Birders flock to huge Manitoba wetland for bird blitz

Dozens of birders flocked to Whitewater Lake in southwestern Manitoba in early August to take part in an Important Bird Area blitz. Volunteers record and track bird population numbers across 38 such areas in the province annually.
(Photo by Garry Budyk)

The birder is an odd duck.

After all, the faint stink of rotten eggs wafting in the moist summer breeze isn't something most people would run toward. And yet, on the outer fringes of a massive salty marsh in the southwestern corner of Manitoba, that muted sulphur scent hints at a wet and mucky world where the prairie meets a wall of sharp green reeds.

It's a sign of where the birds are. And where there are birds to be seen, there are devout watchers looking to spot and and count them.

"People take them for granted. They're everywhere. They're flying overhead right now," says Emily McIntosh, a student in Grade 11 at Winnipeg's Kelvin Collegiate. 

In early August, McIntosh and more than a dozen other birders broke into small teams and fanned out across Whitewater Lake. They were there to count as many winged creatures as possible in one day as part of an Important Bird Area (IBA) blitz.

Several such bird blitzes go on every year in the province in selected habitats. In each case, a few bird biologists and a group of volunteers of all ages descend on sites known to have a lot of birds. Their observations help determine what species are living in the area and how they are faring.

Into the wetland

Tim Poole, a bird biologist and the co-ordinator of the IBA program for Manitoba, hops out of an SUV and joins a small binocular-clad group parked next to a farm as they set out on foot down a trail overgrown with marshy vegetation.

The narrowing path is covered with wispy miniature forests of knee-high foxtail barley. Swaying rows of green and brown bulrush two metres tall obscure the view on either side, and the distorted pulse of bird and bug noise coming from within the reeds grows louder and clearer with each step south toward the water.

As the pleasant smell from of a roadside lavender patch is overtaken by the sour scent of hot muck and stagnant water, it gets squishy underfoot. Silhouettes start to take shape and can be seen darting low along the horizon and bouncing off surface waters of the wetland like winged pinballs.

About halfway to the water, Poole, Gillian Richards and Colin Blyth put binoculars to their eyes and zoom in on something flying overhead..

"Beautiful bird," Blyth says, eyeing a red-eyed, charcoal-coloured bird with a long, down-curved bill. 

White-faced ibis fin flight. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

It's a white-faced ibis and on first impression it's rather dark and gloomy.

The bird is wearing its fall colours, which on close inspection resemble the common starling, dark with deep iridescent greens, cosmic blacks and purples.

Seen through the crystalline lens of a high-powered spotting scope or binoculars, it might even be beautiful.

A white-faced ibis in winter plumage. (Christian Artuso)

Taking care of Whitewater

Richards and Blyth are the so-called caretakers of Whitewater Lake — a role they take on as volunteers through the Important Bird Area program.

Colin Blyth peers through a spotting scope. (Bryce Hoye)

One goal of the IBA, an international citizen science monitoring program that made its way into Manitoba in the mid- to late-1990s, is to encourage people who live near designated areas to get involved and spread conservation awareness to help protect migratory birds.

"We look at the environment, we look at lake levels, we talk to local people, we just try to have a good relationship going down here," Blyth says.

He got into birding five years ago when he tagged along for the Minnedosa Christmas Bird Count, an event that draws birders together in the winter to survey city streets for birds that stick around in cold weather. It's where he first met Richards.

"I just started learning that there's more than the chickadees and blue jays you see around your house," he says, adding his current favourite is the American bittern, a long-necked predatory bird with brunette camouflage plumage that sneaks through marshes and skewers small critters with its pointed beak.

An American bittern eats a barred tiger salamander. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

"It has a nickname: 'The thunder pumper,'" Blyth says, mimicking the bittern's deep guttural ploonk-paloonk-ploonk-paloonk call — like dropping a large round stone off a cliff into a lake and hearing the hollow sinking sound resonate for miles across the water.

At the end of that long narrow marshy path, Blyth has a real find, an American black duck.

"It's what you call in the birding community a 'lifer,' and that's when it's a bird you've never seen anywhere in the world before. We high-five on that one," he says. "You see them every year down here at Whitewater Lake. It was just a matter of time before I got mine."

Whitewater Lake is one of 38 Important Bird Areas in Manitoba. In the south of the province, many of the bird habitats are wetlands.

Whitewater itself is a shallow, briny basin prone to flood-drought cycles, although the pendulum has consistently stayed at the flood end of the spectrum over the past decade. Right now it's about a quarter of the size of Winnipeg (greater than 10,000 hectares in size) and plays host to a quarter of a million migratory birds every year.

Many of those birds nest in the reeds and cattails along wetland edges every summer. Some rely on the place in the spring as a stopover site en route to their breeding grounds in the Arctic, or in the fall as they head back down south for winter.

New face on the scene

Many of the species at Whitewater are doing relatively well, including the ibis, a relatively new face on the scene.

There were only four sightings of ibis in Manitoba between 1934 and 1989. Ten were spotted between 1989 and 2001, and in 2005, local biologists Ron Bazin and Christian Artuso documented the first two white-faced ibis nests on Whitewater Lake.

Things have really taken off for the bird since then.

Whitewater Lake is located 240 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg as the crow flies. (Google Maps)

"Right now, Whitewater Lake is the place for them," Poole says, adding a colony of the birds now breeds in the area.

The male ibis spends a few weeks each spring peacocking around shallow marshes like Whitewater hoping to attract a mate. Distinctive for their backward bending stilt legs, they hunt bugs, frogs and other creatures in the shallows as they wait on Mrs. Right.

"Mounting and copulation are preceded by the male stroking and preening the female's dorsal plumage and vibrating his culmen against her rump while she preens her own breast feathers," U.S. biologists Darby Dark-Smiley and Douglas A. Keinath write of the species' mating ritual.

After the young have fledged, the ibis sheds its showy summer plumage in exchange for the less flamboyant winter wear on display at Whitewater at the end of summer.

It isn't known why the ibis has decided on Whitewater Lake, although a rise in sightings in the northern Great Plains over the past 30 years suggests the species' range is expanding. That expansion could be related to better habitat management strategies, wetter and hence more favourable years farther north, or the banning of pesticides (such as DDT) known to be bad for the birds.

During this August's blitz at Whitewater, more than 300 white-faced ibis sightings were recorded. It was just one of more than 130 species spotted on the day.

Farmers want control of flooding

Whitewater is teeming with birdlife, but it isn't just a magical playground for birds and birders.

Murray Duncan (front ATV) meets Gillian Richards, Tim Poole and Colin Blyth as they walk along a path at Whitewater Lake. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Landowner Murray Duncan has at least four quarter sections of land along the northeastern side of Whitewater Lake and strong family ties to the area. The farmland has been in his family for almost 130 years.

"My grandfather homesteaded here in 1882," Murray says.

Murray Duncan has deep roots to the land surrounding Whitewater Lake in southwestern Manitoba. His family has lived in the area since the late 1880s. He and other landowners are upset the government has done more to prevent flooding of farmland adjacent to the wetland.

After retiring, Duncan leased out his land to another farmer, hoping to continue to earn a living that way. That farmer hasn't had much luck because of the spread of the wetland; he was able to plant 200 acres in 2016, down from about 650 in 2011, Duncan says.

Much of the arable land has been submerged and devalued in recent years as the outer edges of the wetland spread further afield.

Surrounded by wetland, one pastel green farm house rests at a lean, most of its first storey now underwater, and what remains of several warped sheds similarly being slowly swallowed up.

"It's a great big ocean right now," Duncan says. "There's thousands of acres of agricultural land not being used here because of flooding."

Duncan says something should have been done ages ago to keep flooding and drainage on the lake from getting this bad.

"If you have a five gallon pail and everyone stands around and pees in it, pretty soon it's going to run over."

Landowners in the area are hopeful the Manitoba government approves a recent proposal to install drainage outlets and water level control mechanisms on the wetland so that farmers can get their farmland back.

According to Duncan, much of the biodiversity and birdlife typically found on Whitewater have been pushed into small seasonally flooded ponds and bays on the wetland periphery, which happen to be on private land.

Biologist Poole says those seasonally flooded pockets, or ephemeral wetlands, are some of the most important spots for shorebirds in the area right now. Shorebirds are waders; most of their mass is balanced on long skinny legs; and as a group they're particularly vulnerable to big changes in their environment.

During the blitz, several shorebird species of concern were seen lounging around in big groups. More than 630 pectoral sandpipers (more than one per cent of the global population) were identified, which surpassed an international threshold needed to trigger Whitewater Lake as an Important Bird Area habitat for the species.

More than 2,000 western grebe were also counted and should warrant the same designation. The hope is that triggering these designations helps raise the species' profile and leads to greater conservation efforts in their habitats.

Gotta count 'em all

It's also likely to attract more birders down to Whitewater Lake, although the recreational activity isn't as popular with younger people.

A greater yellow legs stands on one leg in the water in at Whitewater Lake. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Poole says fewer young people are birding, at least in Manitoba, because their parents aren't into it, or maybe they have trouble getting out of the city to places like Whitewater Lake.

Or it could have something to do with technology.

"Might be that Pokemon Go is a lot more interesting to a young person than bird watching," he says. "Bird watching can be almost like a game actually, where you're trying to chase birds to increase the amount of birds you see."

A program called eBird developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society could be the closest thing to Pokemon Go on the market. Observers around the world go out in search of birds, recording what they see on their computers when they get home or on their smartphones. You can even watch the observations being logged in real time.

The migratory path of the magnolia warbler, as charted through observations of the bird logged online through eBird by hundreds of birders from Canada to Mexico. (eBird)

"Young people might like the challenge, because they certainly seem to like the challenge with an iPad or [with] smartphone games, outdoor games, so maybe we just need to help show them that actually, this can be really fun as well," Tim says.

"I say, 'Why don't you go outside and look for something real? Why don't you look for birds?'" Colin asks. "Pokemon Go is a lot like, for me, going outside and looking for birds. I hope a lot of young people could catch on to looking for the real treasures outside instead of the virtual ones … like the ones at Whitewater."

A common nighthawk takes rests on the rocks near Whitewater Lake. (Garry Budyk)

Birds of a feather

McIntosh was one of just two teenagers to take part in the bird blitz.

But she already knows precisely what she wants to do with her life when she graduates.

"It started in about the fifth grade. I had studied marine biology and a bit of paleontology, but I finally decided to settle on birds," she says with unflinching confidence.

"It's so hard to explain, and I know you probably hear this a lot, but you just kind of know. It's almost like experiencing another culture when you go out in the field; you learn about all these different creatures. I just decided I loved it and wanted to stick with it. May as well go big or go home."

The budding bird biologist says her first blitz opened her eyes to the close-knit community of birders in Manitoba.

"For a bird nut, it was heaven. The first bird we counted today was a Prairie falcon and that was a first for me. That was a lifer, so pretty impressed overall," McIntosh says.

"I've never seen so many people who are so passionate about birds in such a small location. Pretty outstanding."

McIntosh says more of her peers ought to get outside and "give the birds a chance."

'Give the birds a chance': The birds and watchers of Whitewater Lake

6 years ago
Duration 2:03
Dozens of birders flocked to Whitewater Lake in southwestern Manitoba on Aug. 7 to take part in an Important Bird Area blitz. The program records and tracks bird population numbers across 38 such areas annually.