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Volunteer birdwatchers keep tabs on local species

The Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas is a scientifically designed, five-year project to assess the status, distribution and abundance of bird species that breed within Manitoba

A five-year effort to identify breeding bird species in Manitoba has confirmed golden eagles are back, snowy egrets have made unexpected appearances, and several species of native grassland birds are all but gone from most of agro-Manitoba.

“We’re certainly seeing things that are indications of change,” says Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas co-ordinator Christian Artuso, who has overseen the project that now involves about 1,000 volunteers gathering comprehensive data on bird species in the province.

There are records of golden eagle’s nests that date back to the early part of the last century, but like other raptors, their numbers took a deep dip from hunting, trapping and poisoning from DDT, says Artuso.

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“There are earlier historical records of them nesting, in the early part of the 20th century, in various places in Manitoba, but no recent records,” said Artuso. “This is essentially the first time we’ve confirmed nesting sites in pretty much a century.”

The nest of the snowy egret, a small white heron, sighted at Whitewater Lake near Boissevain, is only the second confirmed nest in Canada.

“Depending on how old your field guide is, it would look like it’s a long way away,” he said, adding most of the range of that bird has been along the Gulf of Mexico, although there are known scattered populations sighted in the U.S.

“Probably the closest breeding range, prior to this atlas finding was South Dakota,” he said.

Ordinary Manitobans

The Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas project began in 2010 to engage ordinary Manitobans with an interest in birds to gather comprehensive data on what bird species may be breeding in the province.

The distribution and abundance of birds is a good indicator of what changes may be taking place in the ecosystems across the North American continent.

They are still about two years away from being able to make firm conclusions about what those changes are, because they have a massive amount of data to analyse after the completion of the five years’ record gathering, Artuso said.

Redbreasted grosbeak

A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak feeds her young near Rapid City. Photo: Linda Boys
photo: Linda Boys

“After we look at the analysis we’ll have a lot to say on that topic,” he said. “But in broad sweeping strokes we have certainly documented a lot of birds in places we didn’t expect.”

There are bird species being sighted much farther north than expected, and species thought to breed only in Saskatchewan now confirmed to be breeding in Manitoba too. The western tanager, the black-headed grosbreak, the long-tailed jaeger have all been sighted in the southwestern corner of Manitoba.

Last home

The extreme southwest is proving to be the last home of several native birds that need open grasslands for nesting. Volunteers have only found birds such as the Sprague’s pipit, and the loggerhead shrike in the extreme southwestern corner of the province, where they still have grassland to nest, Artuso said.

“Those birds have pretty much disappeared from a lot of their former range,” he said, adding that their demise is generally believed to be due to agricultural practices since the 1960s wiping out their habitat.

Range maps still show these birds should extend throughout the entire southwest up to Riding Mountain National Park and east towards Winnipeg.

“The vast industrial scale of modern agriculture is not leaving these birds much room on the margins to cope,” Artuso said. “Much of the central Red River Valley and south-central Manitoba, with its massive crop fields has become unusable to them.”

This spring Manitobans begin their final year of record-keeping to add to a data set that now includes over 230,000 records logged via about 32,000 hours of volunteers’ time.

Different roles

Volunteers participate in a variety of ways, from being assigned one of 6,996 atlas squares from the habitat map compiled for the project, to recording sightings in a very localized area, including their own backyards. Others have gone on point counts and travelled widely. Volunteers’ motivations may vary widely but it seems to be a sense of wanting to contribute something combined with their own personal interest in birdwatching that’s brought them to this, Artuso said.

“I still consider myself fairly amateur at this, but you learn more every year,” said Katharine Schulz, a Winnipeg volunteer who took on an assigned square in Manitoba’s southwestern corner so she could visit the part of Manitoba she grew up in.

“I grew up in Hartney, and my father farmed east of Hartney,” said Schulz, adding she only wishes she’d paid more attention as a child to birds he’d point out to her.

Training offered through workshops with the atlas project helped deepen her appreciation for the birdlife around us, she said. “And it feels good to be part of this group of people who’ve come together to try and get all this information rounded up.”

They’re still looking for volunteers to get involved during this final year collecting bird data, Artuso said.

The bird atlas is a project undertaken as a partnership between federal and provincial governments, non-government organizations, private corporations, individual citizens and communities with a steering committee including Environment Canada, Manitoba Conservation, Bird Studies Canada, Nature Manitoba, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Manitoba Museum. Manitoba Hydro is providing financial support for the project.

To learn more, visit the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas website.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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