What’s new with Saskatchewan’s big bird survey? Glad you asked

Science | by Gregory Beatty

photo by May Haga

When I interviewed Kiel Drake, Bird Studies Canada’s Senior Waterbird Scientist (Prairie and Northern Region) for an article on the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas last February, the expectation was that volunteers would fan out across the province for year one of the five-year study in late May.

As it turned out, one bird species had other plans.

“We know with some birds, their distribution changes year-to-year depending on resources,” Drake says in a phone interview. “But we weren’t anticipating we would have to keep an eye on white-winged crossbills.

“There was a good spruce crop in 2016, and they specialize in eating seeds from the cones, and we started hearing from our regional coordinators, saying, ‘Hey, this is going on. Should we be writing it down?’ And the answer was ‘Yes’.”

While the white-winged crossbill event was noticed due to relatively rare circumstances — poor northern spruce crop, good crops elsewhere — winter breeding is not unknown in birds, says Drake’s atlas coordinator colleague LeeAnn Latremouille.

“Some species are able to breed pretty much year round, provided they have enough resources. So you can see little ones in February, which is kind of incredible when it’s a small songbird.”

Avian Census

Saskatchewan’s Breeding Bird Atlas project officially kicked off on May 13. The count runs for five years, and volunteers will visit as many 10 km x 10 km “atlas squares” as they can during the late May to early July breeding season to search for evidence of breeding birds.

Eggs or hatchlings are the ultimate proof of breeding, obviously, but behaviours such as singing, gathering nest materials and food delivery are also noted. Then the data gets crunched to create an atlas of breeding bird species that helps inform our ecological and environmental policies.

By the time the 2017 count was done, 235 registered atlassers had found evidence for 252 breeding species in 623 atlas squares.

One surprise, says Latremouille, was a black-throated blue warbler sighting.

“It’s an eastern warbler. There have been scattered occurrences in Saskatchewan historically, but it was definitely a bird that found itself out of range. But it set up shop and was singing.”

While singing is evidence of breeding behaviour, the bird may not have had a mate, Drake cautions. “It may just have been a lone male singing its heart out for the summer.”

Another bird that caught Latremouille’s eye was the black-necked stilt. “It seems to be doing a bit of range expansion as they’ve been moving north from the U.S.,” she says. “So we’ve been seeing them in Saskatchewan, and more recently finding them on nests.”

That’s a trend that’s been noticed with all sorts of plant and animal species in the last few decades, and climate change is an obvious driver. While that’s proving beneficial for the southern species, many native Saskatchewan species are struggling to adapt to changing habitat conditions and increased competition from invasive species.

In 2017, Saskatchewan atlassers collected data on 26 bird species listed under the Species At Risk Act including greater sage-grouse, sage thrasher, piping plover, burrowing owl, barn swallow, bobolink and Baird’s sparrow.

“One of the cool things about atlas projects is because of the geographic coverage you get with people visiting various squares with different habitat types, it helps reveal some of the rarer bird species,” says Drake.

“In B.C. there was a warbler species that was listed as special concern, and after the atlas was done it was delisted because it was found to be more common than previously believed. So it could be a good news or bad news story, but that’s the idea, to figure out what the story is. And that helps us see if we’re making progress in the right or wrong way.”

Volunteers Needed

While Saskatchewan’s project got off to an impressive start, with 623 atlas squares visited, our province is pretty vast — 6,900 squares vast, to be exact. So there’s still lots of ground to cover in the next four years.

Drake and Latremouille would love to double the number of atlas volunteers this year from 235 to around 500. To better cover remote northern squares, they’re reaching out to various First Nations and mining, forestry and outfitting companies that live and operate in those areas.

The aspen parkland and boreal forest transition zone is an especially important area to survey, says Drake.

“That’s the province’s most diverse biome but as you go north into the commercial forest, it’s still very rich. Then once you get into the far north diversity drops off. A lot of the tree species are stunted, there’s more rock.”

Last year, three multi-day floatplane excursions were done near Wollaston Lake to collect birding data. Crews from Weyerhaeuser and Tolko Industries also set out weatherproof recording devices in their forest management areas for seven to 10 day periods to record bird breeding activity.

“They were going into remote atlas squares — a few were even accessed by helicopter, which is really expensive,” says Drake. “So we got in-kind support from them that way.”

Bird Studies Canada will have research interns doing northern counts this summer. It also has travel bursaries available for fishing groups and whatnot who are headed north this spring and early summer.

“We have a little bit of money, so the grant would probably top out at $500 per group,” says Drake. “But it could cover some of the cost, as long as they’re willing to take a recorder with them and make a recording in an atlas square to get the data.”

Maps from the 2017 count are online, broken down by species and geographic region.

“The maps have been really motivating for folks,” says Latremouille. “They might look and say ‘Oh, I know this type of bird has to be here, and it’s not on the map yet. So I’m going to get out there this summer and look for it’.”

To find out more about Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas visit sk.birdatlas.ca.


Nighttime Love

Most bird species are active during the day and roost at night, so bird counts are usually done in the daytime. But not all birds are like that. Owls are birds, too, and to cover them there’s a parallel nocturnal survey that the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas crew recently took over. And they’re looking for volunteers for it, too. That will involve driving a specified route after dark and quietly listening for owls during the peak breeding season, which runs March through April.

“That’s when owls are vocalizing, that’s when they’re defending territory and getting mates,” says LeeAnn Latremouille. “So it’s a survey that rolls up neatly into the atlas as it falls outside of the typical spring and summer breeding season for most other species. Without it, nocturnal owls might be pretty easily missed.”

And who wants to miss owls? Nobody, that’s who. /Gregory Beatty