Southern Manitoba, CANADA - Venture off the Trans-Canada Highway, Canada's most travelled highway, west of Winnipeg and off a seemingly endless plain to encounter fields, woods, marshes, slender lakes, sinuous rivers and grassy hillsides filled with birds and other wildlife.
Even in early April, Southern Manitoba can still feel like it's shaking winter's grip. While birders are starting to plan their spring birding forays, winter offered a few interesting bird sightings. Ring-necked pheasants appear to have overwintered successfully in the southwest corner of the province in spite of heavy snow cover. The occasional report of both sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper's hawk is interesting considering these are both very rare overwintering species.
A gray morph gyrfalcon on the Brandon Christmas Bird Count was a highlight as always. Brandon is a city about two hours west of Winnipeg, Manitoba's capital. Northern hawk owls were virtually non-existent in western Manitoba but had a good showing in eastern Manitoba. A Northern saw-whet owl stopped in to say hi for here in Brandon for one day in February. This small but charming species is one of Manitoba's most "common" owls (outside of the winter season) but yet is seldom seen due to its small size and habits.
Red-bellied woodpeckers continue to have an increased presence in southern Manitoba with several seen this winter. A few privileged areas saw reasonable numbers of both pine and evening grosbeaks. Hoary redpolls outnumbered commons through most of the winter, a real "role reversal." However, the "rarest" bird this winter was a black-legged kittiwake seen and photographed along a highway on December 30th.
Spring birding in Manitoba promises a flood of migrants
As for spring birding - arrival dates and bird numbers are already behind schedule to some extent for many of the usually early migrants including Canada goose, American crow, red-tailed hawks and the like due to heavy and lingering snow cover on the ground combined with ongoing below normal temperatures, both in Manitoba and well to the south in the Great Plains region of the USA. However, once this weather pattern breaks followed with a quick snow melt, April promises to provide great birding as a flood of migrants from passerines to raptors and waterfowl pass through the region.
To plan your spring or fall birding trip in Manitoba, Canada, please visit www.birdingmanitoba.com for a list of operators offering Manitoba experiences.
MANITOBA BIRDING BACKGROUNDER
Situated within three major migration routes known as the Atlantic, Mississippi and Central flyways, Manitoba has the advantage of attracting birds both east and west. Birders might see gray jays (or whiskey jacks as they are known locally) from the boreal forest region, western meadowlarks from the prairies, great blue herons from the lakeshores, and various shorebirds from the north, depending on where they travel in the province.
The northern Manitoba port of Churchill on the Hudson Bay is often associated with whales and polar bears but also offers stellar birding opportunities. In spring migration, Cape Merry National Historic Site at the mouth of the Churchill River is a popular stop for sea ducks including eiders, scoters and long-tailed ducks, gulls, Arctic terns, jaegers, and loons. Further inland, birders can see Hudsonian godwit and American golden plovers.
About 40 kilometres north of downtown Winnipeg, Oak Hammock Marsh earns its reputation as one of the best bird-viewing sites in North America. Home to 260 varieties of birds, as well as assorted mammals and reptiles, the marsh features an excellent interpretive centre with an impressive array of family-oriented activities. Great blue herons, American white pelicans, bobolinks and short-eared owls have been observed in the area.
Right in Winnipeg, FortWhyte Alive has recorded 27 species of waterfowl, and thousands of migrating ducks and geese in the spring and fall. Evening goose landings at both Oak Hammock and FortWhyte in October are amazing as skein after skein of geese descend on the lakes. Self-guided trails lead through replicas of seven Manitoba wetland habitats, where floating boardwalks provide excellent sight lines.
To the east, birding havens like the Wild Wings Trail in Grand Beach Provincial Park draw ospreys, western grebes, red-winged blackbirds and majestic bald eagles. West of the Manitoba capital is Delta Marsh, home of the University of Manitoba's Field Research Station and 130 species of birds. During the migration season, in May and September, as many as 300 different varieties of birds may visit the marsh.
Another birder's choice locale is Riding Mountain National Park, 95 kilometres north of Brandon in Manitoba's scenic parkland region. Here, more than 260 varieties of birds occur annually either in migration or as residents, including the spruce grouse, great gray owl and Connecticut warbler.