Manitoba birders have a new online tool that just may best their binoculars when it comes to spotting their elusive objectives.
The online Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Manitoba has just got a new and highly anticipated data release that includes the first 80 species accounts, plus new content maps showing where these birds breed, their relative abundance and where they’re most likely to be seen.
The remaining 232 species accounts will be published in a fully bilingual online book in batches over the course of 2017 and into next year.
It’s bound to attract a lot of interest. The online atlas, which was launched in 2016, was put together as one of the largest volunteer-based citizen science initiatives ever undertaken in Manitoba.
The site is now the most current and comprehensive source of information on breeding birds’ status in the province.
It all began in 2010 when Manitobans interested in the status of provincial birds began volunteering to gather data on what bird species might be breeding in the province.
Over 1,000 volunteers put up their hands, and over the next five years collectively logged over 42,500 hours at their jobs. Their duties ranged from yearly visits at assigned locations for detailed point counts to simply recording observations of birds in their own backyards.
More than 325,000 bird sighting records, including more than 14,600 records of 32 species at risk, were collected to help assess the status, distribution and abundance of bird species breeding here.
So many offered their help because this was a way to combine a personal interest in bird life with an opportunity to help create a major new resource for conservation, said Christian Artuso, the project’s co-ordinator and the Manitoba program manager with Bird Studies Canada.
“I think that has strong appeal for people,” he said. “You’re contributing to baseline information for the province which has all sorts of utility in conservation and for environmental assessments.”
He and others have since been poring over the massive amount of data collected.
One of the overall findings from the work is seeing how ranges of certain birds, especially those whose habitats are deciduous and mixed forest, are found to be much farther afield than previously observed, said Artuso. The broad-winged hawk, for example, has been shown to have a breeding range almost 300 km farther north up through Lynn Lake, Gillam and Shamattawa than indicated in The Birds of Manitoba, which was published in 2003. Likewise, the eastern whip-poor-will, which was previously thought to be no farther north than The Pas and Little Grand Rapids, was sighted near Lynn Lake and Island Lake.
“I think we’re really redefining the northern range with a lot of these species,” he said.
Artuso said it’s not really understood whether these species are actually moving farther north or that the work to create the atlas resulted in more detailed observation.
“It’s very hard to say if that’s a change or just better observation,” he said.
The intent of the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Manitoba is to provide a “snapshot in time” on the province’s bird populations.
“It’s meant to be a picture of where we’re at right now,” he said. “This can all be repeated in 20 years or 40 years or 60 years. But in order to have the ability to assess change you need to have a baseline to start.”
However, what the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Manitoba does clearly show is how narrow the range of grassland birds such as the Baird’s sparrow, Sprague’s pipet and the burrowing owl now is.
These birds have entirely disappeared from large tracts of agro-Manitoba and are now found only in very specific pockets of southwestern Manitoba.
“It does document how these species have disappeared from vast agricultural tracts, for example, the Red River Valley,” said Artuso.
“So it is a wake-up call in that regard.
“I think that for those species at risk, the atlas really shows where they remain in the province with great specificity and where we have an opportunity to work. So this is a good starting point for that.”
Artuso was among officials this spring when Manitoba Beef Producers announced it was taking the lead in a Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands (SARPAL) program in Manitoba, offering producers incentives to maintain and enhance what are some of the last grasslands these vulnerable birds depend on.
To date, 5,980 acres have been signed under the program in southwest Manitoba for projects related to fencing, watering systems and seeding complementary pastures. MBP expects to make more announcements about the program in the near future.
“Thus far the response has been very positive,” said Brian Lemon, MBP general manager. “The programming is focusing on a very limited area in southwest Manitoba – on regions where real and lasting impacts can be made to protect the most vulnerable grassland bird species.”
Two additional batches of information will become available on the atlas’s website later in 2018.
The atlas is designed to be user friendly for a wide variety of interest groups from professional conservationists to school teachers, while its maps and information are expected to be widely used by bird enthusiasts around the world to plan their birdwatching trips.