Fine Feathered Facts

A new avian atlas is set to track Saskatchewan bird numbers

Photo of a Virginia Rail by John Conkin

Science | by Gregory Beatty

For many Saskat­chewan residents, the return of migrating birds is a much-anticipated sign of spring. This year promises to be extra special, though, because when the birds arrive, they — and other species that overwinter in Saskatchewan — will be the subject of a huge citizen science project.

The Saskatchewan Bird Atlas is being administered by Bird Studies Canada, but a lot of the work will be done by volunteers who will spread out across the province to gather data on Saskatchewan’s breeding bird population.

The odds of them catching birds “in the act” are probably long, but they will look for evidence of breeding activity — such as nest-building, eggs, hatchlings, food delivery, or even distraction behavior, which birds use to lure predators away from their nests.

This isn’t the only such bird-count in Canada. Atlases have either been created or are underway in Ontario, the Maritimes, British Columbia, Manitoba and Québec. It’s all part of a national atlas program.

Planning for the Saskatchewan atlas began last year. There will be five years of data collection, followed by two years of analysis before the atlas is released.

Each project takes eight years, says Kiel Drake, Bird Studies Canada’s Senior Waterbird Scientist, Prairie and Northern Region.

“There was an atlas done by Al Smith just over 20 years ago, but it’s not what we would call a contemporary atlas as there’s a more rigorous sampling protocol now,” says Drake. “Atlas projects are scheduled every 20 years and are the primary information source where we learn about changes in distribution of breeding birds.”

NUMBERS MATTER

Whether they migrate or not, birds spend most of their time in breeding and over-wintering grounds. That means those locations give scientists the best opportunity to assess the health of each species — and by extension, the environment they inhabit.

“There are always changes in the environment,” says Drake. “Some are natural, but humans have a big impact and land-use practices determine the types of vegetation and other habitat that’s out there.

“If we combine the data we’re going to collect on where birds are and how many there are with information on land use and how it’s changed, we can start to make links with what landscape features are changing and which species are being affected,” he says.

“We can use that information to try to avoid having impacts on species at risk, or to avoid damaging sensitive places.”

The breeding season for birds in southern Saskatchewan runs from late May through to July, while in the north, the season starts two weeks later. Collecting data over five years means that anomalies — which might come from unusual weather or some other statistical glitch — can be smoothed out to boost the count’s accuracy.

“Birds nest pretty well everywhere in Saskatchewan,” says Drake. “As we move from south to north, we go from a predominantly grassland ecosystem to parkland and eventually boreal forest. Then when you get into the far north there’s taiga.

“Plant communities change as we move through those ecosystems and the birds that live in those places change as well,” he says. “Some have large ranges, like our provincial bird, the sharp-tailed grouse, which can be found not in all habitats, but from the 49th up to the 60th parallel. Then there are birds like the burrowing owl or sage grouse that have a very restricted distribution.”

ATLAS SQUARES

“Saskatchewan is a big place, and for the project we break it down into ‘atlas squares’, which are 10 by 10 kilometre squares,” says Drake. “We have around 6,900 squares in Saskatchewan. We’re not going to be able to cover them all because we don’t have enough people, so we have to set down a sampling grid so we get some coverage that’s representative of the province.”

The 6,900 squares are grouped into 15 regions. Each region has a coordinator whose job it is to recruit volunteers and organize workshops to ensure they have the skills to participate in the survey.

“Some of our regional coordinators have already held beginner birding workshops,” says Drake. “The idea is to figure out who our volunteers are, then cater the training to them.

“If we have people who are familiar with birds and don’t need a lot of identification training, then we’ll focus on the way we want the data collected and supported. Hopefully, though, there will be lots of new people who don’t know a lot about birds because the way the sampling is set up you don’t have to be a crack birder to do this.”

The goal heading into the project, says Drake, is to cover 1,300-1,500 atlas squares in the next five years.

“It would be nice to get more. But we’re looking at what we need for the modeling to work out, and get even coverage across different eco-regions.”

Drake says two types of sampling are involved in the atlas project. “One is general atlasing, which is essentially going for a walk, or doing some exploring, with a bit of a purpose. Bring your binoculars, maybe your field guide if you don’t have a good handle on your birds, and identify as many species as you can.

“The other is a point count,” he says. “That requires expert skills as you’re probably going to identify [most] birds by ear.

You can find out more about the Saskatchewan Bird Atlas by visiting sk.birdatlas.ca. People interested in volunteering can register there, too.

“The idea is to have annual workshops that will bring people along,” says Drake. “I know in Manitoba, which just finished an atlas a couple of years ago, many volunteers at the start couldn’t do a point count. Then by year four or five, they were out doing point counts. We’d like to see that happen here too.”