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!

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.

North, West, and East Shoal Lakes IBA Bird Blitz

On Sunday, May 6th, 14 birders split into 4 groups and covered over 177 km of the North, West, and East Shoal Lakes IBA (IBA map). With a late start to spring this year we were not sure what to expect in terms of species diversity and numbers. On Saturday, the day before the blitz, Tim Poole and Lynnea Parker noted that ice coverage on Lake Manitoba was still quite extensive at Sandy Bay Marshes IBA near Langruth. Lynnea was therefore glad to observe that West and East Shoal Lakes were mostly ice-free. North Shoal Lake was partially open along the roadsides and marshes.

122 species were observed in the morning with good numbers of waterfowl and grebes. Group 1 with Pierre, Bill, Wally, and William were particularly fond of the 171 American Robins and 159 Red-winged Blackbirds they thoroughly counted. However, the robins and blackbirds paled in comparison to the 611 Western Grebes which were spotted rafting together at West Shoal Lake (Group 1 checklist).

Shoal lakes 2018 Birding blitz-180506-001-IMGS5791_smaller size

View of West Shoal Lake with a large number of Western Grebes rafting in the distance, photo by Pierre Richard

western grebe 1 William Rideout

Western Grebe, photo by William Rideout

At the Sandy Bay Grebe Watch event on May 5th, Tim and Lynnea had been hoping to see several hundred Western Grebes. Due to the heavy ice cover, only 112 Western Grebes were counted. It would seem our missing Grebes were over at West Shoal Lake instead! A further 500 were spotted by Bob Jones at Delta Marsh the previous day.

Group 2 with Jo, Betsy, Christian, and Mohammad surveyed the east side of East and North Shoal Lakes. Christian turned back the clock and took up his Atlas nickname ‘Moose Legs’, walking the rejuvenated wetland also known as PR415, which runs between North and East Shoal Lakes (Christian’s Checklist). The decommissioned, and partially flooded road was highly productive with 94 species, including high counts of waterfowl, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, American Coot, Sandhill Crane, Gulls, and Blackbirds. Unfortunately for Christian, he missed the Snowy Egret spied by Group #4 which was found on the same decommissioned road just outside his survey area to the west. Group #4 didn’t feel bad however, as Christian managed to find a Clark’s Grebe which they didn’t see. Photos below feature a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs (upper left), pair of Canvasbacks (middle left), flock of American White Pelicans (lower left), and a Marbled Godwit preening (right) (photos by Christian Artuso). (Additional checklists for this group: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5)



Group 3 with Joanne, Richard, Louise, and Eric surveyed the IBA area north of North Shoal Lake. They had many species of waterbirds despite having less open water in their area. Good sights from Group 3 included 4 Trumpeter Swans, 18 Red-necked Grebes, and 1 Semipalmated Plover (Checklist). The photos below by Joanne Smith include Red-necked Grebe (Left) and Willet (Right).



Group 4 with Lynnea, Cam, and Jeff surveyed the northern part of West Shoal Lake, west side of East Shoal Lake, and west side of North Shoal Lake. The highlights from this group included a Snowy Egret, good numbers of Green-winged Teal and Blue-winged Teal, and 11 Great Egret. Access to the open water was limited, but the marshy areas were moderately productive. Photos below were taken by Cam Nikkel and feature a Forster’s Tern (Left) and a Great Egret (Right).



Overall, highlights of the day included: 13 Greater White-fronted Goose, 766 Western Grebe, 1 Clark’s Grbe, 490 American White Pelican, 6 American Bittern, 32 Great Egret, 1 Snowy Egret, 3 Black-crowned Night-Heron, 116 Sandhill Crane, and 58 Bonaparte’s Gull.

After the morning blitz everyone gathered at Rosie’s Cafe in Inwood for a glorious lunch before wrapping up the event.

Compiled IBA Event Checklist:

Snow Goose 1,455
Ross’s Goose 8
Greater White-fronted Goose 13
Cackling Goose 9
Canada Goose 1,554
Trumpeter Swan 8
Tundra Swan 99
Wood Duck 2
Blue-winged Teal 340
Northern Shoveler 73
Gadwall 59
American Wigeon 26
Mallard 591
Northern Pintail 42
Green-winged Teal 428
Canvasback 662
Redhead 75
Ring-necked Duck 145
Greater Scaup 7
Lesser Scaup 313
Greater/Lesser Scaup 4
Bufflehead 31
Common Goldeneye 17
Hooded Merganser 4
Common Merganser 18
Red-breasted Merganser 8
Ruddy Duck 19
Ruffed Grouse 1
Sharp-tailed Grouse 1
Common Loon 15
Pied-billed Grebe 45
Horned Grebe 56
Red-necked Grebe 36
Eared Grebe 1
Western Grebe 766
Clark’s Grebe 1
Double-crested Cormorant 479
American White Pelican 490
American Bittern 6
Great Blue Heron 14
Great Egret 32
Snowy Egret 1
Black-crowned Night-Heron 3
Turkey Vulture 1
Osprey 2
Northern Harrier 11
Cooper’s Hawk 1
Bald Eagle 15
Broad-winged Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 17
Virginia Rail 3
Sora 3
American Coot 537
Sandhill Crane 116
American Avocet 8
Semipalmated Plover 1
Killdeer 41
Marbled Godwit 19
Pectoral Sandpiper 1
Wilson’s Snipe 52
Wilson’s Phalarope 7
Greater Yellowlegs 22
Willet 23
Lesser Yellowlegs 114
Bonaparte’s Gull 58
Franklin’s Gull 1,305
Ring-billed Gull 2,802
Herring Gull 102
gull sp. 742
Caspian Tern 3
Common Tern 3
Forster’s Tern 173
Mourning Dove 15
Belted Kingfisher 7
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 31
Downy Woodpecker 3
Hairy Woodpecker 2
Northern Flicker 28
Pileated Woodpecker 1
American Kestrel 6
Merlin 4
Eastern Phoebe 9
Blue Jay 6
Black-billed Magpie 25
American Crow 13
Common Raven 15
Tree Swallow 98
Barn Swallow 35
Black-capped Chickadee 2
Marsh Wren 23
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 7
Eastern Bluebird 4
Hermit Thrush 4
American Robin 208
Gray Catbird 1
European Starling 15
American Pipit 5
Orange-crowned Warbler 6
Palm Warbler 6
Yellow-rumped Warbler 5
LeConte’s Sparrow 2
American Tree Sparrow 2
Chipping Sparrow 1
Clay-colored Sparrow 6
Lark Sparrow 2
Fox Sparrow 1
White-crowned Sparrow 9
Harris’s Sparrow 1
White-throated Sparrow 7
Vesper Sparrow 3
Savannah Sparrow 53
Song Sparrow 115
Lincoln’s Sparrow 1
Swamp Sparrow 52
Yellow-headed Blackbird 665
Western Meadowlark 23
Red-winged Blackbird 2,676
Brown-headed Cowbird 54
Rusty Blackbird 104
Brewer’s Blackbird 32
Common Grackle 115
Purple Finch 1