World Wetlands Day 2022

With our recent wintery weather, you might not be thinking about your local wetlands, but February 2, 2022 is World Wetlands Day.

Today is a great day to reflect on your favourite local wetland. Do you visit in the spring for birding? Do you go canoeing or fishing in the summer? Do you go hiking in the fall? Do you snowshoe across it in the winter?

What birds can we spy with our scopes in a wetland? Photo by Amanda Shave.

Wetlands play a huge role in as habitat for both breeding and migrating birds, and is key habitat in our Manitoba IBAs. While not all of our IBAs are designated specifically for wetlands, almost all of them contain wetlands within their boundaries. For example, the Southwestern Manitoba Mixed-grass Prairie IBA contains a lot of – you guessed it- prairie, but also has a variety of large and small prairie wetlands. These prairie wetlands support breeding shorebirds such as Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Phalarope and American Avocet, and breeding waterfowl such as the Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler and Gadwell, just to name a couple of species of each.

Of course, we also have a number of IBAs that were developed specifically because they contain wetlands. These include Delta Marsh IBA, Douglas Marsh IBA, Big Grass Marsh and Langruth IBA, Netley-Libau Marsh IBA, Sandy Bay Marshes IBA, Marshy Point and Saskatchewan River Delta IBA. Many of our northern IBAs that border Hudson Bay also include a variety of marshes, bogs, sedge meadows and fens, which are all different types of wetlands.

Shorebirds foraging in mudflat and shallow water habitat in the west side of Delta Marsh. Photo by Katharine Schulz.

Our IBAs also include human-constructed or restored wetland habitat, such as Oak Hammock Marsh Wildlife Management Area. Oak Hammock Marsh was originally a wetland, but was largely drained for agriculture. In 1967 the provincial and federal governments, Ducks Unlimited Canada, and other conservation organizations and local landowners starting working to restore the wetlands to what we see today. The marsh is managed through a series of dikes, wetland cells and artificial islands that move and store the water across the landscape. Additionally, The Manitoba IBA program, the Province of Manitoba and Harry J. Enns Wetland Discovery Centre staff collaborated to create our province’s first shorebird scrape in 2020 at Oak Hammock. Shorebird scrapes are a feature that holds water in a depression on the landscape, creating mudflat habitat within a wetland. We saw many wetland birds using the scrape via trail camera, and through eBird checklists last season. The scrape was expanded further this past fall! While currently under ice and snow, the scrape is an excellent spring birding destination at Oak Hammock Marsh.

Trail camera image of (mainly) American Golden Plovers and Canada Geese using the scrape and adjacent pond. Photo by: Manitoba IBA Program.

If you would like to learn more about wetland habitats and how they impact our birds check out IBA Manitoba’s Freshwater Habitat for Birds factsheet or our Shorebird Scrape factsheet!

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

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!

Winter Solstice and Looking Ahead

Today is winter solstice – the shortest day of the year and the “official” start to the winter. While the days are short, like our hardy resident birds, we make the best of it! Whether you enjoy the winter or tolerate it I hope you can curl up with a warm beverage of our choice and remember, from here on in our days will start getting longer again, and eventually warmer as well!

Hot Chocolate

From all of us at Manitoba IBA, we wish you the best of the holiday season and health and happiness in the New Year!

-Amanda Shave (Coordinator), Tim Poole (Chair), Bonnie Chartier, Paula Grieef, Christian Artuso, Marika Olynyk and Gillian Richards

Birding After Dark: Eastern Whip-poor-will Monitoring in Manitoba

With IBA events on hiatus due to COVID-19 in early summer 2021, our IBA team turned to monitoring that could be done individually. One of the focal species we were looking at was the Eastern Whip-poor-will. It is not often seen, but rather heard, with the whip-POOR-will call heard for up to three hours at a time! This species is the soundscape to rural Manitoba for many people. It is also a Species at Risk – designated as Threatened by both the federal and provincial governments.

Eastern Whip-poor-will. Photo from allaboutbirds.org.

Most bird monitoring happens in the early morning hours but for some species, like the Eastern Whip-poor-will, moonlit nights are the best times to monitor! Interestingly, none of the different types of popular bird surveys in Manitoba capture Eastern Whip-poor-wills all that well, according to the COSEWIC species report for the Whip-poor-will. The Breeding Bird Survey happens at the right time of year, but is a morning survey when the birds at not that active. The Nocturnal Owl Survey happens at the right time of day (night) but at the wrong time of year.

So, with a grant from the Habitat Stewardship Program, we set out to determine how many Whip-poor-wills call our IBAs home. Most IBA activities happen during the early morning hours, so conducting surveys at night was a new experience for myself and our summer students.

Surveys were conducted at the North, East and West Shoal Lakes IBA and Delta Marsh IBA. We surveyed between June 15th and July 15th, which is the period around the full moon during the breeding season. The full moon provides enough light for Eastern Whip-poor-wills to extend their nightly foraging. Surveys started 30 minutes before sunset and went for two hours. Due to a lack of historic data, surveys this year were exploratory, with stops in areas of Eastern Whip-poor-will habitat, rather than specific locations decided upon a head of time. Each stop included 6 minutes of passive listening targeting nightjars (Eastern Whip-poor-wills and Common Nighthawks).

Eastern Whip-poor-will habitat can include deciduous, conifer or mixed woods forests with little to no understory and near to open areas. Open areas are used for foraging for insects, while forested areas are used to roost during the day and for nesting.

Eastern Whip-poor-will recording from xeno-canto.org.

Delta Marsh IBA

Surveys were run on the east side of Delta Marsh IBA on June 21st and June 22th. We started up near St Ambroise 30 minutes before sunset and worked our way south and west over the next two nights. We were unsure what to expect during these surveys but were pleased to hear Whip-poor-wills at 9 stops over the two nights, for a total of four individuals heard during our surveys. We were keeping track of distance and direction of the calls during our surveys to reduce the chance of double-counting individuals as the sound of a Whip-poor-will can travel far. Two individuals were heard along mile road 81N and the other two were heard along mile road 77N. We also head two Common Nighthawks the first night, one near to the town of St Ambroise and the other near to the intersection of HWY 430 and HWY 411.

Birding at dusk and into the night was an interesting experience. Of course, at dusk there was a cacophony of bird sounds each evening. Near dusk at Delta Marsh we heard Killdeer, Hermit Thrush, Eastern Meadowlarks, Grey Catbirds, Baltimore Orioles, Yellow Warblers and more. Once night hit it was considerably quieter, however we did get an excellent view of a Great Horned Owl both flying overhead and later perching in a tree.

Locations of stops where Eastern Whip-poor-will were heard on June 21-22, 2021 at Delta Marsh IBA. Some points are of repeat birds. A total of four individuals were heard over the two days.

North, East and West Shoal Lakes IBA

Surveys were conducted at the Shoal Lakes IBA on June 28th and June 29th. We started on the west side of the lakes and made our way eastward. Manitoba IBA staff had a total of seven stops where Eastern Whip-poor-will were heard calling, which accounted for a total of nine individuals. A further two more birds were originally heard but taking into account the distance and direction of the song, were determined to be repeat individuals. There were no Common Nighthawks heard on the surveys at Shoal Lakes.

The general pattern of bird diversity during the survey at the Shoal Lakes was similar to Delta Marsh. Bird activity was high leading up to sundown with species like Killdeer, Yellow Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos, Clay-coloured Sparrows and Grey Catbirds singing and calling.

Locations of stops where Eastern Whip-poor-will were heard on June 21-22, 2021 at Delta Marsh IBA. Some points are of repeat birds. A total of four individuals were heard over the two days.

“Birding After Dark”

Overall, we found “birding after dark” to be an interesting new way to experience the birds and their habitat. It will be interesting to see what we are able to find next year as we plan to run the surveys again. If you are interested in joining us next summer send an email to iba@naturemanitoba.ca.

2021 Fall International Shorebird Surveys

With the help of our volunteers and citizen scientists another year of the International Shorebird Survey (ISS) in Manitoba is in the books!

Fall breeding plumage American Avocet at Oak Lake/ Plum Lakes IBA. Photo by A. Shave.

If you recall from our spring ISS round-up, this year the Manitoba IBA program officially added ISS routes in two new locations this year, the North, East and West Shoal Lakes IBA and Oak Hammock Marsh. These locations join our original two locations, Whitewater Lake IBA and Oak Lake/ Plum Lakes IBA. The program is run by Manomet and the goal of the ISS is to track long-term trends in shorebird numbers globally. The Manitoba IBA program coordinates the ISS locally in the province. With the ISS we have pre-set routes that volunteers try to visit at least 3 times in the spring and 3 times in the fall to count shorebirds on migration. You can find the results of our spring 2021 ISS surveys here.

Much like in the spring, the big story of the ISS this year was the lack of water. By the fall, my shorebird search technique was “if you are looking for shorebirds, look in areas that used to be duck habitat (i.e. deeper water)”. Any areas that were shorebird habitat in the past years was dried up by early summer!

You might ask, if we know the route will be dry, and there will be no shorebirds then why run the route at all? As the ISS is a long-term dataset it is extremely important to record shorebird numbers consistently each year, and along the same routes. This can allow us to track how changes in habitat can impact habitat use, population numbers, etc. While it may not always seem like it at the time, “zero” data are very important data to have! With that in mind let’s dive into location-specific results.


Oak Lake/ Plum Lakes IBA

Both the Oak Lake/Plum Lakes ISS routes and the Whitewater Lakes ISS routes were created back in 2018 – which was near the end of a string of high-water years. So, if the area designated for shorebird habitat was shallow water in a high-water year – you can bet that it was dry in a drought year, like this year!

Unsurprisingly, the routes at Oak Lake/ Plum Lakes IBA were largely dry, and/or the water was seen way off in the distance, outside the range of a spotting scope and the range of the ISS. Each of the 5 routes at Oak Lake/Plum Lakes was visited twice this fall, except for Route 1, which was visited 3 times.

Gillian and Glennis birding at a side trip to our Oak Lake ISS routes, down Lakeshore Drive. Photo by A. Shave.

A total of 16 species (plus undetermined Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitchers) were seen during the fall season. This included at total of 260 individuals. The proportion of each species was fairly even. The highest proportion were Long-billed Dowitchers at 15%, followed by Lesser Yellowlegs (12%), Killdeer (11%) and Wilson’s Phalarope (11%). The least common species was a single Baird’s Sandpiper.

2021 Fall Season Oak/Plum Lakes Shorebird Counts
SpeciesTotal # of Individuals Proportion of Individuals (%)
American Avocet177
Baird’s Sandpiper10
Greater Yellowlegs218
Killdeer2811
Least Sandpiper166
Lesser Yellowlegs3212
Long-billed Dowitcher4015
Marbled Godwit93
Pectoral Sandpiper249
Semipalmated Plover21
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher249
Spotted Sandpiper42
Stilt Sandpiper42
Upland Sandpiper52
Willet31
Wilson’s Phalarope2811
Wilson’s Snipe21
Total260100

A big thank you to everyone who helped out for ISS surveys at Oak Lake/ Plum Lakes including our two IBA summer students, Vicky Tang and Ariel Desrochers, our Oak Lake/ Plum Lakes IBA caretakers, Glennis Lewis and Gillian Richards, and Matt Gasner from Nature Conservancy Canada.


Whitewater Lake IBA

Like I mentioned above, Whitewater Lake ISS routes were also created during the wet spell back in 2018. However, the routes faired a bit better in terms of water levels this year than the routes along Oak Lake. This area really dried out mid-summer, the same as Oak Lake, but got several days of good showers in mid-August that revitalized water levels for a period of time (before they dried out again). We know this as the Manitoba IBA program was luckly enough to hold our bird blitz at Whitewater Lake just after those rains, and multiple local birders described to us what a difference it made, even though it was still quite dry.

Kathryn and Carla looking at shorebirds at Sexton’s Point. The area where they are standing is normally under water! Photo by A. Shave.

The number of visits to the different routes at Whitewater Lake varied by site with the east side routes visited less often (once or twice) with the western routes visited 3-4 times each, and Sexton’s Point visited 5 times. Anecdotally, the east side seemed to dry out faster than the west side.

A total of 17 species (plus some unknown shorebirds) were seen at Whitewater Lake on fall migration counts, with a total of 1745 individuals. The distribution of species was quite a bit different than at Oak Lake. At Oak Lake the proportion of individuals was quite even, but Whitewater Lake had high counts of some species and low counts of many others. The most common species were Long-billed Dowitchers (34%), American Avocets (24%) and Sanderlings (13%). The least common species were the White-rumped Sandpiper (1 individual) and Wilson’s Snipe (1 individual). The fact that White-rumped Sandpipers were uncommon is not unexpected – they are not a common shorebird in Manitoba in general.

2021 Fall Season Whitewater Lake Shorebird Counts
SpeciesTotal # of Individuals Proportion of Individuals (%)
American Avocet41324
American Golden-Plover342
Baird’s Sandpiper131
Greater Yellowlegs161
Killdeer161
Least Sandpiper895
Lesser Yellowlegs996
Long-billed Dowitcher60034
Pectoral Sandpiper121
Red-necked Phalarope70
Sanderling23513
Semipalmated Plover50
Semipalmated Sandpiper553
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher533
Stilt Sandpiper111
White-rumped Sandpiper10
Wilson’s Phalarope101
Wilson’s Snipe10
large shorebird sp.50
peep sp.704
Total1745100

Thank you to everyone who conducted ISS counts at Whitewater Lake including Colin Blyth and Gillian Richards (Whitewater Lake IBA Caretakers), Carla Keast, Kathryn Hyndman, Doug Ford, Carson Rogers, and our summer students Vicky and Ariel!

Semipalmated Plover taking advantage of the mudflats exposed by the lower water levels at Sexton’s Point. Photo by A. Shave.

North, East, West Shoal Lakes IBA

The first of our new IBA blitz sites for fall 2021! The Shoal Lakes IBA and Oak Hammock Marsh ISS sites were created and scoped out last year when the water was not so high, but definitely not as low as it was this year. As a result some areas of Shoal Lake still had water a bit later in the summer/ early “fall” (as determined by ISS timing), however, most sites still eventually dried right out.

Each site at the Shoal Lakes IBA in the fall was visited 2-3 times. The total number of shorebird species seen was 9 (with some unknown peeps) and 133 individuals seen. The two most common species by far were the Greater Yellowlegs (58%) and Lesser Yellowlegs (22%). The least common birds were the Short-billed Dowitcher and White-rumped Sandpiper at one individual each.

2021 Fall Season North, East and West Shoal Lakes Shorebird Counts
SpeciesTotal # of Individuals Proportion of Individuals (%)
American Woodcock11
Greater Yellowlegs7758
Killdeer22
Least Sandpiper65
Lesser Yellowlegs2922
peep sp.97
Short-billed Dowitcher11
Spotted Sandpiper32
White-rumped Sandpiper11
Wilson’s Snipe43
Total133100

A big thank you to Bonnie Chartier, Mike Karakas and Tami Reynolds who have been great about joining in our ISS monitoring at the Shoal Lakes in its first full year!


Oak Hammock Marsh

And last but not least we have the Oak Hammock Marsh ISS site to report on. This site is unique for a couple of reasons. First of all Oak Hammock Marsh is a human-restored wetland, built to bring this habitat back from largely agricultural land to its original wetland state started in 1967. The second unique thing about Oak Hammock Marsh is that the water level is actually semi-controlled though a system of dikes and culverts. It used to be entirely controlled, but the infrastructure is used less often now. However, if you have ever gone looking for shorebirds at the “front pond” (the pond just to the west of the interpretive centre front doors) just know that you have centre staff to thank for keeping it at just the right height for shorebirds! And the third unique thing about Oak Hammock Marsh is the Shorebird Scrape – additional human-made shorebird habitat created last fall adjacent to a small lake – the first of its kind in Manitoba!

Oak Hammock Marsh probably was the site that was best retaining water this year as it has areas of varying water depths all close together. So although areas that were normally shallow dried out, there were areas that normally have higher water that turned shallow this year, but still stayed wet.

Two routes at Oak Hammock Marsh were visited twice in the fall, and one route was visited once. There were 9 species of shorebird seen during ISS visits, and a total of 228 individual shorebirds counted. The most common species were Greater Yellowlegs (64%), Lesser Yellowlegs (12%) and Killdeer (11%). There were several species that were only counted twice on ISS surveys including the Least Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Upland Sandpiper and Willet.

2021 Fall Season Oak Hammock Marsh Shorebird Counts
SpeciesTotal # of Individuals Proportion of Individuals (%)
Greater Yellowlegs14764
Killdeer2411
Least Sandpiper10
Lesser Yellowlegs2812
Semipalmated Plover94
Spotted Sandpiper10
Upland Sandpiper10
Willet10
Wilson’s Snipe167
Total228100

Bonnie, Mike and Tami were instrumental in collecting our ISS monitoring data at Oak Hammock Marsh as well as at the Shoal Lakes IBA and were joined at Oak Hammock by Tim Poole. Thanks all!

ISS Round-Up

While this may have not been the most exciting year for shorebirds on migration due to the difficulty in finding them with the low water levels, it is an incredibly important year in recording the numbers (or lack of numbers). There is a lot of winter and chance for precipitation between us and the Spring 2022 ISS season, so we will keep our fingers crossed that it will be a bit wetter next year!

As you can see from the numbers of times we were able to run ISS routes, we’d love to have a few more volunteers to consistently reach our targets of visiting each site 3 times in the spring and 3 times in the fall. You do not have to run all the ISS routes in a location in a day – pick one or two that fit with where you normally bird! While you do have to record all shorebirds, you are also free to record the other birds you see as well, just like normal birding. If you visit any of the ISS site during the spring or fall, just send me an email at iba@naturemanitoba.ca and we can see if running an ISS route might be of interest to you!

-Amanda

Two Names, One Bird: The Grasshopper Sparrow

Welcome all, to the final post in our grassland blog post series! Today Nate talks about a most mysterious bird found in the prairies. The Grasshopper Sparrow! Is it a grasshopper? No. Is it a sparrow? Yes!

Mystery number one solved, we know that it is a bird (a surprise on a birding blog!). They feed primarily on grasshoppers which they get their namesake from so mystery number two solved! These feathered friends can be observed in the southern grasslands of Manitoba but good luck seeing them. They are very camouflaged and are often identified by their distinctive insect-like song. Wait, they sound like an insect too? Like a grasshopper! Mystery number three solved folks.

Identification

I would first like to get it out of the way that Grasshopper Sparrows do not look like grasshoppers at all. They do however look very similar to other grassland sparrow species such as the Baird’s Sparrow and the LeConte’s Sparrow. Grasshopper Sparrows have less facial, back and breast markings than these birds and have a prominent orange marking that connects that arches from the front of the eye to the back of the bill. Like the LeConte’s Sparrow, they have a black ‘ear-piece’ that extends backwards from their eye-line to the centre of their head. This marking is different from a LeConte’s Sparrow as it tapers downwards at the centre of the head and creates an “L” shape on the Grasshopper Sparrow instead of a more circular patch of the LeConte’s Sparrow. The Grasshopper Sparrow’s breast is buffy coloured and unstreaked while their back is streaked with a rusty grey and a yellow tinged shoulder.

A Grasshopper Sparrow singing away! Note the unstreaked, buffy belly and the orange/yellow spot in front of the eye. Photo by C. Artuso.

As you will most likely be hearing this bird before you see it, let’s talk about its song that is sung by both males and females. It starts with a staccato and separated ‘tic-tack’ and is followed by an insect-like buzzing ‘tzeeeeeeee’. Amazingly, the Grasshopper Sparrow is one of the few sparrows in North America that have two different songs! And we’re not talking about a song and a call, I mean it has two different songs! The second song, which is only sung by the males in flight, is a series of sputtering and musical chips preceded by the original ‘tic-tack tzeeeee’.

The Grasshopper Sparrow’s “simple” song. For bonus points determine which grassland bird song is heard directly after the Grasshopper Sparrow sings. Clue: it is one of our past grassland bird blog highlights. Audio from Xeno Canto.
The Grasshopper Sparrow’s “complex” song (the first song in the recording). Audio from Xeno Canto.

Life history

As you can probably guess by now, this bird lives in grasslands. It can be found in a variety of grassy areas such as hayfields, overgrown pastures and prairies. It is less tolerant of areas with a high concentration of shrubs. They can be found foraging in areas of bare ground but usually like to have some dense grasses nearby to dip in for cover when needed. Pairs are seasonally monogamous, meaning they stick with one partner for the mating season and split up after raising their young. Females produce 3-7 eggs and will raise anywhere from 2-4 broods per season! This is doable with the short incubation period of 11-13 days and a nesting period of 6-9 days.

Conservation

The grasshopper sparrow has experienced a steep population loss with an annual decline of 2.5% from 1966 to 2015 combining to a 72% loss according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. There are approximately 12 subspecies of Grasshopper Sparrows recognized with the Florida subspecies (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus) being highly endangered with a 68% chance of extinction. The A. s. pratensis subspecies found in Ontario and Quebec is listed as special concern under SARA and COSEWIC. The subspecies commonly found in Manitoba, the Western Grasshopper Sparrow (A. s. perpalldius), is not a species at risk. However, the Manitoba Conservation Data Centre currently has the Western Grasshopper Sparrow listed as vulnerable. Now that it’s our final blog post about grasslands and their importance to birds I’m sure you can guess the major threat to these birds. That’s right its habitat loss, mostly from conversion of pastures and hay fields to row-crops.

Grasshopper Sparrow habitat in southwestern Manitoba. Photo by A. Shave.

Grassland Bird Round-Up

 While we have been keeping this grassland bird species at risk series upbeat, learning about species at risk can be quite a sad venture. The more we learn to appreciate these unique animals the more we realize just how much we, the human race, can damage their well-being. With this great power comes a great responsibility as we do have the resources and knowledge to help these critters out. The first step to changing this future is learning about species at risk and the problems they face. I am honoured to have been a part of that journey for you, the reader, and have learned my fair share as well by creating these blog posts. Until next time.

-Nathan (Nature Nate) Entz

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