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

Fall Western Manitoba Shorebird Identification Workshop

If you have followed the Manitoba IBA program for a while, you may have noticed that we have held annual shorebird workshops in the spring for the past couple of years. With COVID-19 we have had to adapt, holding a shorebird identification webinar instead. This spring we were able to hold the practical portion of the eastern Manitoba shorebird workshop in person, but the situation worsened just before we were able to hold the western Manitoba practical portion of the workshop!

Luckily shorebirds migrate through the province twice a year – so we were able to catch them during fall migration to hold our in-person western Manitoba workshop. We usually use spring migration for these workshops as the shorebirds are in their fresh breeding plumages – about as easy as they get to identify. However, we had a great group of workshop attendees out to explore the identification of shorebirds in their fall plumages. Thank you to Gillian Richards, Glennis Lewis, Linda Boys, Carol Holmes, Brian Duff, Ken and Colleen Barclay and Tom and Renee Will for joining us!

The second challenge we faced this year was the low water levels due to the drought in Manitoba. My shorebird habitat motto this year has been “look for shorebirds where you would normally find ducks”. The usual shorebird habitat has dried up, but areas that usually hold deeper water are often at a good water depth for shorebirds now.

We saw shorebirds at all of our stops except the very first one (they flew away before we could get out of the cars to make an ID). Photo by A. Shave.

With that in mind, our group headed out to two different sites in southwestern Manitoba. First we went to Griswold Marsh. At our first stop on the eastern edge of the marsh there was a small group of shorebirds but unfortunately, they all took off as we pulled up – not helpful when trying to identify them! Luckily, we were able to head just a bit further west to get a different view of the same waterbody, as well as another couple of smaller ponds on the other side of the road.

Here we were able to see a good variety of shorebird species. The highlight of this stop for most of us were the Black-bellied Plovers. They are as eye-catching in their non-breeding plumage, but their stocky bodies and bills still make them stand out. We also had a very obliging individual who did a short flight to show the black “wing pit” that sets the Black-bellied Plover apart from the similar-looking American Golden Plover in any plumage.

Other shorebirds spotted were American Avocet, Killdeer, Pectoral Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs and Short-billed/ Long-billed Dowitchers. Dowitchers are always a tricky ID but they get especially tricky in the fall! Unfortunately, they were too far away, and not calling, so we cannot say for sure which species we were looking at.

American Avocet in non-breeding plumage at Griswold Marsh. Photo by A. Shave.

In recent years Griswold Marsh is usually more of a duck habitat, and waterfowl were still there aplenty. We saw Green-wing Teals, Blue-wing Teals, Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, Mallards and Gadwall. We were also treated to four Tundra Swans coming in for a landing right in front of us!

Next we moved further west in the marsh, closer to the town of Griswold. We saw a few new species here including a Semipalmated Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and some very well camouflaged Wilson’s Snipe. We were treated once again to views of American Avocet, Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs and Short-billed/ Long-billed Dowitchers.

Our next stop was the boat launch and then Lakeshore Drive (the road out to the weir) at Oak Lake Beach. Once again, in recent years this would tend toward duck habitat, but with the lower water levels this year the water along Lakeshore Drive has been shallow enough for a variety of shorebirds. We had a few repeat species here (Killdeer, Dowitchers, and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs) but also still more new shorebird species!

Our last stop along Lakeshore Drive at Oak Lake Beach. In recent years, you’d be more likely to find ducks along here than shorebirds, but this year the water level is low. Photo by A. Shave.

We saw 14 American Golden Plovers, whose more delicate features were a contrast to the stockier Black-bellied Plovers seen at Griswold Marsh. Another new for the day shorebird species was a single Marbled Godwit that was hanging out amongst the Dowitchers. The highlight at Oak Lake Beach was a White-faced Ibis – a lifer for one of our workshop participants and always a joy to see!

White-faced Ibis. The iridescence on the back was in full display in-person, but unfortunately it did not translate as well through the camera! Photo by A. Shave.

A few other highlights at Oak Lake were a good view of a young Cooper’s Hawk and some distant flocks of Sandhill Cranes, who provided an atmospheric fall soundtrack to our birding.

This young Cooper’s Hawk fits in perfectly with the autumn colour scheme. Photo by C. Holmes.

If you would like to brush up on your shorebird ID, Manitoba IBA has put the Shorebird Identification webinar that Christian Artuso gave for us this spring up on our Youtube channel. You can find it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7X0Lxnb33g&t=857s

Our Griswold Marsh bird list:

SpeciesCount
Canada Goose153
Tundra Swan14
Blue-winged Teal30
American Wigeon15
Northern Shoveler60
Gadwall450
Mallard165
Northern Pintail35
Green-winged Teal75
Dabbling Duck sp.350
American Avocet5
Black-bellied Plover5
Semipalmated Plover1
Killdeer10
Semipalmated Sandpiper1
Pectoral Sandpiper14
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher4
Wilson’s Snipe3
Greater Yellowlegs31
Lesser Yellowlegs39
Ring-billed Gull6
Turkey Vulture1
Northern Harrier2
Red-tailed Hawk5
Merlin1
Common Raven4
Marsh Wren3
Savannah Sparrow10
Total # of species27

Our Oak Lake Beach bird list:

SpeciesCount
Tundra Swan3
Blue-winged Teal65
Northern Shoveler2
dabbling duck sp.30
Ring-necked Duck2
Mourning Dove1
Sandhill Crane350
American Golden-Plover14
Killdeer4
Marbled Godwit1
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher50
Greater Yellowlegs7
Lesser Yellowlegs18
Bonaparte’s Gull3
Double-crested Cormorant1
American White Pelican11
White-faced Ibis1
Northern Harrier1
Sharp-shinned Hawk1
Barn Swallow3
Marsh Wren2
Total # of species28
  • Amanda

Whitewater Lake Shorebird Blitz – A Small but Mighty Birding Force!

On August 28th the Manitoba IBA program held our first IBA blitz at Whitewater Lake since the start of the pandemic. We thought it would be a challenging day to find shorebirds due to the dry weather but we ended up finding a few key pockets of a good number and variety of birds.

As we all know it has been a very dry year across Manitoba, and our western IBAs are no exception to this. I suspect it played a role in our low attendance numbers at our Whitewater blitz – it is a long drive when you expect shorebird numbers to be very low. However, we had our small, but mighty force our to bird on August 28th! Myself and the IBA program’s two summer students (Ariel Desrochers and Vicky Tang) made one blitz team. This was a fun last outing as August 28th was their very last day on the job! The second team was made up of Kathryn Hyndman, Doug Ford and Carla Keast.

The IBA staff took the eastern half of the IBA while Kathryn, Doug and Carla took the western half. Our plan was to meet up just after noon at Sexton’s Point. I had predicted a few sites in each part of the IBA which were most likely to still be holding shallow water based on recent eBird reports that our volunteers had been sending in. I had hoped this would both maximize our chances of seeing shorebirds and concentrate our searching to the most likely spots, rather than try to cover the massive amount of ground in this IBA.

Our plan of attack for the Whitewater Lake IBA blitz.

Starting off on the western portion of Whitewater Lake Kathryn, Doug and Carla were able to cover a great amount of the IBA along the lakeshore. Unfortunately, they didn’t see a great variety of shorebirds, however they certainly saw a diversity of other birds! It was also Carla’s first trip to Whitewater Lake, so we are glad she had a great time!

On the southwest side of the lake, they came across a mixed group of migrating swallows including Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows and Cliff Swallows. They also saw a good-sized flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds, counting 100 individuals. No shorebirds were seen on this part of the route, the closest they got to water-associated birds were six Pelicans.

Carla, Kathryn and Doug saw several mixed grouped of migrating swallows at several points along their survey route. Photo by K. Hyndman

On to the west size of the marsh, a highlight was a Grey Partridge who was certainly not hiding as it perched atop a pile of vegetation. The pattern of bird sightings continued from the south side as another flock of swallows was seen, this time comprised of 65 Barn Swallows, and representing the blackbirds was a flock of 500 Red-winged Blackbirds. They did manage to find two shorebird species along this route. 10 Greater Yellowlegs and one Lesser Yellowlegs were spotted.

A Grey Partridge playing king-of-the-castle seen by Carla, Kathryn and Doug. Photo by K. Hyndman.

As they rounded the northwest corner of the marsh a few more shorebirds crept into sight. Three American Avocets, one Killdeer, eight Greater Yellowlegs and six Lesser Yellowlegs were spotted. Some other highlights included 120 Franklin’s Gulls, three Red-tailed Hawks and a Bald Eagle.

This young Red-winged Blackbird was spotted near a marshy area beside a slough along a road on the south side of Whitewater marsh. What a lovely subtle mix of colour and pattern! Photo by K. Hyndman.

I had expected the Manitoba IBA staff group to be able to get through more of our side of the IBA than we did! Our first stop along the lakeshore netted us a few shorebirds, but our second stop along the remains of the old viewing mound took us almost all morning! With some careful driving and walking (watch out for those holes!) we saw more shorebirds than we had first expected. This was my first time out to the mound, but I could certainly tell that there were areas of sand/ mudflat exposed that are not normally exposed, and shallow areas of water that are not normally shallow. We had a great time birding at the old mound, with both Ariel and Vicky remarking it was their favourite site they had visited with the IBA program all summer.

Ariel on the old viewing mound. The muddy/ sandy areas to the left of the mound are normally underwater. Photo by V. Tang.

Most of the shorebirds were seen in clusters on the east side of the road and mound, difficult to see with the sun climbing in the east. However, we were still able to ID a good number and variety of shorebirds and other species. This includes 974 American Avocets, two Semipalmated Plovers, seven Killdeer, four Stilt Sandpipers, 81 Least Sandpipers, 28 Baird’s Sandpipers, two Semipalmated Sandpipers, nine Wilson’s Phalarope, two Spotted Sandpipers, two Greater Yellowlegs, 13 Lesser Yellowlegs, one Willet, 23 Short-billed/ Long-billed Dowitchers and 8 other peeps.

A non-shorebird highlight while driving along the road between our first stop and the viewing mound was two young Peregrine Falcons! It took us a bit to double check what we were looking at between our various books and bird apps to be sure of what we were seeing before reporting it. None of us had seen one outside of a city landscape before.

A group of shorebirds that didn’t require me to take a photo directly into the sun! Photo by A. Shave.
A Least Sandpiper that we encountered while walking back to the car. It was too busy foraging to pay us any attention. Photo by A. Shave.

The mound took up a large portion of our morning, but while we were making our way up to Sexton’s Point, we took a quick drive up the ISS sites on the east side of the lake. Gillian Richards, one of the Whitewater Lake IBA Caretaker and International Shorebird Surveyor extraordinaire, had mentioned in her last visit to Whitewater Lake that these ISS routes were totally dry. Due to a few good rains since then, they actually had shallow standing water in a few places, but only a couple of Yellowlegs were seen here and there. There are a few portions of the ISS routes that require walking, which we didn’t do, so perhaps there was still more to see there.

An area of largely American Avocets that were out on a sandbar that seemed like it would normally be underwater. We were able to walk to a fair ways to be able to count them before the water briefly covered the bar. Photo by A. Shave.

At Sexton’s Point there was also more water than we expected! Kathryn had been out to Whitewater Lake around a week earlier and remarked how much the water had come up with the recent rains. An area where she had previously walked out to see shorebirds was now flooded. That is not to say all was back to “normal” as the water was still very noticeably low. However, it did mean there was a decent collection of shorebirds to count, and for Kathryn, Doug and Carla to see, as their route was sparse with shorebirds.

Walking out past Sexton’s point. This area is normally underwater, but was at least there was more water along the shore than in the previous couple of weeks. Photo by V. Tang.
Kathryn and Carla viewing shorebirds at Sexton’s point. This area is normally underwater! A variety of plants had colonized previously open mudflats. Photo by A. Shave.

The most numerous birds at the point were Franklin’s Gulls with a total of 511 individuals. We also added three Semipalmated Plovers, 35 Least Sandpipers, three Pectoral Sandpipers, one Wilson’s Phalarope, 11 Greater Yellowlegs and 56 Lesser Yellowlegs to our shorebird total for the day.

A small portion of the gulls at Sexton’s Point. Photo by A. Shave.
Semipalmated Plovers foraging in the mudflat at Sexton’s Point. Photo by A. Shave.

After doing some birding together, and sharing some muffins and fruit, we headed our separate ways. Overall, we saw 51 species and 3,531 individuals. I am not sure about everyone else who joined that day, but I was certainly thinking about what a difference a couple of days of change in weather can make in a bird’s habitat! It is marvelous how adaptable they can be!

Whitewater Lake August IBA blitz bird list:

Species# of Individuals
American Avocet977
American Crow2
American Kestrel1
American White Pelican9
Baird’s Sandpiper28
Bald Eagle3
Baltimore Oriole1
Barn Swallow105
blackbird sp.2
Blue-winged Teal2
Bonaparte’s Gull7
Brewer’s Blackbird146
Canada Goose301
Cliff Swallow5
Common Raven2
Eastern Kingbird22
European Starling10
Franklin’s Gull639
Gray Partridge1
Greater Yellowlegs31
gull sp.6
hawk sp.1
Hooded Merganser1
Horned Lark18
Killdeer8
Least Flycatcher2
Least Sandpiper116
Lesser Yellowlegs76
Mallard65
Mourning Dove73
Northern Harrier5
Northern Rough-winged Swallow12
Northern Shoveler10
Pectoral Sandpiper3
peep sp.8
Peregrine Falcon2
Red-tailed Hawk14
Red-winged Blackbird554
Ring-billed Gull149
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)12
Rusty Blackbird1
Savannah Sparrow1
Semipalmated Plover5
Semipalmated Sandpiper2
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher23
Song Sparrow2
sparrow sp.6
Spotted Sandpiper2
Stilt Sandpiper4
Vesper Sparrow5
Warbling Vireo1
Western Kingbird15
Western Meadowlark23
Willet1
Wilson’s Phalarope10
Yellow Warbler1
Total:3531

Short of Ears but not Short of Hearing!

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

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

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

Identification

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

What about those ears?

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

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

Life History

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

Conservation

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

Author: Nathan (Nature Nate) Entz

September 2021 Events

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


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

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


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

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

Riverton Sandy Bar – Summer Weed Pull 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ Vicky

Baird’s Sparrow: Stay Low and Prosper!

Hello everyone,

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

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

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

Identification

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

Life history

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

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

Conservation

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

Author: Nathan “Nature Nate” Entz

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

Delta Marsh Bird Blitz

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

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

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

The groups were broken down as follows:

Group A: Katharine and John Schulz, Barbara Emberley

Group B: Rudolf Koes and Garry Budyk

Group C: Jo Swartz and Rob Parsons

Group D: Pat Wally, Nathan Entz and Doreen Draffin

Group E: Vicky Tang, Amanda Shave and Ariel Desrochers

Clandeboye Group: Alyssa Stulberg and Theresa Mackey

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

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

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

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

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

Chatty Lesser Black-backed Gull, Photo by Garry Budyk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Ariel