Saturday, August 19, 2017

Not Magnificent anymore!

The former “Magnificent Hummingbird” complex has now been split into two species, firstly by the IOC and more recently by the AOU, Clements and eBird following suit.

Here is a comparison of the two very similar looking species created by this split. On the left, a male Rivoli's Hummingbird (Eugenes fulgens), from Chiapas, Mexico, and on the right, the Admirable or Talamanca Hummingbird (E. spectabilis), from Costa Rica.  The difference in plumage are tiny but the Admirable or Talamanca Hummingbird is said to have a bluer hue to its gorget and paler underparts according to Handbook of Birds of the World (although it doesn’t really look like the underparts are paler in these photo, that is probably an effect of lighting and note that the gorgets are not at the right angle to see their iridescence). Despite the very minimal plumage differences, we all know appearances can be very deceiving and there is good genetic evidence to support their treatment as separate species (Zamudio-Beltrán and Hernández-Baños 2015).

Those who follow eBird can read more on the split at: and those who follow the IOC can go to: to read more. 

Although I will miss the name "Magnificent Hummingbird", "Talamanca" has a nice ring wheras the name "Admirable Hummingbird" seems a little bizarre. For the northern taxon though, I still don't like species names based on people's names.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Piping Plover Update 2017

In 2017 there have been at least two pairs of Piping Plover in the province (i.e. that we know of), one of which fledged at least one young (maybe more young fledged but this was hard to confirm given the difficulty of access). This year’s successful nesting attempt was near the always amazing Whitewater Lake, where two failed attempts occurred in 2012. This pair was first found by Julie Yatsko and Nicole MacPherson. One of the four adults seen in Manitoba this year was banded and we are awaiting word on its provenance. This photo below shows one of the unbanded birds believed to be a male.

As a side note: While at Whitewater Lake, Colin Blyth found a male Cinnamon Teal on June 4th which was seen by me later the same day. Since Colin and Gillian had earlier found a hybrid Cinnamon Teal X Blue-wing Teal nearby, we studied this one as best we could and found no evidence of hybridisation (my photo below). Unfortunately, this bird was not found again in checks the following day nor in the days/weeks that followed.

This year was another great year for observing Clark's Grebe at Whitewater Lake. The Clark's Grebe in the below was paired with a bird that was either a Western Grebe or perhaps a hybrid an they fledged three young.

There is always a rarity or two at Whitewater Lake and this year at least three "obliging" Glossy Ibis were outstanding amongst the hundreds of White-faced Ibis (and the many Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Cattle Egrets).

Special thanks to all who reported their sightings and helped monitor our Threatened and Endangered species with such great care and consideration to ensure the birds were not disturbed: Colin Blyth, Ken De Smet, Nicole MacPherson, Ken Porteous, Gillian Richards, Julie Yatsko (and of course Wally Jansen and Jake Peters for their great find and efforts in 2016). If anyone with a canoe or kayak (or canoeing skills) is interested in helping out next year, please get in touch!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

For the love of pipits!

After a splendid season of surveying Sprague’s Pipits in Manitoba’s grasslands, I am feeling rather pipit-inspired and have decided to share a series of photos of different species from around the globe. Pipits are not as boldly patterned as their relatives the wagtails but the pack in a lot of mystique and offer a wonderful birding challenged to find and identify.

Sprague’s Pipit (Anthus spragueii), Manitoba, Canada:
One of the highlights of so much surveying in cattle pastures this year was getting some exceptional opportunities to SEE Sprague’s Pipit. I emphasise the word “see” because 9 times out of 10 one hears Sprague’s Pipit but cannot spot the speck in the sky. These grassland birds make their haunting song carry further by singing high in the air over the grasslands. This year though, having spent so much time in grasslands such as cattle pastures for #MBSARPAL ( and on  community pastures, I saw no less than six of them on the ground (more than I have seen on the ground in 15 years of birding in Manitoba). Here is one that shows the bird well (including the white outer rectrices) stitched together with a habitat shot that shows a pipit walking through some beautiful mixed-grass prairie. . 

Buff-bellied Pipit, a.k.a American Pipit (Anthus rubescens), Manitoba, Canada and Wyoming, U.S.A.:
The other pipit we regularly see in North America is known in North America as “American Pipit” but this species also breeds in much of Siberia and northernmost China and winters in Asia as well so most of the world prefers to call the species Buff-bellied Pipit. Different populations breed in Arctic, Subarctic or alpine tundra and can look rather different (some more pink in breeding plumage and some more buff). The first collage shows a bird in the subarctic tundra of northern Manitoba, Canada and a close-up of a bird foraging in the inter-tidal zone of Hudson Bay. The second collage shows a bird in rocky alpine habitat in Wyoming and then a juvenile on a boulder slope.

Yellowish Pipit (Anthus lutescens), Salta Argentina:
The Yellowish Pipit is one of the more widespread and smaller of the South American pipits. This species is found in grasslands and other relatively open habitat types from the dry zone of southern South America to the tropical wet savannas, even as far north as Panama. 

Hellmayr’s Pipit (Anthus hellmayri), Tucumán, Argentina:
The subtly beautiful Hellmay’s Pipit is an enigmatic grassland pipit, found most commonly in the drier grasslands of the Puna (as high as 3700 m ASL) but also in pastures in some contexts. Some populations are resident and some are migratory and there is the possibility that some subspecies may in fact be cryptic species. This composite shows the bird up close on a rock and in the typical Puna habitat it calls home. It reminds me a lot of our Sprague’s Pipit but perhaps with a more speckled face.

Rosy Pipit (Anthus roseatus), Sichuan, China:
There are a few pipits that have soft pink or red in their plumage and the Rosy Pipit is one of my absolute favourites. This collage shows a bird in breeding plumage in the high mountains of Sichuan, China. This species is an altitudinal migrant, breeding in the alpine meadows and grassy slopes of the Himalayas and eastern Asia, even at the snow line, and wintering in the mid elevations plains.

Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni), South Korea and China:
The Olive-backed Pipit is one of the more common and widespread Asian pipits. This species breeds in a diverse mixture of habitat types especially where the taiga meets the tundra and where the montane forest meets the alpine zone, and, at least in the breeding season, seems to spend more time perched in shrubs and trees than many other pipits. You can even find them walking on the forest floor or fallen conifer needles at times. Like the Rosy Pipit, the alpine populations migrate down slope in winter and some go as far south as Borneo. This collage shows a few habitat types and plumages (a bird perched on a shrub in breeding plumage, a bird on a lawn in spring and a bird on the forest floor in autumn). 

Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris), Rajasthan, India:
The Tawny Pipit is mostly a Western Palearctic breeding species that winters in sub-Saharan Africa (Sahel) and parts of the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. The large and fairly plain (i.e. unstreaked) pipit is easier to identify than many other pipits. It is found mostly in dry habitats as shown here in western India on the wintering grounds. Although it can be found in grassland you will also find this species in sand, gravel, semi-desert and shrubland.

Plain-backed Pipit (Anthus leucophrys), Cameroon:
The Plain-backed Pipit is one of the African resident pipit species (i.e. does not migrate) and a striking bird with its rich tawny underparts. This species is found in savanna and grassland with scattered shrubs and trees as shown here (photo from Cameroon).

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Dickcissel in Manitoba

The Dickcissel (Spiza americana) may look like a yellowish House Sparrow (and they may even flock together) but it is in the cardinal family (Cardinalidae). This is a fascinating grassland bird, although it likes tall vegetation that includes hay fields and rice paddies. This species migrates to northern South America in massive flocks many thousand strong, and by the time they reach South America the flocks can number in the millions. The Dickcissel is an irruptive species and in most years is rare or absent from Manitoba, which is outside their “core” range. In irruption years, such as 2012 and 2017 though birders look for them across the south of the province. Here are two of eight I photographed near St. Claude.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

On the impact of owls

I am sharing a different experience in this post to speak to the power that owls have to influence our lives. I do so with permission of the family involved. Normally, when I do educational workshops in schools or for a young audience, the props for teaching include photos, pellets, mounts from the museum’s education collection and other items. Sometimes however, when a child or children show(s) a genuine spark of interest, there can be opportunities for something even more impactful, as long as the proper precautions are taken.

Recently, a close friend, who is a stellar naturalist, and I took his two young nephews to see some Northern Hawk Owls in the flesh. The boys have a fascination for wildlife and it seems their interest and love of owls is particularly ardent. I had been watching a pair of Northern Hawk Owls (with intentionally infrequent visits) and after patiently waiting for over two months for the post-fledging stage (i.e. getting past the times when they are most sensitive to disturbance), we decided the time was right to show the boys this family of owls.

It was a truly amazing experience for them and for me as well. Their fascination with the form and grace of the owls was apparent; for example they were quick to spot the plumage differences between adult and juvenile, but there were also many subtle teaching opportunities. These opportunities were not just about the owls per se. It was a lesson in respect in a few different ways, the obvious ones being keeping still, remaining quiet at all times, staying well back to observe the owls from a distance (with the aid of a spotting scope/long lens) and limiting the time of observation to just a few minutes. There were also more subtle points like sticking together and not trampling vegetation. The boys got to take some photos which will now be printed as a keep-sake of their big experience. I was so impressed with both their enthusiasm and their respect and, above all, with the way they handled one of childhood’s most difficult challenges… balancing enthusiasm with respect!

Any observation of nesting owls requires great care and I never underestimate the challenge of observing with minimal impact. This guides all my actions as an observer and as an ornithologist. However, especially when I think of my own formative experiences, I see immense value in this type of education through direct experience and I believe that with caution and care this can be done with respect.

The two photos are of us observing the owls from a distance and one of a Northern Hawk Owl fledgling (1 of 4) taken by one of the boys (cropped and processed by me).

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Species At Risk Partnership on Agricultural Land

Our Manitoba SARPAL (Species At Risk Partnership on Agricultural Land) surveys on cattle ranching pastures ( are going well. These four Species At Risk were photographed on this year’s surveys – can you identify them?

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Western Manitoba

I’ve been blown away in the last few days, literally and figuratively, with some truly wonderful sightings and a long list of birds. Filming with the Fou des oiseaux crew ( was a total blast but I guess I probably should wait until their episode on Manitoba comes out before giving too much away on that. So in the meantime, here is one of those moments when a great bird blows in front of two people who have never seen the species before… a Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya) from the wondrous Whitewater Lake Important Bird Area, with special thanks to Colin and Gillian, the fantastic IBA caretakers there!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Golden-winged Warbler in Winnipeg

The Golden-winged Warbler is a Threatened species and I am privileged to be part of the monitoring and recovery efforts in Canada. Although, I have surveyed and studied this species on its breeding grounds here in Manitoba, and seen them in their wintering grounds, I rarely see this species in migration. Yesterday morning, however, I first heard and then saw this beautiful male in my very own neighbourhood. He even stuck around long enough for a photo. He was foraging in the buds and young curled up leaves as shown here (this species specialises in feeding on caterpillars and other invertebrates in curled up dead leaves). It was a rare treat on a beautiful Sunday morning of May migration magic.

The recovery strategy for Golden-winged Warbler in Canada is viewable at:

Monday, May 8, 2017

Celebrating International Migratory Bird Day (#IMBD), Sat 13th May, at Oak Hammock Marsh

This year, to celebrate International Migratory Bird Day on Saturday May 13th in style, there is a series of great activities planned at the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre.  There is something for everyone, including young naturalists, and all are welcome to join. If you can’t make it yourself, please also help us spread the word.  Please note that all indoor activities require regular admission to the centre. The full programme is below:

* 8 a.m. – 10 a.m.      BIRDING MARSHWALK:  led by Christian Artuso and Tim Poole from Manitoba's Important Bird Area Program. Pre-registration is required. Cost is $6 per person.

* 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.      CRAFT:  Help to make a colourful flock of birds by painting bird silhouettes that will be displayed in our lobby.

* 11 a.m. – 12 p.m.    WARBLERS OF MANITOBA:  PowerPoint presentation in the Interpretive Centre theatre by Christian Artuso. Learn some interesting facts about Manitoba's Warblers and their identification.

* 12 p.m. – 3 p.m.      BIRD BANDING with Paula Grieef: View songbird banding with Oak Hammock Marsh’s resident  naturalist and see these little birds up close.

*12 p.m. – 1 p.m.       SHOREBIRD IDENTIFICATION WORKSHOP:  Christian Artuso will walk you through identifying shorebirds. This is a follow-up to the Nature Manitoba indoor workshop Christian gave in April (but open to all). We will concentrate on the exposed mud areas near the interpretive centre, where some shorebirds have begun to gather.  If you have a spotting scope, please bring it and also bring the shorebird ID cards we gave out at the indoor workshop. This workshop is free of charge but please pre-register with the centre so we have a handle on numbers.

* 1 p.m. – 2 p.m.        BIRD SURVEY:  Join an interpreter and record the bird species spotted in the marsh.

Hope to see you there. Meanwhile, enjoy the wonders of spring migration!

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