Whitewater Lake IBA Blitz – Early Results From August 6th

Manitoba IBA Program Coordinator, Tim Poole provides an update on the Whitewater Lake IBA blitz from August 6th.

Whitewater Lake can be relied on to provide a bounty of birds. Even the overhead electrical wires provided an incredible bounty of birds, with several thousand swallows located along single stretches. Shorebirds are always to be found in large numbers at this time of year, although this will fluctuate depending on lake levels.

Christian Artuso and I came down the afternoon before to do a quick scout of the area looking for large concentrations of shorebirds and other interesting species. The first thing we found just to the north of the IBA was not a bird but a moose. A moose is becoming almost a guaranteed part of any trip to this part of the world – especially the wide open habitats.


Female Moose with Turtle Mountain in the background. Copyright Tim Poole

Large groups of swallows were gathering around the lake, especially the Species At Risk, the Bank Swallow, present in groups of several thousand along the powerlines. A count revealed that there were around 1500 between each pole, a huge number!


A few swallows hanging around. Copyright Tim Poole

At Sexton’s Island we picked up the family of Clark’s and Western Grebe again. Good job, as these birds were not detected the following morning.

P1040042 (2).JPG

Clark’s to the left (note the black cap above the eye), Western to the right (black cap more extensive) and two possible hybrids stuck in the middle. Copyright Tim Poole

As the evening closed in we were able to find a couple of interesting spots to check the following morning, including a very interesting shorebird spot on the southern side at the end of a road allowance.


Whitewater Lake the evening before the blitz. Photo copyright Tim Poole

On August 6th, 4 groups of 2 people were out and about in the IBA. Due to the holiday weekend, this was a smaller number than usual but hey, the bird migration does not wait! We are still awaiting results from one group but here is a quick overview of how the other three groups got on.

In the west, Gillian and Louanne. 65 species were recorded in total. Highlights included a Peregrine, falcons showing up as large flocks of birds make their presence felt. There were also 300 dowitchers but only 5 species of shorebird. This was interesting and was indicative of the drying out of many of the ephemeral wetlands which were full of shorebirds during the May blitz.


Mixed dowitcher flock. Copyright Tim Poole

They also counted an impressive 8,110 Bank Swallows and over 800 Tree Swallows in large concentrations.

Bank and Tree Swallows on the roads. Copyright Tim Poole

In the east Christian took out first timer Kathryn from the Manitoba Museum out for a birding experience! They found 3,925 Short-billed Dowitchers, pretty impressive! These were mostly in wetlands on the edge of the lake. They also counted the largest numbers of ducks and grebes, 4,725 Mallard, 1,341 Northern Pintail, 2,007 Blue-winged Teal, 1,884 Eared Grebe and 1,771 Western Grebe. They also counted 5,815 American Coot.


Western Grebes were incredibly numerous at Whitewater. The counts were only of adults and non-downy juveniles. Copyright Tim Poole

Another highlight was the only Buff-breasted Sandpiper of the day and Snowy Egrets. This came to a total of 86 species.

Following completion of their own area, they drove around to a road on the south side which would not be possible for the southern group. Among others’ they recorded 14 species of shorebird including 963 Stilt Sandpiper, 374 Least Sandpiper and 491 Short-billed Dowitcher.

A selection of shorebird photos from Randy Mooi. From left to right and top to bottom, Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, Short-billed and Long-biiled Dowitcher and Willet. All photos are copyright of Randy Mooi.

In the south, Randy Mooi joined me for the morning. Randy for anyone unaware, is the Curator of Zoology at the Manitoba Museum. The first stop was the old viewing mound, which is still a mound but not pretty much cut off from the road for viewing. A large flock of dowitchers was surpassed by an incredible large number of Western Grebes feeding along the edges of the lake. Our total for the morning was 1900! Much of this area still has the old infrastructure emerging from the water but the toilets have disappeared from sight, no doubt appearing one day from lake as water levels rescind.

Reflections - Black Tern reduced

Black Tern on an old fence at the viewing mound. Copyright Randy Mooi


Our next stop was an old road allowance for which we would need to walk a mile or so from the car as the road was not driveable. At this point Randy did try to land me in an awkward position with his parking location, me opening the car to almost step in the substance found in the photo on the left!

We eventually made it to the lake shore and found some neat treasures of the lake including a spit of land which given the number of gulls and terns may well be one of the lakes large Franklin’s Gull colonies. There was also an island with large numbers of Double-crested Cormorants and fairly good numbers of American White Pelican.


Cormorant Island. Note the Western Grebes and pelicans also in this shot. Copyright Tim Poole

Shorebirds were also around in good numbers. An American Avocet got especially close to Randy:


Randy and a disappearing American Avocet. Copyright Tim Poole

avocet reflections reduced

Here is the avocet from the photo above. Notice how the salmon plumage around the head has moulted. Copyright Randy Mooi

A Marbled Godwit also flew in right next to Randy, an apparent magnet for shorebirds that day!

Marbled Godwit reduced

A Marbled Godwit decided to get in on the action and pose right in front of Randy. Copyright Randy Mooi

Moose tracks reduced

Moose! Copyright Randy Mooi

Another interesting feature was the prints in the mud along the lake shore. As with the day before, moose was prevalent in this area as well as numerous other mammalian prints.

Another species to watch out for was Cattle Egret, a total of 10 spotted during the morning.

And also, did we mention the Bank Swallows? There were quite a few of those too. Unfortunately a few were killed on the road by careless drivers. Being from the museum, Randy took some specimens back to work for the collection.

So here are the totals, with one group to report. There were 60,002 birds counted and 104 species, very good for a mornings birding! We will be back at Whitewater this Sunday, the 27th for another go and will post complete results for both in the next week or so.

Species Name Species Count
Snow Goose 1
Canada Goose 1,051
Wood Duck 2
Blue-winged Teal 2,079
Northern Shoveler 535
Gadwall 79
American Wigeon 11
Mallard 6,174
Northern Pintail 1,382
Green-winged Teal 833
Canvasback 417
Redhead 290
Lesser Scaup 90
Bufflehead 14
Hooded Merganser 2
Ruddy Duck 708
Gray Partridge 7
Pied-billed Grebe 52
Eared Grebe 2,050
Western Grebe 3,818
Double-crested Cormorant 415
American White Pelican 168
American Bittern 6
Great Blue Heron 10
Great Egret 27
Snowy Egret 4
Cattle Egret 14
Black-crowned Night-Heron 31
White-faced Ibis 136
Northern Harrier 13
Bald Eagle 1
Swainson’s Hawk 3
Red-tailed Hawk 9
Sora 16
American Coot 6,602
American Avocet 582
Semipalmated Plover 111
Killdeer 83
Upland Sandpiper 9
Marbled Godwit 46
Stilt Sandpiper 985
Baird’s Sandpiper 61
Least Sandpiper 436
Buff-breasted Sandpiper 1
Pectoral Sandpiper 15
Semipalmated Sandpiper 41
peep sp. 3
Short-billed Dowitcher 4,760
Long-billed Dowitcher 78
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher 300
Wilson’s Snipe 7
Wilson’s Phalarope 197
Red-necked Phalarope 34
Spotted Sandpiper 15
Greater Yellowlegs 49
Willet 44
Lesser Yellowlegs 403
Franklin’s Gull 1,363
Ring-billed Gull 276
California Gull 1
Herring Gull 6
Black Tern 156
Forster’s Tern 182
Rock Pigeon 2
Mourning Dove 117
Northern Flicker 3
American Kestrel 1
Merlin 2
Peregrine Falcon 2
Eastern Phoebe 1
Western Kingbird 48
Eastern Kingbird 64
Black-billed Magpie 4
American Crow 7
Common Raven 15
Horned Lark 9
Tree Swallow 3,364
Bank Swallow 14,745
Barn Swallow 103
Cliff Swallow 61
Sedge Wren 35
Marsh Wren 36
American Robin 4
European Starling 13
Cedar Waxwing 1
Common Yellowthroat 2
Yellow Warbler 2
LeConte’s Sparrow 2
Nelson’s Sparrow 6
Clay-colored Sparrow 7
Vesper Sparrow 17
Savannah Sparrow 37
Song Sparrow 18
Swamp Sparrow 2
Yellow-headed Blackbird 2,294
Western Meadowlark 53
Baltimore Oriole 1
Red-winged Blackbird 960
Brown-headed Cowbird 3
Brewer’s Blackbird 29
Common Grackle 96
blackbird sp. 500
American Goldfinch 8
House Sparrow 34

Churchill and Vicinity IBA – IBA Action Fund Hudson Bay Outreach – Part 5

A final full day in Churchill and it was the day we decided to try to put on a wee blitz. We had made arrangements with Rudolf Koes that his weekly workshop group would share their data with us for that day and we would be able to put together a comprehensive list of everything seen between the two groups.

The IBA group met at Cape Merry at 8am. In total 13 people came along, some had to leave at different points (one was even called into work at the boat yard within a couple of minutes of arriving). Cape Merry is a fabulous for birders but we learnt a lesson that it was probably not the easiest place for beginners to learn about IBA blitzing. However we were able to show off some good species including Red-throated Loons, scoters, eiders, Parasitic Jaegars and a few of the gulls. Unfortunately Black-legged Kittiwake noticed by Bonnie was too far for showing folk, off about a mile in the scope. We also got to look at a few of the plants such as this Lapland Rose Bay, a species of native rhododendron.


Lapland Rose Bay. Copyright Tim Poole

Bonnie and I decided that the Granary Ponds would be a better place for counting birds as a group. There were good numbers of Tundra Swan and Greater Scaup hanging around for the day.


Tundra Swans and Greater Scaup at the Granary Ponds. Copyright Tim Poole

The Sandhill Cranes also put in an appearance. This species in the north breeds in bogs, surrounded by trees and mate for life.


Pair of Sandhill Cranes. Copyright Tim Poole

By this point much of our group were gravitating towards other commitments, including the opening of a new piece of art at the Parks Canada Centre. We had coffee with a couple of potential volunteers, told them of the IBA Program, showing them eBird and then headed out for one final look at the Hydro Road.


A bog along the Hydro Road. This bog had Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Green-winged Teal and Northern Pintail among other species. Copyright Tim Poole

We reached the end of the Hydro Road and CR30 and did another count of the birds on the Churchill River. Given this count is a snapshot of a single spot, the counts of over 100 Tundra Swan moving up river, over 50 Arctic Tern and large groups of scoters would suggest that this area is critically important for all these species. We also got a good close-up of the sandbags protecting the water pump for the Town of Churchill. The sandbagging was apparently a real community effort by members of the public and the authorities.


Sandbags protect the water pump. Copyright Tim Poole

The highlight on the way back was the appearance of two Little Gull among a group of foraging Bonaparte’s Gull.


Little Gull. Copyright Tim Poole


Not the best photo but note the dark underwings on this Little Gull. Copyright Tim Poole

We also checked a few other areas around the town in the afternoon picking up a calling Sora outside Parks Canada (thanks Wanda for the tip). In the evening Tim gave a talk to around 10 people at the Town Complex. There were a few technical issues, including a complete computer freeze halfway through the talk – but Bonnie saved the day with a great little interlude about the history of Ross’s Gull. And that was that. We still have lots of follow-up to do, people to catch and possibly even an opportunity for Bonnie to head up to Churchill in August to follow-up in person.

The results of the blitz are listed below. 836 Canada Goose makes this the most numerous species which would tally with our own observations. In addition there were 138 Tundra Swan, making one wonder how many actually pass through Churchill on passage to the north (some breed here). Snow Goose appeared thin on the ground contrary to the fact that this species is becoming too numerous in parts of the north. Greater Scaup, Black Scoter, Common Eider and Common Goldeneye were also present in good numbers.

Of the shorebirds, 10 species were noted but only Sanderling in migration groups of upwards of 10 individuals. Strange! In June 2016 there are notes from Bruce di Labio published in Manitoba Birds describing groups of White-rumped Sandpiper, 1,750 Semipalmated Sandpiper, 250+ Ruddy Turnstone and 565 Stilt Sandpiper so this year really was unusual.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the blitz, especially Rudolf and Robert Guth who provided the eBird checklists from that group.

Snow Goose 3
Canada Goose 836
Tundra Swan 138
Gadwall 2
American Wigeon 25
American Black Duck 4
Mallard 19
Northern Shoveler 10
Northern Pintail 45
Green-winged Teal 25
Greater Scaup 124
Lesser Scaup 14
Common Eider 188
Surf Scoter 96
White-winged Scoter 54
Black Scoter 148
Long-tailed Duck 44
Bufflehead 6
Common Goldeneye 142
Hooded Merganser 3
Common Merganser 30
Red-breasted Merganser 32
Willow Ptarmigan 4
Red-throated Loon 31
Pacific Loon 19
Common Loon 4
American Bittern 1
Osprey 2
Golden Eagle 1
Northern Harrier 4
Bald Eagle 1
Sora 2
Sandhill Crane 15
Semipalmated Plover 5
Whimbrel 3
Hudsonian Godwit 17
Sanderling 42
Dunlin 2
Short-billed Dowitcher 4
Wilson’s Snipe 8
Spotted Sandpiper 16
Solitary Sandpiper 2
Lesser Yellowlegs 18
Parasitic Jaeger 4
Sabine’s Gull 1
Bonaparte’s Gull 37
Little Gull 2
Ring-billed Gull 15
Herring Gull 137
Glaucous Gull 1
Arctic Tern 154
Northern Flicker 2
American Kestrel 1
Merlin 1
Alder Flycatcher 1
Gray Jay 1
Common Raven 23
Tree Swallow 5
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 11
Gray-cheeked Thrush 1
Hermit Thrush 1
American Robin 35
European Starling 11
American Pipit 2
Northern Waterthrush 16
Orange-crowned Warbler 7
Yellow Warbler 36
Blackpoll Warbler 10
Palm Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 3
American Tree Sparrow 15
Fox Sparrow 32
Dark-eyed Junco 8
White-crowned Sparrow 72
Harris’s Sparrow 1
White-throated Sparrow 4
Savannah Sparrow 35
Swamp Sparrow 6
Rusty Blackbird 4
Pine Grosbeak 8
Common Redpoll 10
Hoary Redpoll 4
House Sparrow 36

A brief foray before Tim’s flight the following day and a Caribou appeared – a definite great addition for any trip to the north.


Caribou – all alone. Possibly an individual who has been stranded from its herd. Copyright Tim Poole

But the trip was over and now the real challenge is to create some momentum and support possible new volunteers for the IBA Program in the north.


Adult female Long-tailed Duck with a pair of Red-necked Phalarope. Copyright Tim Poole


Churchill and Vicinity IBA – IBA Action Fund Hudson Bay Outreach – Part 2

Day 2 of our outreach trip in Churchill and the priority was to take a drive up to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre and get a feel for the area before heading out the following day to do some presentations.


Cape Merry. Copyright Tim Poole

To start, an early morning trip to Cape Merry to see if any new birds had appeared on the overnight tides. There were 3 Ruddy Turnstones on the shore by the port the only time we encountered this species during the trip. This gave a flavour of the issue we were experiencing with shorebirds as previous counts in Churchill had exceeded 6,000 individuals. We also photographed the gull below which looked a bit funky but turned out to be a 3rd cycle Herring Gull (the dark tips, dark tail with thin white band and overall smudginess suggested it might be something else). Gulls can be tricky, especially subadult birds and this one had us fooled for a while.


Third cycle Herring Gull. Copyright Tim Poole

Our plans for the day were thus to head over towards Twin Lakes via the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. We were joined for the day by one of the Granary Pond birders from the previous evening, Judy who is working for the summer at the Tundra Inn. We set off in good time and made our first birding stop at the Recycling Centre, bagging a Glaucous and Thayer’s Gull along the way. Thayer’s Gull is interesting in that it may not be considered a species for much longer – being potentially joined with Iceland Gull as a single species due to behavioural and phenotypic (i.e. they are physically almost identical) similarities.


A record shot of a Glaucous Gull, a High Arctic breeder. Note how pale this bird is compared to most gulls you expect to see in Manitoba. It is also much larger than the other paler Larus gull, the Iceland Gull and lacks black wing tips. Copyright Tim Poole

Bonnie had pointed out a couple of interesting observations along the way. The first was that there were a lot of Canada Goose (we counted them as we drove along to create a day total). The second was that the Herring Gulls had become far more widespread across the area. As predators of eggs and chicks from other birds, it did make us wonder if there might be a relationship between the population of Herring Gulls and the sparse number of shorebirds.


Bonnie searching an icy lake just east of Churchill. Copyright Tim Poole

The scenery was as expected stunning. Patches of stunted spruce trees on open ground. Driving up to one point we saw a view over the taigi, open peat wetlands with small lakes and then the rocky coastal habitats.


Panoramic view over the taiga. Copyright Tim Poole


Another view over the open taiga. Copyright Tim Poole

Cutting down towards the coastal road, we found a large Arctic Tern colony and birded along the beachfront, taking great care to check for Polar Bears, which although rare at this time of year are not out of the question. The highlight of this stretch was this wonderful Semipalmated Plover. All photos below copyright Tim Poole




Back on the road and it was time for a botany lesson. Bonnie knew some dry tundra which is perfect for Purple Saxifrage, a specialty of these habitats. We popped out to take a closer look at this and some of the other plants of the area.


Purple Saxifrage. Copyright Tim Poole

There were also regular waterfowl in small tundra ponds and lake en route. One of the more common species we would encounter is a wonderful northern specialty, the Long-tailed Duck. This species specialises in diving for molluscs and crustaceans as well as aquatic plants. It is a wintering sea duck which can be found elsewhere in large numbers feeding along sandy shorelines but they breed in the tundra.


The elegant Long-tailed Duck. Copyright Tim Poole

We next pulled into Camp Nanuq. Among the species we found was a Blackpoll Warbler, a northern real specialty of the northern treeline forests. We first detected the calling male by ear and eventually tracked him down.


Got him. Just! A male Blackpoll Warbler. Copyright Tim Poole

The screech of a Merlin interrupted the quiet of this quiet boreal lake. His main source of anger appeared to be a pair of Bonaparte’s Gull. While watching this interaction Iwe stumbled across an adult Bonaparte’s Gull in a nest. This species is unusual for gulls, most of which are ground nesting birds, as it nests in trees.


Now I’ve seen it all. A Bonaparte’s Gull nesting in a tree. This was very much a snap and move away picture as we did not want to disturb this bird any longer. Copyright Tim Poole

At this point we headed to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Our aim was to say hello (which we failed to do as the person we wished to meet was on a phone conference) and have a look around the grounds looking for the birds we hoped to encounter the next day. The latter we did succeed in doing up to a point at least.


Panoramic view of the boreal forest in the Twin Lakes area. Copyright Tim Poole

From here we headed down the Twin Lake Road. My primary hope was to get views of Willow Ptarmigan. As a former grouse man, seeing these species in Manitoba for the first time would be something well worth doing. Fortunately it was not long before we spotted a male and a female on a gravel ridge. Grouse feed on very course food in the Arctic region such as grass flowers and tree buds. This course vegetation is too tough to digest without help, and so grouse swallow grit. The food is stored in their crop and then passes into the stomach and gizzard, where the gravel helps to grind it down, making it more digestible.


A male Willow Ptarmigan at the side of the road. At this time of year the female has moulted to a cryptic brown plumage, ideal for camouflage while sitting on her nest. The male on the otherhand has to tradeoff between the need to select a mate and therefore be showy and the need to survive, hence the red feathering on top and the white below – and the large red cone above his eye. Copyright Tim Poole

After this we entered the fen where we saw Whimbrel fly overhead, got our only flash of a pair of Stilt Sandpipers (very surprisingly this was a species which proved elusive for the most part), heard a Dunlin and Tim even heard a Smith’s Longspur through the wind (after much contemplating he decided that this is definitely what he was hearing, plus the great Rudolf Koes had one in the same place 2 days later). Of the shorebirds Hudsonian Godwit were the most showy. Parasitic Jaegar were present in the background, at least 2 pairs flying around. These birds get their name from the fact that they harass other birds, forcing them to drop food and then eating it themselves. You might describe them as a bully, and you would be correct. Arctic Tern were also around in good numbers and it is this species which the jaegar seems to especially target.


Hudsonian Godwit in the fen. This species can often be encountered calling form treetops along the boreal forest edge. Copyright Tim Poole


Entering the boreal we encountered a number of specialists including Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Gray Jay and Pine Grosbeak. We also found Common Loon at the lake. This species is uncommon around Churchill although interestingly we counted at least 4 over the course of our visit. The highlight was a female Spruce Grouse which flew into the tree in front.


Spruce Grouse, copyright Tim Poole

The tracks showed plenty of sign and dropping from Spruce Grouse, although the most interesting feature was a dustbath. Like chickens, grouse find light sandy soils to scrape away and ‘bathe’ their feathers. It is thought that by doing this the grouse can help remove parasites from around its body.


A Spruce Grouse dustbath. Often feathers and droppings also turn up in these features. Copyright Tim Poole

The other exciting feature in the area was the clear signs of wolf, whether from fresh black scat or footprints.


Back in town and we did our second bird walk, this time attended by a respectable 10 people, including a couple of returnees from the previous evening. The Sandhill Crane came in very close this time and there were great views of Short-billed Dowitcher, Spotted Sandpiper and Red-necked Phalarope (the polyandry story from the night before got another airing).

All in all the trip was going well and we had a day delivering programs at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre to look forward to.

The daily bird checklist included 59 species and 1,047 individuals, almost half of which were Canada Goose.

Species Name Species Count
Canada Goose 429
Tundra Swan 10
American Wigeon 2
American Black Duck 2
Mallard 9
Northern Shoveler 4
Northern Pintail 22
Green-winged Teal 6
Greater Scaup 22
Common Eider 52
Long-tailed Duck 9
Common Goldeneye 59
Common Merganser 20
Red-breasted Merganser 15
Spruce Grouse 1
Willow Ptarmigan 7
Pacific Loon 7
Common Loon 2
Northern Harrier 4
Sandhill Crane 6
Semipalmated Plover 3
Whimbrel 2
Hudsonian Godwit 12
Ruddy Turnstone 3
Stilt Sandpiper 2
Dunlin 1
Least Sandpiper 1
White-rumped Sandpiper 1
Semipalmated Sandpiper 15
Short-billed Dowitcher 6
Wilson’s Snipe 1
Red-necked Phalarope 3
Spotted Sandpiper 2
Lesser Yellowlegs 6
Parasitic Jaeger 4
Bonaparte’s Gull 14
Ring-billed Gull 4
Herring Gull 85
Thayer’s Gull 3
Glaucous Gull 1
Arctic Tern 94
Merlin 2
Gray Jay 1
Common Raven 13
Tree Swallow 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 4
American Robin 8
Smith’s Longspur 1
Northern Waterthrush 1
Yellow Warbler 4
Blackpoll Warbler 1
American Tree Sparrow 7
Fox Sparrow 2
Dark-eyed Junco 1
White-crowned Sparrow 20
Savannah Sparrow 18
Pine Grosbeak 2
Common Redpoll 3
House Sparrow 7

The beautiful Willow Ptarmigan were certainly one of the days star species. Copyright Tim Poole