Birders gathered by the flock Friday in Winnipeg to celebrate five years of tracking the movements of Manitoba’s breeding birds.
The Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas, an ambitious five-year project that enlisted the efforts of novice birders, citizen scientists and bird biologists alike in an attempt to record and map the presence and distribution of Manitoba’s birds, just wrapped its final season.
Biologist, Bird Studies Canada–Manitoba program manager and atlas coordinator Christian Artuso was excited, if not surprised, of the project's resounding success.
“To be honest, I didn’t think it was possible when I first came here, to do something of this magnitude," said Artuso. "There were a lot of naysayers when we tried to build it back in 2009 when we were in our preparation. We proved that it’s doable, even in Manitoba."
40,000 hours in the field
Over five years, a small army of observers logged nearly 40,000 hours of time in the field chasing down the province's feathered friends. In that time, more than 300,000 observations were recorded, many "lifers" checked off volunteers' life lists.
'Lifer': A birder's first sighting of a given bird species
“When I first came to Manitoba I would say there was only a handful of birders in the province," said Artuso.
"In the end we got over 1,000 people to register for the breeding bird atlas, we did lots of workshops along the way, we trained people, we brought in people from outside [the province], we did some summer job-type divisions as well, field crews, but mostly just lots and lots of volunteers.
The image rising out of all of this data tells an interesting story about Manitoba's bird diversity and breeding habits.
Artuso is giving himself and others involved a year to pore over all of that data, with the intention of making the end product readily accessible to the public through the project's website.
These reports and maps will show things like the relative abundance, probability of occurrence, and general distribution of species across Manitoba.
Birders of all stripes
Atlas participants came from a variety of backgrounds and skill levels.
“There are some people who literally are just contributing from their back yard, but there are others who are travelling widely and identifying hundreds of species of birds and doing it by ear as well as by sight, and everything in between,” said Arutso.
Professionals like Artuso who have an encyclopedic knowledge of birds can rely mainly on their ears to identify species by their distinctive songs.
This auditory skill takes years of practice to build. Countless hours must be spent listening to recordings of bird song, studying the varied repertoires of some species, the little inflections and jazzy renditions of others.
Many turn to mnemonic aids or song descriptions, or devise their own, to help with the memorization process. By way of example, a yellow warbler's song might work out to something like sweet-sweet-I'm-so-sweet.
The professionals involved with the atlas spent much of their time performing "point counts," where an observer sets off to a sample area, stands or sits in silence for three or five minutes and records the species and number of individual birds they hear (or see) singing.
Novices that got their start volunteering with the atlas at one point likely had a hard time differentiating between the peeps and whistles of a black-capped chickadee, a common year-round resident in Manitoba, and the gentle squeaks of a steaming tea kettle.
But in going out into the field with seasoned birders, Artuso said he's watched many beginners grow their passion and skills through experience and workshops provided by atlas organizers.
The nature of observations recorded by less experienced birders were classified as "casual," usually denoting those observations made by contributors in their back yards or neighbourhoods. Those somewhere in the intermediate range visited sample areas and, in a more systematic way, would've headed out looking for evidence (sightings, nests, etc.) of breeding birds.
In five years, atlas contributors documented five confirmed cases of species breeding in the province for the first time.
Western tanagers, black-headed grosbeaks, snowy egrets, long-tailed jaegers, and Missippi kites were all confirmed Manitoba breeders between 2010-2014. (See gallery for photos of Western Tanager and black-headed grosbeak.)
But it was the kite sightings this summer that got the lion's share of media coverage.
“The Mississipi kite made a bit of a splash in the media,” said Artuso.
The breeding pair of kites set up shop in the vicinity of Wellington Crescent this summer. The precise location of the nest was never revealed to try to stem what was already a steady stream of binocular-toting onlookers coming through the area trying to steal a glance of the rare birds.
The Mississippi kite's northernmost range follows the Mississippi River usually no farther north than Illinois or Iowa. In this case, the birds were way outside of their usual breeding territory.
Atlas'ers also found a few golden eagles breeding in the province for the first time in around a hundred years.
Why 5 years?
Manitoba's atlas was designed as a five-year project, with the summer of 2014 as its final season.
“It’s short enough to be a snap shot in time of what the birds are doing, to show what their status is, and it’s long enough to get the job done," said Artuso.
Of course, getting all of the data recorded in two or three years would be preferable.
"But in Canada you’re never going to get the job done in two to three years,” said Artuso.
Getting to some parts of Manitoba posed a real challenge.
Artuso said Canada has its work cut out for it due its expansive landscapes. In places like the U.S., the sampling areas for similar projects are smaller, and with greater population density, naturally there’s more birders lending their ears and binoculars to the cause.
Developing Manitoba's atlas meant dividing the province into a grid of 10-kilometre by 10-kilometre squares, with 7,000 squares in total across Manitoba.
“This has been done in other provinces, it’s been done twice in Ontario, in British Columbia, in the maritime provinces, but those are situations where there’s more people and smaller areas," said Artuso.
Despite the geographical challenges, project volunteers visited and sampled all of the target areas starting in 2010, the provincial and federal government at times helping to transport observers into remote parts of the province by plane or helicopter.
Artuso said his hope is that the birding community continues doing five-year projects like this one every 20 years.
"The idea is you revisit them," said Artuso. "Once you’ve done this four or five times with 20 years in between, then you have a super powerful tool to really assess what is going on."
“In Manitoba there’s been bird surveys going on for a long time, in the south more so than in the north, but there really wasn’t anything comprehensive until now.”
Species-at-risk assessment in Manitoba has relied on expert opinion rather than the preponderance of evidence in the past, said Artuso. With the atlas, researchers now have a “very meaningful baseline."
Going forward with species-at-risk assessment or understanding changes to species’ distributions in the province with respect to things like climate change, the baseline established by the atlas will help the scientific community make more powerful policy suggestions to government aimed at protecting Manitoba birds.
The atlas and citizen science
Artuso said the atlas stands as an important example of what can be achieved through collaborative efforts between scientists and the community.
"It’s getting harder and harder, for example, for governments to take the responsibility for both monitoring and conserving. It really is imperative that the citizenry is actively engaged and aware of that process. I think citizen science is doing just that: it’s engaging people.
“Citizen science is the way forward. The more people that get involved in the process of assessing environmental change, the more people are aware … aware because of their active role, and the better we are in the long run in terms of how we interact with our environment and how well we do the job of keeping the planet healthy.”