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New towers to track shorebirds

Southwestern Manitoba a key stopping point in birds' annual migration

New tracking towers in southwestern Manitoba aim to aid the tracking of shorebirds passing through the area, which is considered a Prairie hot spot for the creatures.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has installed three towers near Oak Lake, and another near Whitewater Lake.

Antennae atop the towers collect signals from radio transmitters that have been attached to birds and large insects like butterflies. When a shorebird with a transmitter flies within 20 kilometres of the tower, information is captured. The data is then downloaded from the towers and shared with other researchers and organizations that are part of a wildlife tracking network.

The data from these and other towers across the country and around the world provides key information on which species are travelling through an area, where they came from, what routes they are taking and at what times. This information helps inform which areas are of most importance to these birds along their migration route.

The information is even more relevant and crucial in light of the 2019 State of the Birds Report issued June 20 by Environment and Climate Change Canada. It is the first survey done in seven years. The report says that since 1970, Canada has lost 40-60 per cent of shorebird, grassland birds and aerial insectivore populations. Eighty per cent of remaining grassland birds and aerial insectivores have been assessed as in the categories of ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered.’

Installation of the towers is only one part of a larger project that NCC is conducting in partnership with Bird Studies Canada, Manitoba Important Bird Areas (IBA) Program, the West Souris River Conservation District, and Environment and Climate Change Canada to monitor and learn more about shorebird migration, distribution and possible trends in southwest Manitoba.

Volunteers assist with collecting more detailed information by counting birds at key sites, as part of the International Shorebird Survey — a global effort to learn more about these species. This data also helps provide information about specific wetland sites, such as patterns in distribution and abundance.

Within Manitoba, shorebird research has historically focused on the Hudson Bay region, with limited information on significant stopover sites in the Prairies. The information collected from these towers will help ensure that efforts to conserve shorebirds will be as effective as possible.

Shorebirds are a diverse group of migratory birds, a few species of which have some of the longest migration distances in the feathered world.

The migratory route that passes through the Prairies is sometimes referred to as the central flyway. A handful of the species that move through Manitoba stay and breed, raising their young before returning south for the winter. Others only stop temporarily for food and rest on their way north or south.

This group of birds is strongly associated with shallow water habitats, such as those found on beaches or shorelines of lakes, shallow wetlands and in flooded fields or grasslands, where they forage for food in the mud and sand.

Whether for breeding or refuelling, Manitoba’s wetlands are incredibly important for these birds on their journeys.

But shorebirds are in trouble, and more needs to be done to help them.

Declining populations

Shorebird populations are declining quickly. A 2016 report on the State of North American Birds showed a 70 per cent decline in shorebird populations since the early 1970s. Causes of that decline range from habitat loss in breeding and wintering areas and along migratory pathways; changes in predation pressure; pollution; changes in food availability; changing climate conditions; and being repeatedly disturbed while resting and feeding.

Loss of habitat or stresses to migrating birds during stopovers can have a significant impact. If the birds are not healthy and strong when they reach their breeding site, their ability to successfully raise their young decreases significantly.

“With declining populations, there are only so many places shorebirds have to call home,” said Josh Dillabough, natural area co-ordinator for the Manitoba region. “This is one of the unique areas of Manitoba to help these birds on their long migration. It is our goal that species that call this area home, continue to do so for many generations to come.”

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