Manitoba birders, biologists work to close Prairie data gap on declining shorebird populations

This summer, Manitoba made a foray into the International Shorebird Survey, an international, volunteer-based project to study the continent's rapidly declining population of shorebirds.

Migratory shorebird population has declined 70% since early 1970s, study found

A large group of dowitchers, a type of shorebird, stand in a shallow part of Whitewater Lake in August. (Christian Artuso/Important Bird Areas Manitoba)

It's fall in Manitoba: the air is crisper, leaves are changing and thousands of shorebirds from dozens of species are flying south for the season.

This year, the birds have a small group of diligent observers: civilian volunteers and professional biologists working together from the ground in an effort to count them.

They're part of Manitoba's foray into the International Shorebird Survey, a volunteer-based project to study North America's rapidly declining population of shorebirds.

The Manitoba pilot project, started this fall, is designed to fill a gap in research experts say exists about the birds as they pass through the Prairies during migration.

Christian Artuso, the Manitoba regional director for Bird Studies Canada and organizer of the provincial introduction to the project, said while some research exists on the birds in midcontinental North America, data has traditionally been more robust in coastal areas.

"It's kind of high time that we got some of this going in the migration pathway in Manitoba."

70% drop since early 1970s

Shorebirds are relatively small water birds, many of which have spindly legs and long, thin beaks, said Rebekah Neufeld, conservation operations program co-ordinator for Manitoba with Nature Conservancy of Canada. 

Throughout the year, the province hosts a wide variety of shorebirds —​ a single day of observing could spot nearly 30 different species, Artuso said — with common examples including the killdeer, plovers and sandpipers.

An American avocet wades in Whitewater Lake in August. (Christian Artuso/Important Bird Areas Manitoba)

The birds are unique in that they rely on shallow-water habitats, on the edge of wetlands or lakes, mud flats or pebbly beaches, Neufeld said. They're known for long migration distances, she added: some fly from the Arctic to South America as part of their migration.

They're also in trouble. A 2016 report from the North American Bird Conservation Initiative found migratory shorebird populations have dropped by nearly 70 per cent since the early 1970s. Habitat loss, changes in predation, climate change and human disruption at breeding sites all factor into the decline, Neufeld said, but researchers still don't understand everything about the drop.

"Those kind of drops in populations … it's quite critical for us to start addressing it because it can easily reach the point of no return for some of these species," she said.

Citizen science facilitating research

Large studies like the International Shorebird Survey form the foundation for conservation efforts, Neufeld said, because they show researchers which areas the birds are using and how they're using them, so conservation efforts can be more targeted.

But they're demanding: researchers need continuous, consistent data over years and large swaths of territory. Conducting research with paid employees would be costly, and that's where volunteer "citizen scientists" come in, Neufeld said.

"Many of these projects or similar type projects wouldn't actually happen without citizen scientists. It's actually critical to some of this programming," she said.

"It's really driven by citizen scientists."

A group of red-necked phalaropes fly over Whitewater Lake in August. (Christian Artuso/Important Bird Areas Manitoba)

Starting in the spring, the Nature Conservancy worked with U.S.-based non-profit Manomet — which originally created the International Shorebird Survey — as well as Bird Studies Canada, the Manitoba Important Bird Areas program and Environment and Climate Change Canada to start the pilot in the province. The first teams went out in late July, Neufeld said.

To participate, volunteers with birding experience had to take additional training on bird identification and counting. Then they went to a small number of select areas at Oak Lake, about 250 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, and Whitewater Lake, near Deloraine in southwestern Manitoba, to spend the better part of the day counting birds.

Artuso said there are no concerns about the quality of the data gathered by volunteers who aren't biologists.

"It may not be true in all taxa, but for birds, there's such a sort of passion around birdwatching as a leisure activity that people have developed exceptional skill sets," he said.

"The skills of the volunteers is not to be underestimated."

Hopes for expansion, more volunteers

After the first survey pilot season wraps up at the end of September, Neufeld said the groups running the program will assess to see if it can be continued into next year, or expanded.

She said the conservancy has an "open call" out for more volunteers to gather information if that happens.

"In the future, we do want to expand the program," she said. "The more people we have the more data we can collect, which is always better."


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