Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Warbler Fallout!

In mid May 2015, a severe storm blew through Winnipeg and grounded many songbirds for a couple of days. In the cold aftermath of the storm, when the sun finally started to poke out between the clouds on the afternoon of May 18th, many normally arboreal songbirds came out to feed on the ground or low to the ground, foraging for invertebrate prey in lawns, gardens and parks (since so little food was available higher up). The birds needed to find food quickly to get back in shape to continue their migration and so I sat down on the lawn in Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg and took the chance to photograph them as they hopped around me feeding. They were so intent on feeding that they lost their usual shyness and some hopped right by within a few metres. Here is a photo sequence of some unusual views of from that afternoon:

American Redstart
Three photos of different male American Redstarts striking stunning poses and hunting over the lawn:

Black-throated Green Warbler
I had a hard time choosing between the scores of photos I took of this male Black-throated Green Warbler who fed around me with great success, plucking tasty morsels from the grass every 45 seconds or so. The latter photos show some of the bugs he caught:

Wilson's Warbler
This male Wilson's Warbler chasing a fly was a delight to watch but presented a real photo challenge. I only managed one sharp image (note the fly just in front of the warbler - as always, click on the photo to view full screen):
Magnolia Warbler
Several male Magnolia Warblers put on a show too feeding around the edges of the wooded areas (first photo) or sometimes right out on the lawn (second photo and third photo). The third photo also shows a prey item:

Palm Warbler
Pal warbler often feed on the ground in parks when they come through in migration so it was less unusual to watch them on the lawns but still too beautiful to ignore:

Black-and-white Warbler
Both male and female Black-and-white Warblers were feeding unusually low. Although they kept to their nuthatch-like feeding style of creeping up and down tree trunks, they nonetheless were right at the very base of the trunk or even on the ground itself (where the food was). Here are three photos:  


Ovenbirds and Northern Waterthrushes often feed on the ground but they are somewhat secretive. On this afternoon, many were feeding in open areas of leaf litter and even on concrete pathways as these two photos show (the latter also showing their "walking", as opposed to hopping, stride):

Northern Waterthrush
Here are two photos on Northern Waterthrushes, hopping around the edges of muddy puddles. The second photo gives you a sense of their excellent camouflage: 

Gray-cheeked Thrush
It wasn't just warblers that offered exquisite views. Many other songbirds were also out in force. Four species of Catharus thrush (Gray-cheeked, Hermit, Swainson's and Veery) were hopping around by the hundreds offering fantastic views and comparisons of their subtle field marks:

Veery is abundant as a breeding bird in southern Manitoba; however, they are very difficult to observe well on migration. I enjoyed photographing them feeding on the edges of wooded areas:

These are privileged types of these beautiful songbirds. Under typical circumstances they would not approach a human observer so closely. These shots were made possible by understanding how the weather would affect their migration and having the patience to wait for the right moment to take out the camera and then by sitting quietly without moving and allowing the birds to come to me.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Summer Fieldwork 2015: A Few Highlights

I am sharing a few photos that offer a glimpse into my summer field work this year. Since I am not atlassing, I have been doing some surveys for the Nature Conservancy of Canada and some work for the Important Bird Area program, the Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative as well as being involved in some research related to Golden-winged Warbler and Connecticut Warbler. Some of the grassland highlights are shown in my previous post on the Ellice-Archie community pasture.

Golden-winged Warbler  (Threatened)
I have been involved in Golden-winged Warblers since 2008, including being a part of developing the Canadian recovery strategy. Early this season, I scouted out locations for two of my graduate students in the parkland transition zone east of Winnipeg. Here is a photo of a male and one of a female I found.

Chimney Swift  (Threatened)
In addition to my role on the MCSI (Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative), was able to participate in the spring national monitoring protocol and other monitoring for Chimney Swifts. This photo shows part of a large roost of over 100 birds entering a chimney in Winnipeg.

Connecticut Warbler
Although not considered at risk, Connecticut Warbler population appear to be on the decline and I have recently become involved in a project to look at their migratory connectivity. I heard and saw lots this spring while scouting and surveying.  

Canada Warbler  (Threatened)
I also lent a little helping hand with some ongoing Canada Warbler research and visited some sites to check for territories. This male near Riding Mountain National Park was particularly showy and even allowed some photographs.

Black-billed Cuckoo 
The tent-moth caterpillars have caused severe defoliation in some parts of our province this year and as a result the Black-billed Cuckoos are abundant. This one popped up in front of me one evening on a Nature Conservancy of Canada property near the Duck Mountains and also allowed me to hear the soft purring call that is quite different from the song. On some mornings surveying I heard 35 individuals.

Philadelphia Vireo
I enjoyed some superb views of Philadelphia Vireo on their breeding grounds this summer. This is a tricky species to find on the breeding grounds and, as almost always, they were located by their song or call first! Two photos below:

Least Bittern  (Threatened)
On a recent survey of some Nature Conservancy of Canada properties in the Interlake, I was delighted to find 3 Least Bitterns including this stunning male near Eriksdale, Manitoba. It was certainly a thrill to observe him perched low near the water gripping the vertical stems with their characteristic feet-splayed-sideways stance and even better to watch his body posture lower and the throat inflate while calling and then to watch as he hopped between the cattails and disappeared. I found it interesting to note that the red lores of high breeding plumage were already partially faded by the end of June. Here are three photos showing this bird calling, then preparing to leap and then leaping between cattails.

Striped Skunk
These two young Striped Skunks chasing each other's tails were a real treat to watch as part of our big weekend of outreach and blitzing in the southwest mixed-grass prairie Important Bird Area (Manitoba, Canada).

Virginia Rail
A sneak peek at the elusive Virginia Rail was another highlight while visiting Whitewater Lake Important Bird Area:

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Showing people lifers is always such vicarious fun. As a reward for his hard work with the IBA and MCSI programs, I managed to show Tim Poole quite a few lifers this summer. This Yellow-bellied Flycatcher on territory was one of the early ones on a day where he saw five new birds. On such occasions, I have my notebook in hand rather than my camera but I did take out it of my backpack, albeit a little late, to take some poor quality documentary shots of some of Tim’s lifers.

I will update this post soon with some more photos... enjoy!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Two Vitally Important PFRA Community Pastures in Manitoba (and Saskatchewan)

The Ellice-Archie and Spy-Hill-Ellice PFRA community pastures are two grassland gems of critical importance to grassland birds in Manitoba. This post is a very brief introduction to their importance for grassland birds and why they are such a key piece for our efforts to retain a grassland ecosystem with a full suite of species (when so many grasslands are under threat of being converted).

The two PFRA community pastures straddle the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border near the town of St-Lazare in Manitoba and Spy Hill in Saskatchewan. As you can see from the Google earth screen shot below, the pastures are large enough that they can be seen from a zoomed out aerial view (this is vitally important for area-sensitive species and also because most of our grasslands are only tiny remnants). You can compare their size with some other visible features such as Riding Mountain to understand their importance. No other grassland in Manitoba is so large.

This detailed image gives you a better sense of the extent of the pastures (a red asterisk is placed near the centre of each pasture). You will also note the white rectangle in Saskatchewan near the pastures which is a large potash mine and another cause for concern in this area:

This zoomed-in image shows how the landscape is structured here. The Assiniboine and Qu'apelle Rivers meet here and both carve deep river valleys. The lower shelf of the river valleys has large and tall riparian deciduous woodlands (also known as gallery forests), the steep slopes have more scrubby oak and aspen vegetation and then, as you climb out of the valleys you are greeted with the vast open prairie on top. This is a glimpse into the way it used to be across the northern prairies before they were ploughed and divvied up. The photo below that also gives a sense of how the river valley climbs to the grasslands on top.

If you'd like to have that feeling of standing in a sea of grass, then this is your place! These three photos give you a sense of the magnitude of the grasslands here.

Unfortunately, some parts of the pastures have been seeded to non-native grasses but there are still large sections of native grasses with high abundance of grassland birds. Some of the key species are introduced below:

These pastures are a key site for the Chestnut-collared Longspur (Calcarius ornatus) in Manitoba. This species is highly threatened with red listings as follows:
International listing (IUCN): Near-threatened.
Canadian listing (SARA): Threatened.
Manitoba listing (ESEA): Endangered

In just two days, I counted over 200 Chestnut-collared Longspurs here this summer and that was in only a small section of the southern pasture. Here are three photos of a male, female and their nest with 6 eggs (click back). See also:

These pastures are also important for the Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii) in Manitoba. This species is highly threatened with red listings as follows:
International listing (IUCN): Vulnerable
Canadian listing (SARA): Threatened.
Manitoba listing (ESEA):

In just two days, I counted over 70 Sprague's Pipits in one section of the pasture and the neighbouring Nature Conservancy of Canada holdings. The density of this species, which is sensitive to edge effects, is unparallelled anywhere else in Manitoba and that is presumably due to the extensive size of the grasslands.

2015 has been a very strange years for grassland bird distribution in Manitoba. Interestingly, we are finding many more Baird's Sparrows (Ammodramus bairdii) than usual and in sites further east and north of their recent occurrence in this province. Finding 4 Baird’s Sparrows in these pastures, where they have not been recorded since the 1980s, was very special for me. One of these birds was very close to Nature Conservancy of Canada holdings in this important grassland area. This species is listed as Special Concern federally in Canada but in considered Endangered provincially under Manitoba’s Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act.

The above three species are the key grassland specialist species in this pasture; however, other Species At Risk occur here too such as this Short-eared Owl (Special Concern) photographed quartering over the pasture.

Other Species At Risk such as Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk and Loggerhead Shrike have been recorded here in the past and could occur again in future if these pastures are safeguarded.  Some other important grassland birds that are not (yet) considered Species At Risk such as Grasshopper Sparrow (photo below) are also found here in good numbers.

Of course, many other birds make their home here: raptors include Red-tailed Hawk, Swainson's Hawk and Northern Harrier (photo below)

Upland-breeding shorebirds that breed in this pasture or close to it  include the Marbled Godwit (two photos below of these large shorebirds defending their territory)

The Upland Sandpiper also breeds here in good numbers:

... as does the Willet (seen here perched on a pasture fence post).

This is also one of the very best places in the whole province of Manitoba to see Mountain Bluebirds.   Eastern Bluebirds are very common in Manitoba but Mountain Bluebirds are becoming increasingly rare and difficult to see (perhaps due in part to Eastern Bluebirds expanding westward with the placement of bluebird boxes). In this part of the world, the Mountain Bluebird is a prairie species to watch! 

Exploring the river bottom forest and the shrubby hillside of course will produce a much more comprehensive list of species; however this area is most significant for threatened grassland birds. We are watching to  ensure these pastures remain as pastures and continue to convey the great benefits to the prairie ecosystem that they have for so long! For more information, see:
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