Short of Ears but not Short of Hearing!

With this latest instalment about grassland birds from Nate we will hear about the Short-Eared Owl!

It’s about time we talk about one of the most charismatic and iconic groups of birds found all across the world, owls! This particular species of interest today can be found throughout all Canadian provinces and territories during the breeding season – the Short- Eared Owl. The Short-Eared Owl makes use of a wide variety of open habitats, including grasslands, old pastures, and occasionally breeds in agricultural fields. Preferred nesting sites include dense grasslands. Perhaps this post should have been kept for Halloween as Short-Eared Owls are sometimes called “ghosts of the grassland” or “ghosts of the open country” due to their flight pattern and pale colour.

Unfortunately this Short-Eared Owl’s ear tufts are not visible in this photo. Photo by Christian Artuso.

Identification

These owls can be identified by their almost perfectly rounded head with light brown borders around its cream white face. Their bright yellow eyes are contrasted by black eye patches that fan to the side making this bird look like it put on some mascara and fake eyelashes that slipped to the side. Its breast is cream-coloured with light brown streaking which becomes a dark brown ‘collar’ closer to the head region. This dark brown colouration with caramel streaking continues to the rear portion of the animal and covers the wings. But where does its name come from? Well, if you look rather closely you may see two tiny protrusions from the top of its head similar, albeit much smaller, to those found on the Great Horned and Long- Eared Owls.

What about those ears?

I’ve got some shocking news for you all but the real ears on owls aren’t even visible! What you’re actually seeing is extensions of feathers we like to call ‘ear tufts’ and are scientifically named ‘flumicorns’, potentially the greatest name in anatomy history. There isn’t a definitive answer as to why they have these tufts but some theories include improved camouflage, looking extra spooky to scare off potential predators, or to impress a mate during courtship. The ears of an owl are essentially holes covered in feathers in a rather strategic fashion. Owls hunt primarily with their hearing so their head is modified to capture sound at an impressive rate. Owls have a facial disk profile which means their facial features seem caved in and surrounded by a ‘bowl’ of raised feathers, giving their face an appearance similar to that of a satellite dish. These feathers can then be adjusted to better direct sound to the ear holes depending in the direction of the sound. Their ears also have another adaptation that makes them superb listeners. They are offset, meaning one is higher up on the head than the other, which allows the owl to determine if sounds are coming from above or below. With these combinations of features, owls can precisely triangulate the location of prey, even under a layer of grass or snow.

Ear of a Northern Saw-Whet Owl hidden on the side of its head. Photo from Buffalo Bill Center of the West. A Short-Eared Owl’s ear is located in a similar spot.

Life History

Adults feed primarily on voles but will hunt for a mix of smaller mammals including pocket gophers, muskrats and bats; a true variety of prey from the ground, water and sky! They also feed on a range of smaller birds including gulls, songbirds and shorebirds. Short- Eared Owls are one of the few owl species that build their own nest, with the female excavating a bowl-shaped indent and lining the cavity with grass and feathers. The female will lay an average of four to seven eggs and will produce a second brood if eggs are eaten or destroyed. During the breeding season they are easily disturbed by humans and will abandon nests due to nearby human activity. If food availability is plentiful they may stick around in their wintering range to breed.

Conservation

Short-Eared Owls are facing a decline in population size due mostly to a loss of suitable habitat. These birds require large open and continuous areas that haven’t been broken up by activities that cause habitat fragmentation (the division of one large area into smaller patches of land). These fragmentations are often attributed to grassland conversion to cropland, livestock grazing, recreation and urbanization. The presence of invasive plant species and grasslands being taken over by shrubs, further disturbs the habitat for these birds. Although mostly nesting in grassland thickets, tundra with vegetation and occasionally overgrown pastures, these owls can also be found in wetlands and sagebrush thickets during the non-breeding season provided the habitat is large and continuous with no fragmentation. Their wintering habitat is a bit more flexible with owls being found in woodlots and coastal marshes. If habitat fragmentation wasn’t enough, the drainage of wetlands in coastal regions have impacted wintering ranges of Short-Eared Owls. Although the availability of open areas is instrumental in this owl’s distribution, food availability also dictates whether they will remain in an area. Their population size tends to fluctuate with the population cycles of their prey which is common with most predatory species. The COSEWIC listing of Short-Eared Owls was changed from special concern to threatened as of May 2021 but still remains a species of special concern under SARA. They are classified as threatened under the Manitoba Endangered Species at Ecosystems Act. Habitat restoration projects have helped Short-Eared Owl populations by restoring and preserving suitable habitat free from fragmentation and invasive plant species.

Author: Nathan (Nature Nate) Entz

September 2021 Events

With fall migration still ongoing through the month of September, Manitoba IBA programming is still ongoing as well! We have two events this month, see below for more details.


Our first event is the long postponed practical component of the western Manitoba shorebird identification workshop held over from this spring when it was cancelled due to COVID-19. While we will no longer be looking at the spring plumage of shorebirds, they are heading back through on fall migration and we will be able to learn to ID the fall plumage.

The workshop will take place on Saturday, September 18th, 2021 at 8:30 am. The location is still to be decided but will include a combination of the Deleau Wetlands, Chain Lakes, Griswold Marsh and/ or Whitewater Lake. We will scout the sites out ahead of time and plan a good route closer to the workshop date to get optimum shorebird viewing opportunities in this dry year. For more information or to sign up please email: iba@naturemanitoba.ca


Our second event is our weekend Weed Pulling for Plovers event at Riverton Sandy Bar. Our summer weed pull in August left us with some rainy weather, but we are hoping for a sunny September! The weed pull is always a good time and will include some birding up the sand bar in the IBA as well.

We will meet Saturday, September 25th at 8:00 am at the Sandy Bar Beach parking lot for some coffee and refreshments before heading to the sand bar to restore habitat for shorebirds. For more information or to sign up please email: iba@naturemanitoba.ca

Riverton Sandy Bar – Summer Weed Pull 2021

History has proven that rain nor cold weather ever stopped the IBA from hosting the Riverton Sandy Bar Weed Pull! Luckily (as it were) this August we were in for a rainy, but not cold forecast. With some back and forth between Amanda and Joanne (the Riverton Sandy Bar IBA Caretaker) we decided to go ahead with the event.

And so, on Friday August 20th, we had a group of dauntless volunteers head to the Riverton Sandy Bar to pull weeds. Thank you to Joanne, Lynnea, Jon and Bonnie for joining Amanda, Ariel, and I for an active day on the beach!

By removing the weeds from the sand bar, we create the ideal nesting habitat for shorebirds, specifically Piping Plovers. The last time Plovers were confirmed at the Sandy bar was in the year 2000. This is likely due to the encroachment of white-sweet clover and other vegetation taking over the sand bar, as they like open beach. Our mission was to pull as many of them as we could to help make the habitat attractive to them again, should they chose to come back.

Starting location of the Weed pull with Joanne, Lynnea, Amanda, Bonnie, Ariel and Jon getting set up. Photo by Vicky Tang.

We started early in the morning at 8:30 AM with a fresh cup of coffee and some muffins upon arrival. It was lightly raining as expected, but we continued to walk towards the sand bar, eager to get started. We all grabbed a bag and went on our way through the weeds.

The rain stopped by the time we got to the bar and it did not pick up again until noon. We were fortunate to get the heft of the work done by then.

We first concentrated on pulling the sweet clover, as it does the most damage to the open, sandy beaches needed for shorebird habitat. Once we cleared the clover from our main weed pull area we yellow primrose out too to get a vegetation free area for the birds. By 1:00 PM, we had made a big difference in the scenery.

Before and after photos of the sand bar. Photos by Vicky Tang.

Everyone worked together, having good conversations, and making new connections throughout. We all agreed that this was a much-needed get-together after a lonely year from the pandemic. Sunshine or not, it was a fun time!

After we had no more bags to fill (and we were all tired out), Joanne, Amanda and I took a walk down the bar to get some birding done. By this time, it was raining harder with the wind blowing into our faces. The shower was worth it though, as we reached the end of the bar, we saw a threatened Buff-breasted Sandpiper! Other birds we saw included, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, Baird’s Sandpiper, Franklin’s Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Common Terns, Bonaparte’s Gulls, and Pelicans, among others.

A Buff-breasted Sandpiper at the end of the sand bar was our reward for braving the wind and rain at the end of the weed pull. Photo by Joanne Smith.

We also had a few other interesting flora and fauna sightings. If you are a birder you may have heard of a “leaf bird” – those tricky leaves that hang on to branches or fall just right to look like a bird or a “rock bird” – those tricky things! We came across what we thought was a sad sight, a swan that had passed away and washed up on the shore… happily after taking a look through binoculars it was just an interesting configuration of debris and garbage that had washed up on the sandbar – a “garbage bird” perhaps!

All in all, it was a great weed pull with seven people. Thank you to all the volunteers that came out! We made a great difference in the habitat where we concentrated our weed pulling efforts, but there is still more to do. We hope to have better weather next time and continue this guessing game with mother nature at our next weed pull in September! Stayed tuned for more information about the next weed pull this fall from Amanda, coming up soon.

Here is the completed list of birds we observed that day:

SpeciesCount
Canada Goose31
Common Goldeneye8
Killdeer6
Sanderling2
Baird’s Sandpiper4
Least Sandpiper19
Buff-breasted Sandpiper1
Semipalmated Sandpiper31
Greater Yellowlegs1
Bonaparte’s Gull1
Franklin’s Gull1
Ring-billed Gull8
Herring Gull1
Common Tern16
American White Pelican7
Great Blue Heron1
Northern Harrier2
Bald Eagle1
Merlin1
American Crow1
Common Raven2
Tree Swallow3
Barn Swallow2
Cedar Waxwing2
Song Sparrow1
Swamp Sparrow2
Common Yellowthroat7
Yellow Warbler6
Total # of Species: 28Total # of individuals: 168

~ Vicky

Baird’s Sparrow: Stay Low and Prosper!

Hello everyone,

Today we are going to take a break from IBA event posts and join Nate again to talk about another North American grassland bird – this time the Baird’s Sparrow.

The Baird’s Sparrow is a rare sight during the summer but their song is an iconic staple of the sounds of a prairie summer. Baird’s Sparrows are a true grassland species, hunting prey and avoiding predators by moving swiftly through the grass. Picture that iconic scene of a person running away from a tiger in the tall grass, except the person is a grasshopper, the tiger is a sparrow, and the grass is 2 feet tall. These birds will often build their nests in small depressions such as hoof prints and are more tolerant of agricultural livestock habitats compared to some of the other grassland bird species.

Baird’s Sparrow in Manitoba’s Southwestern Mixed-Grass Prairie IBA. Photo by Christian Artuso.

Identification

I’m not going to lie to you, Baird’s Sparrows can be pretty tricky to tell apart just by looking at them. They have many similarities to other grassland sparrows and be easily confused with Nelson’s and LeConte’s Sparrows. Look for the very light brown eyebrow streak and a ‘Nike swoosh’-like chinstrap of the same colour that creates a bland collar area. Along the cheek area are a number of white and dark brown splotches which resemble moustache stripes. The collar and breast are separated by a dark brown streaky necklace that continues down to border the pale-yellow breast area. Their head is quite flattened on the top that gradually narrows into the beak. The pleasant song of the Baird’s Sparrow has a series of 3-5 descending ‘tinkly’ notes, finishing with a trill that sounds similar to a spring-loaded doorstopper being flicked. Identification by sound, rather than sight, might be your go-to for Baird’s Sparrows!

Life history

These birds breed in the prairie regions of North America and can be found, or more likely heard, in the southwest corner of Manitoba. Little is known about their wintering range but a number of repeat mist net captures in Arizona over 3 years and further studies support overwintering in the Chihuahuan desert. There are often several pairs per an area of good habitat so interspecies competition is expected. Despite habitat crossover with other grassland bird species, there is little evidence of conflicts between different species (intraspecific competition). These fellas like to stay low to the ground, but the males will get up on the tallest piece of vegetation he can find and sing his little heart out to find his one love for the summer. Once paired, they will be partnered with their mate for the duration of that breeding season. The female will lay 4-5 pale gray eggs with brown splotches and can produce up to 2 broods per breeding season.

Side profile of a Baird’s Sparrow. Photo by Andy Bankert, Cornell All About Birds

Conservation

Between 1968 and 2015, Baird’s Sparrows saw a yearly population decline of 2.2%, accumulating to a 65% population decline in 47 years. These birds are currently listed as a species of special concern by COSEWIC and under the federal Species At Risk At (SARA) and listed as Endangered under Manitoba’s Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act. Several factors have influenced the decline of this bird including, urbanization, conversion to cropland and the suppression of prairie fires. As a destructive force it may seem confusing for the suppression of fire to be related to loss of habitat. Regularly burned areas reduce shrub growth and other un-desirable vegetation that is not suitable for grassland species such as the Baird’s Sparrow. Like the ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’, the regenerative growth from the burned vegetation brings Baird’s sparrows to the yard as well as other native grassland animals.

Author: Nathan “Nature Nate” Entz

Stay tuned next week for the last installment in Nate’s grassland bird series!

Delta Marsh Bird Blitz

On August 14th, Manitoba IBA held the third bird blitz of the season at the Delta Marsh IBA. Our objective for this event was to record all birds we saw, however, special attention was to be given to any Species at Risk that might have been sighted. Waterbirds and shorebirds were also a special area of focus for the day due to their ideal habitat found in the IBA.

It was an early morning for the IBA staff and volunteers, starting our survey at 7:00 am or earlier in an effort to beat the heat that was coming. Luckily the day prior had been cool, so the morning was actually a great temperature. We were lucky to have a larger group of volunteers for this event and were able to cover more areas of the IBA. There were 15 of us in total including the IBA staff. We were separated into 6 different groups to cover 6 areas of the IBA.

Map of our survey areas for the day. Clandeboye Group walked along the beach in area D.

The groups were broken down as follows:

Group A: Katharine and John Schulz, Barbara Emberley

Group B: Rudolf Koes and Garry Budyk

Group C: Jo Swartz and Rob Parsons

Group D: Pat Wally, Nathan Entz and Doreen Draffin

Group E: Vicky Tang, Amanda Shave and Ariel Desrochers

Clandeboye Group: Alyssa Stulberg and Theresa Mackey

We had no set routes for the day. The goal for each group was to simply explore the area assigned and record all birds and observe the habitat. Various species were recorded and some in very large numbers.

Group A (Katharine, John and Barbara) observed 59 species during their survey. Many shorebirds were observed during their survey including the Stilt Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, Wilsons Phalarope and Greater/Lesser Yellowlegs. Gulls and swallows were observed in large numbers.  Otherwise, highlights of Group A consisted of three Virginia Rails, a large flock of approximately 24 Gray Partridge, a flock of Bank Swallows observed on the 44W just south of 80N, two Caspian Terns along the diversion and plentiful Red-tailed Hawks throughout!

Solitary Sandpiper - Katharine Schulz
A Solitary Sandpiper, Photo by Katharine Schulz

Rudolf and Garry were the members of Group B. They covered the area surrounding Delta Beach, observing various species along their survey. They walked along the beach itself as well as birding from their car as needed. Large numbers of shorebirds were spotted, including 126 Least Sandpiper, 100 peeps (unknown small shorebirds), 17 Semipalmated Plover and 52 Killdeer. They also observed large numbers of swallows, including 325 Bank Swallows, 161 Tree Swallows and 85 Purple Martins. They also took a swing over to the landfill on PR 227 after our lunch-time meet up to see what birds were around in addition to what Group C observed there.

As Group C Jo and Rob covered most of the area between PR 430 on east, to just west of Portage Creek and the PR 227 landfill. They also saw large numbers of birds including 1200 Franklin’s Gulls and 1088 Ring-billed Gulls, most of which were at the landfill. They also spotted 4 Red-headed Woodpeckers, a coveted bird of the year! (At least for us IBA staff who have been doing Red-head Woodpecker monitoring this year). In total, Group C observed 59 species.

Chatty Lesser Black-backed Gull, Photo by Garry Budyk

Alyssa and Theresa were our intrepid Clandeboye Group, who walked from St Ambroise Provincial Park west to Clandeboye Bay. They observed 28 species in total, with a mix of shorebirds, waterbirds and other species such as a Belted Kingfisher, a Great Blue Heron and a Black and White Warbler. The shorebirds they observed included Baird’s Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs.

A Merlin near Lynch’s Point. Photo by Katharine Schulz

Group D consisting of Pat, Doreen and Nate identified 45 species in total in the west portion of the marsh. They observed a variety of species including some shorebirds, various species of sparrow, hawks and waterbirds. An interesting sighting for them was the Eastern Wood-Peewee, a federal Species at Risk (special concern).

The IBA staff comprised Group E. We primarily birded while walking from where HWY 430 ends by the lake towards Twin Lakes beach. We noticed on our walk that the water level had been pushed back considerably due to drought conditions, leaving long stretches of empty shoreline. We observed 41 species including large numbers of Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Franklin’s Gulls, Double-crested Cormorants and 900 Brewer’s Blackbirds. We also saw what we thought may have been two separate families of Bald Eagles in their juvenile stage. The majority of shorebirds were seen closer to the end of HWY 430, with fewer seen near to Twin Lakes Beach.

Trying our best to count the birds while they move around! Photo by Amanda Shave

We all met up at the end of the blitz at the former boardwalk trail in the Delta Beach community for a well deserved snack in the shade. We got pretty lucky with the weather, as the morning was a lovely temperature. It was considerably hotter after our group get-together! In total we were able to identify 115 different species during the blitz. Again, a big thank you to everyone who came out! The full list of species identified and their counts can be found below.

Species Sum of Count
American Bittern4
American Crow41
American Goldfinch44
American Kestrel7
American Redstart2
American Robin14
American White Pelican412
Baird’s Sandpiper12
Bald Eagle22
Baltimore Oriole9
Bank Swallow461
Barn Swallow194
Belted Kingfisher3
Black Tern177
Black-and-white Warbler2
Black-billed Magpie11
Black-capped Chickadee5
Blue Jay7
Blue-winged Teal91
Bobolink7
Bonaparte’s Gull137
Brewer’s Blackbird1062
Buff-breasted Sandpiper1
Buteo sp.1
Canada Goose32
Caspian Tern5
Cedar Waxwing15
Chipping Sparrow1
Clay-colored Sparrow19
Cliff Swallow12
Common Goldeneye1
Common Grackle37
Common Raven23
Common Tern16
Common Yellowthroat14
Cooper’s Hawk3
Double-crested Cormorant773
Downy Woodpecker5
Duck sp.14
Eastern Bluebird1
Eastern Kingbird131
Eastern Phoebe4
Eastern Wood-Pewee3
European Starling3
Forster’s Tern29
Franklin’s Gull3697
Gadwall1
Gray Catbird19
Gray Partridge24
Great Blue Heron7
Great Egret16
Great Horned Owl1
Greater Yellowlegs164
Greater/Lesser Scaup2
Gull sp.1768
Hairy Woodpecker3
Herring Gull66
Hooded Merganser3
House Sparrow67
House Wren2
Killdeer94
Least Flycatcher16
Least Sandpiper708
Lesser Black-backed Gull1
Lesser Scaup6
Lesser Yellowlegs382
Lincoln’s Sparrow1
Mallard80
Marsh Wren3
Merlin12
Mourning Dove78
Northern Flicker4
Northern Harrier13
Northern Pintail 1
Northern Shoveler2
Northern Waterthrush6
Olive-sided Flycatcher1
Orchard Oriole2
Pectoral Sandpiper62
Peep sp.200
Phalarope sp.60
Purple Finch1
Purple Martin143
Red-eyed Vireo3
Red-headed Woodpecker4
Red-necked Phalarope31
Red-tailed Hawk43
Red-winged Blackbird360
Ring-billed Gull2146
Rock Pigeon25
Rose-breasted Grosbeak4
Ruby-throated Hummingbird3
Sanderling13
Sandhill Crane5
Savannah Sparrow28
Sedge Wren4
Semipalmated Plover30
Semipalmated Sandpiper144
Sharp-shinned Hawk1
Sharp-tailed Grouse2
Solitary Sandpiper3
Song Sparrow6
Sparrow sp.1
Spotted Sandpiper6
Stilt Sandpiper9
Tennessee Warbler3
Tree Swallow314
Turkey Vulture12
Virginia Rail3
Warbling Vireo8
Western Grebe5
Western Kingbird22
Western Meadowlark92
White-breasted Nuthatch3
White-rumped Sandpiper1
Willet3
Wilson’s Phalarope131
Wood Duck6
Yellow Warbler96
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker5
Yellow-headed Blackbird36
Yellow-rumped Warbler2
Grand Total Individuals15196
Grand Total Species115 (+7 “sp”)

-Ariel

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.

SpeciesTotal 
Mourning Dove17
Killdeer2
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.

The Oak Hammock Marsh Grassland Bird Search

Get your binoculars and rev up your engines! A as the morning arrived on July 17th, it was good weather (albeit hot) for a grassland bird search in Oak Hammock Marsh. We had our volunteers enjoy a nice walk and drive to the west side of the grasslands, exploring the tall-grass prairie to the north mound.

With the IBA Steering Committee a-okay, we conjured up our first public event of the year! COVID-19 protocols were maintained safely by us and our volunteers. Thank you to Pat, Carla, Al, and Cindy for joining us in the morning for a tour in the grasslands.  

Amanda and I arrived at the meeting location at 6:50 AM, to scope out the area and in case any one came early. There were significantly more mosquitoes here than in the city, ouch! Good thing Amanda was fully prepared with bug spray, sunscreen, juice, and snacks. First thing in the morning were the distinct and gentle calls of the Mourning Dove and a busy Eastern Kingbird, flying back and forth across the road.

When three vehicles stopped at the shorebird scrape, we knew they were kindred birders for sure. Lo and behold, they were indeed our volunteers for today! They made their way to the gathering spot by just after 8:00 AM. Pat said she saw a Willet over at the scrape, which got everyone excited. We were ready to go, and so began our route. We managed to avoid (most) of the midday heat and in our respective vehicles. The map below traces our path through the grasslands and past the canola fields.

Map of our route including both driving and walking portions

We first started our route with a quick walk by the west side of the interpretive centre. Our first find, and a species we would encounter a few more times on the route were the Marsh (1) and Sedge (4) Wrens. They played a little game of peek-a-boo in the tall grass, making it difficult to get a good look, but their calls were distinct.

We then drove up to the path through the tall-grass prairie habitat north of the Interpretive Centre. The species that dominated the grasslands and wetland habitat mix were Savannah Sparrows (26), Clay-coloured Sparrows (25), and Red-winged Blackbirds (25). We heard four Common Yellowthroats and saw five Mallards fly by. There were a few mourning doves (4) calling in the distance from time to time, and we had one spotting of a Cedar Waxwing. At the end of our route, we stopped by a bridge, swarmed by swallows! It was a mix of Bank (3), Cliff (3), and Barn (30) Swallows to our best guess. It was difficult to tell exact numbers as they swirled around over and under the bridge. A Northern Harrier zoomed in on the Swallows out of nowhere and almost flew directly at us! However, the little birds started to bully the Harrier into a different direction. We had also seen another Harrier further back on the route. It was flying low in an empty field. It must have found something delectable there.

We saw only two Western Meadowlarks on the way there. We were expecting more Meadowlarks on the route, but they were mysteriously hard to find, we suspected a predator may have been in the area. And indeed, just down the road a raptor was scouting the from a hay bale (too far away to determine more than a silhouette), likely keeping the Meadowlarks at bay. On our way back, there was no sign of the raptor and we saw five more Meadowlarks – more what we had expected!

We had a catch of a Sharp-tailed Grouse flying by! It was quite fast, and I could not tell what it was, but Amanda recognized it instantly. We had an even rarer find further up the path. Right where the road curves right, we saw two Dickcissels! Unfortunately, they were against the sun and only briefly in sight before they flew off into the bushes. They were flying over the road a few times. Amanda had seen them earlier before the 17th when she was preparing the route, and sure enough, they were still there!  

Overall, it was a nice warm-up event to meet the volunteers! Thank you again to Cindy, Al, Pat, and Carla for joining us. A list that summarizes the total birds we encountered can be found below.

-Vicky

August IBA Events

We are excited to be holding three events this August and hope to see you there!


Our first event is a bird blitz at Delta Marsh IBA on Saturday, August 14th. Join us starting at 7:00 am for a morning of birding in small groups before we end with a group round-up and refreshments. Email iba@naturemanitoba.ca to sign up or for more information.


On Friday, August 20th we will hold a weedpull at Riverton Sandy Bar IBA. Join us at 8:00 am for refreshments before we head out onto the sand bar to pull invasive weeds, restoring the habitat for the threatened shorebirds that use this habitat. It also wouldn’t be an IBA event without some birding as well! Email iba@naturemanitoba.ca to sign up or for more information.


Join us at one of western Manitoba’s best birding destinations. We will be focusing our blitz on shorebirds, but other waterbirds, warblers, and more are also sure to delight! This event is on Saturday, August 28th starting at 8:30 am. We will have a group round-up with refreshments at the end of the morning.

The Hawk with the Feathered Legs

Before I talk about one of the coolest looking birds in North America, I’m going to start this off by letting you in on some bird words. First off, a raptor is any bird of prey such as a hawk, falcon, eagle, or owl that has physical adaptions for hunting larger prey. A buteo is a raptor in the broad-winged hawk genus and include the red-tailed and Swainson’s hawk. The term ‘buzzard’ (and you may be thinking of a vulture when you hear this word) is used in the old world to refer to these birds while in North America hawk has been the term used to refer to these birds. Alright now that we have some vocabulary lets talk about our bird of the week, the feathery-legged ferruginous hawk. Ferruginous hawks are the largest of the buteos in the world by weight, beak and foot size but has a smaller wingspan than the upland buzzard.

Identification

While you can only see one side of the “V” made out of the legs, notice the dark feathering all the way down to the foot. Photo by Christian Artuso.

When in flight, look for the feathered legs which form a “V” just above the tail as well as a rather large head compared to the rest of the body. Like most raptors, these birds exhibit a light and dark morph which can makes it a bit trickier to identify. In the dark morphs, the inner wings are darker and more pronounced with white tail and flight feathers. In the light morphs, look for the white belly and rusty coloured shoulder pads. Adults and young fledglings give out a scratchy scream reminiscent of a donkey braying while alarmed and will dive bomb threats which produces a booming whoosh sound.

Life history

Adult ferruginous hawks build their nest in a variety of locations included on the ground and in elevated location such as lone trees, manmade structures, and boulders. When picking their elevated nest site, they will often build their nests on top of previous bird nests. Males bring building materials and females do the building using sticks, pieces of plastic, metal and occasionally bones to create the base of the nest. Softer materials such as dung and sod are used to line the nest, after all the females is going to be sitting there for an incubation period of 33 days! Females will lay a clutch of 1-8 cream-coloured eggs with brown splotches and will fledge the nest after 38-50 days.

Conservation

Ferruginous hawks have seen a 64% population decline from 1992 to 2005 within Its range in Alberta and roughly a 30% decline within its entire Canadian range in the Prairie provinces. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) listed the ferruginous hawk as threatened in April 2008 and its Species at Risk Act (SARA) listing is at schedule 1 threatened as of February 2010. Main causes of the decline of their population have been associated with general habitat loss due to oil and gas exploration and urbanization. Ferruginous hawks have been hunted in the past but are now protected by the migratory bird act? Due to their specialized diet of Richardson’s ground squirrel’s, ranching practices that benefit fossorial animals will keep these buteos fat and happy. Artificial nest stands and brush piles have also been constructed to assist with nesting habitat. With proper ranching techniques and habitat conservation we will hopefully be able to stop the population and range reduction of these magnificent birds.

-Nathan (Nature Nate) Entz

Chestnut-collared Longspur- the clown faced prince of the prairies

Here’s Nate with our next (and less predatory) grassland bird species:

A lot of the time, small songbirds are lumped into the category of “sparrow-like bird” due to a lack of identification features or skills of the observer. In this article, I describe a truly beautiful specimen of the prairies, the Chestnut-collared Longspur.

Male Chestnut-collared Longspur. Note the chestnut or rufous coloured “collar” on the back of the neck. Photo by Christian Artuso.

Identification

Like most songbirds, Chestnut-collared Longspurs display sexual dimorphism, a trait where males and females have different physical appearances. During breeding season males are highly decorative, especially around the head and neck. Their name comes from the chestnut-coloured splotch on the back of the neck that forms a sort of ‘collar’. The top of their heads has a thin black cap which is met by a thick white eyebrow. Cheeks and throat have a light peach colouring which you can imagine as a bit of peach fuzz on a pubescent teenager. There are an additional two black stripes on the cheek below the eyebrow line with alternating white lines. In flight, a black fork can be found running down the middles of the tail feathers. As is the case with most sexually dimorphic species, females are much duller in colour and do not have as many flashy ornaments to impress a mate.  After all, they are the ones being impressed! Females, juveniles, and non-breeding adults have muddled streaks on their breast and light brown streaks on the back. Facial features are the same as males but in much duller colour and less pronounced with a light brown ‘ear mark’ between the cheek and neck. Males sing a complicated string of buzzy notes in flight and while perched. Both sexes perform a ‘tzip’ sounding call during aggressive situations.

Nonbreeding adult or immature Chestnut-collared Longspur. Photo by Jacob Drucker on allaboutbirds.org.

Life History

Chestnut-collared longspurs require short grass prairie under one foot in height to breed. This includes taller prairies that have been recently mowed, grazed (historically by bison and more recently by cattle) or burned. In the summer, these birds migrate to the Northern plains and overwinter in the Southern great plains and Chihuahuan Desert. These birds build their nests on the ground and try to utilize cover from taller vegetation within their short grassland habitat. Females produce a clutch of 3-5 eggs pale grey eggs speckled with dark red spots, and can raise 2-3 broods, or cohorts of young. This means that the female will nest more than once during the breeding season but often with a different mate. Young take 7-15 days to hatch and the same amount of time to leave the nest after hatching. These birds will mostly hunt for insects (grasshoppers being a favourite) and seeds while walking on the ground but will occasionally take flight and catch aerial insects just above the ground.

Conservation

From 1966-2015 chestnut-collared longspurs have had an annual population decline of 4.2% which totalled to an 87% population decline in 49 years! Continuing this trajectory, these birds will lose another half of their population size by 2037. The main cause for these longspurs experiencing population decline is a loss of breeding habitat. Due to this bird’s dependence on grazed prairie, protected or un-managed grasslands that are not mowed or grazed can not provide suitable nesting habitat. Like most birds, chestnut collared longspurs are susceptible to non-native introduced predators such as feral cats. Properly managed cattle and other livestock grazing operations can provide rich habitat for this bird in the absence of the once abundant bison.

-Nathan (Nature Nate) Entz