From the mixed-grass Prairie habitats of the southwest through the bushy boreal forests of the Interlake and all the way up to the coastal ecosystems of Churchill, a new tool is giving bird-curious Manitobans an intimate look at where avian species get it on in the province.

The Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas wrapped five years of surveys in 2014.

"We really got [all] four corners of the province done by hook or by crook," said atlas director Christian Artuso, a biologist with Bird Studies Canada.

Over the course of 42,000 hours, more than 1,000 binocular-toting volunteers logged 325,000 sightings of every breeding bird species in Manitoba — and in many cases they went to great lengths to do it. Seventy-two canoe, boat, float-plane and helicopter expeditions covered remote areas across the province.

Red Tail Release

Most of Manitoba's red-tailed hawks breed in the southwest corner of the province. (Associated Press/The Cincinnati Enquirer, Glenn Hartong)

That data was pooled and analyzed in recent years and was released online late last month.

The various overlays allow users to focus in on different areas to compare and contrast levels of bird biodiversity.

Want to know where and when red-tailed hawks most commonly shack up in the province every spring? A series of interactive maps show hotspots where they breed in abundance and where they don't.

That raptor is one of 312 kinds of breeding birds, including 32 at-risk species, that has its own entry, complete with facts and lessons learned over the course of the project.

Bird Studies Canada Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas range map.

Range maps show relative abundance, evidence of breeding and probability of observing red-tailed hawks in Manitoba. (Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas)

Eighty species accounts are already online with the remainder being gradually rolled out until all are up next year.

All told, the effort took eight years to complete and represents one of the most extensive online databases of its kind in the world, Artuso said.

"It was definitely a challenge ... but we pulled it off," Artuso said. "It was not easy."

Redefining records

Several scientific papers came out of the ambitious citizen science effort. Turns out at least five more species breed in Manitoba than previously thought, including snowy egrets, Mississippi kites, long-tailed jaegers and western tanagers. 

Breeding Bird Atlas

Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas contributor David Raitt confirmed breeding Western Tanagers for the first time in Manitoba in 2010. (Christian Artuso)

For the first time in more than a century, and in connection with the atlas, researchers confirmed golden eagles are also breeding in Manitoba, at least as far north as Wapusk National Park on the shores of Hudson Bay.

"We noticed that the range of a lot of these species was well further north than previously thought," Artuso said, adding Tundra swans, pine grosbeaks and other more-northern species were also found breeding further south than previously known.

"Manitoba, so much of it is so remote with so few people and so little access, we didn't really have a very solid baseline about what was there." 

Artuso was often asked if the changes in breeding locations are because of climate change. He said "in order to really answer that question you need a really solid baseline, and this atlas provides exactly that."

'A fantastic resource'

Volunteers no doubt had fun heading out with their binoculars and Tilley hats, but Artuso says the data has practical applications for everyone from researchers interested in migration and biodiversity, to elementary school teachers looking for a way to teach kids about wildlife and conservation.

Christian Artuso

Christian Artuso is the co-ordinator of the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas and the program manager for Bird Studies Canada–Manitoba. (Christian Artuso)

Land managers interested in making their properties more bird-friendly can also draw lessons from atlas.

"It is a fantastic resource that we've not had before," Artuso said.

And he suspects that as more researchers start to pore over the maps, it's possible more findings could begin to rise out of the data. Artuso is hopeful Manitoba Sustainable Development, the ministry in charge of provincial conservation efforts, utilizes project data as it crafts future monitoring projects.

"Even if you're not particularly interested in birds, even understanding what Manitobans are capable of in terms of when we get together toward a specific goal, I think it's a wonderful demonstration of that," Artuso said. 

Breeding Bird Atlas - Mississippi Kite

A breeding pair of Mississippi kites were spotted nesting off Wellington Crescent in Winnipeg in the summer of 2014, the first ever confirmed breeding pair of kites in Manitoba. (Christian Artuso)