow8
Clay-colored Sparrow16
Common Grackle 58
Baird’s Sandpiper117
Red Knot3
European Starling7
American Robin10
Common Yellowthroat 12
Yellow Warbler 16
Grey Partridge 1
Sharp Tailed Grouse 4
Western Grebe 2
Rock Pigeon 2
Upland Sandpiper7
Wilson’s Snipe6
Northern Harrier3
Swainson’s Hawk 1
Least Flycatcher 6
Great Crested Flycatcher 1
Common Raven5
Sedge Wren 5
House Wren 2
Eastern Towhee1
Baltimore Oriole 3
Orchard Oriole3
Brewers Blackbird41
Western Meadowlark 44
Peep sp.66
Hawk sp. 1
Swamp Sparrow1
Sandhill Crane54
Semipalmated Plover1
Marbled Godwit10
Franklin’s Gull44
Ring-billed Gull77
Ring-necked Duck1
Great Egret 2
Red-necked Phalarope 13
Spotted Sandpiper2
Red-headed Woodpecker1
Gray Catbird1
Canada Jay 1
Forster’s Tern 2
Red-eyed Vireo 1
Warbling Vireo1
Northern Flicker1
Belted Kingfisher1
Marsh Wren 3
Black-billed Magpie1
Northern Flicker1
Ferruginous Hawk2
Blue Jay 1
Eastern Phoebe 2
Nelson’s Sparrow1
Brown Thrasher 2
Cedar waxwing1
Lesser Scaup 3
Grasshopper Sparrow4
Total Species Identified 105