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!

SACRe bleu! Incredible Crane Numbers at Oak Lake and Plum Lakes IBA

Tim Poole describes an incredible spectacle in the stubble fields west of Oak Lake last Friday.

Last Friday (October 27 2017), Christian Artuso and I were driving from Canupawakpa Dakota Nation on the long drive back to Winnipeg when to our collective astonishment, we came across a field full of cranes. Yes, quite literally a field!

Seeing large numbers of Sandhill Cranes is not a complete surprise – after all, the previous Saturday, Glennis Lewis and Linda Boys had encountered 1200 Sandhill Cranes on the west side of Oak Lake. I had also counted 800 on the roads north and west of Canupawakpa an hour earlier.

Initially the numbers of cranes did not appear to be anything special. As we crossed the Bellview Road on 42N our eyes were drawn to a flock of Canada and Cackling Geese with some cranes standing around in the foreground. Christian, offered me the choice of geese or cranes to count. I opted for the geese – the best decision I made all day! As Christian lifted his binoculars to begin counting what he suspected would be a few hundred birds, it suddenly dawned on him that this would not be so simple. For in the background stood a multitude of cranes.

Sandhill Crane_4555_distant flock_Artuso

Sandhill Cranes everywhere, truly an astonishing spectacle. Copyright Christian Artuso

It was the densities of cranes which took us aback. Even an experienced bird surveyor as Christian was completely gobsmacked by the scene infront. Just row upon row upon row of cranes.

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A stitching together of the Sandhill Cranes. Copyright Christian Artuso

Christian began counting, initially he ticked off groups where he could – 21 groups of 20, followed by 11 groups of 20, then followed by 31.5 groups of 100. At this point things got tricky as the lay of the land impeded our view. Driving to the east end of the section, we turned south and were greeted by the entire flock. Having counted up to a certain point before, Christian was able to continue. Next up 26.5 groups of 100 cranes, another 250 and then 320 mooching around in the foreground. While this was going on, I counted the flocks of birds flying in – 2, 18, 12, 66, 37, 3, 13 and more. Later that day I tallied everything and came to a figure of 7,363 Sandhill Cranes (and not a single Whooping being the sole disappointment).

Sandhill Crane_4509_flock_Artuso

A close-up of the flock. Copyright Christian Artuso

My previous highest total of cranes was around 1000 spotted south of here in the Maple Lake area in late September 2016. There were also large concentrations of cranes in the Big Grass Marsh area in the 1960’s. Christian suspected that these might be Lesser Sandhill Cranes. If they were, then these cranes would breed in the Arctic tundra rather than the boreal – those birds presumably pass through earlier in the fall. Lesser Sandhill Cranes are smaller than the boreal breeding intermediate birds (the Greater Sandhill Crane, the larger variant breeds in the northern US). In any case, it was not possible to distinguish the difference given it is solely a question of size.

Sandhill Crane_4489_flock_Artuso

Additional cranes joining the flock were counted as they came in. Copyright Christian Artuso

We tried to drive forwards at this point but the first few birds began to flush and we were not keen for these birds to waste energy in sub-zero conditions mid migration. Flushing any bird, even by accident, costs energy which is better conserved for migration. We drove back around and found our way to the south side of the mile section. Christian tried another count which only went to confirm his first total give or take a few! Interestingly, some younger birds were dancing in the foreground – these birds do after all mate for life.

Sandhill Crane_4606_distant flock_Artuso

The cranes on the right of centre in this photo were dancing. Copyright Christian Artuso

Cranes do not forage in water, although they roost in shallow water and certainly breed in open wetlands surrounded by trees and shrubs. In migration these flocks will feed in grasslands and stubble fields, looking for spilt grains, invertebrates and small vertebrates.

Here is a video trying to show the extent of the flock (with sounds effects in the background from Christian).

Departing south and then cutting west, we could still hear the magnificent rattle call from at least 2 miles away. Something had at this point disturbed the cranes and they were now flying off in all directions like a huge swarm of mosquitos or even locusts on the prairie.

Sandhill Crane_4619_distant flock in flight_Artuso

Swarms of cranes. Copyright Christian Artuso

Now we switched our attention to our second big species of the day, the Tundra Swan. Along the southside of Plum Lakes up as far as the Grande Clariere Road we managed to count 863, another brilliant total (we had over 1000 north of here the previous day, but that’s for another blog). There were also other neat birds including 1202 Snow Goose, a single Ross’s Goose, 40 Rusty Blackbirds (globally Vulnerable) and several hundred ducks – but it was the swans which again were the highlight.

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Auditioning for Loony Tunes on ice? Copyright Christian Artuso

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That’s better! Must be dancing on ice. Copyright Christian Artuso

It is clear that Oak Lake remains one of Manitoba’s foremost staging areas for migrating waterfowl and other birds. The total for Sandhill Cranes easily triggers the 1% threshold for a globally significant concentration of this species and although our totals fell short in 2017, it is obvious that Tundra Swan concentrations do likewise. Targeting large seasonal concentrations of birds will be a project priority in 2018.

Here is our eBird checklist for the day.

The cranes remained in the area on Saturday. Ken Stewart, a member of the Manitoba Birds Yahoo Group took a trip down and found them once again – see video below. We can make a couple of observations here. First, the temperature is clearly warmer. Second, there appear to be even more cranes! Christian will try to count from the video – we will try to update the blog if he manages to. We are not sure why the birds suddenly flush – possibly a raptor or a large carnivore showed some interest but this is incredible to watch!

Ken has kindly agreed to let us use his video which is copyright Ken Stewart.

You can also see more of Ken’s excellent photos on his Flikr page – https://www.flickr.com/photos/kritterspotter/with/37330706744/

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention that what we saw on Friday was just a small, but significant part of the overall Sandhill Crane population. To see something utterly astounding then you really should head to Nebraska, where over 500,000 Sandhill Cranes stage during spring migration.

Erratum – Thanks to Donna Danyluk for pointing out that Sandhill Cranes in the Platte River Valley stage en masse during spring migration – not overwinter as originally printed. See also the Rowe Sanctuary website.