Conservancy buys key bird habitat in southwest Manitoba

The Nature Conservancy of Canada has purchased a 47-hectare parcel of land in southwestern Manitoba to help protect birds and the wetlands they rely on.

Land purchase includes 1 of Manitoba's largest designated Important Bird Areas

About 1.3 per cent of North America's tundra swan population spend time in the Oak Lake area every year. (Christian Artuso)

The Nature Conservancy of Canada has purchased land in southwestern Manitoba to help protect birds and wetlands they rely on.

The land conservation organization announced Wednesday it has acquired 47 hectares of wetland, woodland and grassland habitat in the Oak Lake and Plum Lakes region, about 260 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

Funding from the federal and provincial governments and other donors helped the conservancy secure the land.

The deal encompasses land that was already designated as one of the largest of 38 Important Bird Areas [IBAs] in Manitoba. The Nature Conservancy already owns a piece of land adjacent to the new site.

The Important Bird Area program is an international citizen science-based conservation effort designed to monitor habitats that are crucial to the survival of birds.

The wetlands in southwestern Manitoba, like this one just east of Oak Lake, are home to thousands of migratory birds each summer. (Tim Poole)
Of the roughly 224 bird species that either fly through the area during migration or bed down with a mate during breeding season, there were "huge concentrations of shorebirds" last spring, Manitoba IBA director Tim Poole said.

"These habitats provide critical habitat for birds, whether during migration, for breeding or even for some in the depths of winter," Poole said.

The large wetlands are especially important for waterfowl and shorebirds during migration, with many species using the lakes as shelter and feeding in the surrounding area.

An eared grebe floats on Oak Lake in southwestern Manitoba. (Tim Poole)

At-risk species like the eastern wood pewee, bank swallow and bobolink call the area home in the summer, as do about 60,000 Franklin's gulls (about 8.6 per cent of the global population). 

About 4.3 per cent and 6.3 per cent of Canada's eared grebe and black crowned night herons are found in and around Oak Lake, as is 1.3 per cent of North America's tundra swan population. 

"The native grasslands on the west of the IBA also provide excellent habitat for Sprague's pipit and other threatened grassland birds," Poole added.

"Retaining these habitats as well as the complex of important potholes and ephemeral wetlands would be high priority."

The Sprague's pipit is a migratory grassland bird species of global, federal and provincial concern in Canada's Prairies. (Christian Artuso)

The area and a waterfowl hunting lodge there became popular at the turn of the 20th century.

George Matheson and his family owned the property for decades before it switched hands this week.

"My father's group in the lodge had an offer from Americans who wanted to establish a hunting lodge on the marsh of Oak Lake. They declined this very generous offer because they wanted the land to stay in Canadian hands," Matheson said in a statement.

A flock of short-billed dowitchers swoop by near Oak Lake. (Christian Artuso)

Poole said he hopes to attract more volunteers to the Important Bird Area program next spring to help keep an eye on the birds at Oak Lake.

"We need a stronger volunteer and monitoring presence to gain for recent bird data. Hopefully the new NCC presence may open up opportunities for greater partnership and volunteers counting birds."

Oak Lake is about 260 kilometres west of Winnipeg.


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.