Trip down remote Owl River “For the Birds”

David Britton
Acting Superintendent
Wapusk National Park and Manitoba North National Historic Sites

Wapusk News - Volume 4, Number 2, Fall 2011

Common Nighthawk, Rusty Blackbird, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Yellow Rail Wapusk’s four listed “Species at Risk”: Common Nighthawk, Rusty Blackbird, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Yellow Rail (These birds are notoriously hard to spot and even harder to photograph)
© Christian Artuso, Christian Artuso, Christian Artuso, Ron Bazin

This year marked the first year of a collaboration between Parks Canada and the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas (MBBA). The MBBA is an ambitious five-year project to engage citizens in documenting the distribution and abundance of all breeding birds throughout the entire province of Manitoba. The project is supported by Bird Studies Canada and a variety of government, not-for-profit and private sector partners. Through this collaboration, Parks Canada gets important information about the breeding birds of Wapusk National Park (NP) and the MBBA gets support to access the logistically challenging park to collect data for the Atlas. This year the collaboration took the form of an exciting canoe/ atlassing trip down the remote Owl River in the south-central part of Wapusk NP from June 15th to 25th.

The trip began when Parks Canada staff took the train south to the Herchmer siding where they met up with volunteers from the MBBA who had arrived from Thompson. The starting group was made up of Heather Stewart and Jill Larkin from Parks Canada; Christian Artuso, coordinator of the MBBA, and volunteers David Raitt, Martin Scott and Judith King. Halfway through the trip a helicopter rendez-vous allowed for a resupply of food and Heather and Judith were replaced by volunteer Denis Funk and myself. Putting in where the Owl River crosses the railway line, the group began its 100 km river journey towards the Hudson Bay Coast, crossing into Wapusk NP about 15 km east of Herchmer. Close to the rail line, the habitat is a mix of northern boreal forest and regenerating burn areas, but as the river winds toward the coast, this gives way to a thin band of trees along the river that conceals an expanse of tundra made up of peat plateaus and sedge fens.

As the habitat changes, so do the birds encountered: forest species like Tennessee Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler and White-throated Sparrow on the upper parts of the river give way to tundra breeders like Smith’s Longspur, Horned Lark and an array of shorebirds including Whimbrel, Hudsonian Godwit, Stilt Sandpiper and American Golden Plover. Other interesting bird sightings included the southern strays, Cedar Waxwing and Northern Mockingbird, and several pairs of Golden Eagles, a species not yet documented to breed in Manitoba. There were also a number of noteworthy mammal sightings including caribou, moose, a family of river otters and a wolf feeding on a bull moose carcass on the shoreline.

Paddling on the Owl River: Jill Larkin and Heather Stewart Paddling on the Owl River: Jill Larkin and Heather Stewart
© David Raitt

Each day followed an established rhythm: get up at 3:00 am to grab a quick bite to eat and be ready to start “point count” surveys by 3:30 am. A point count is a standardized way to survey for breeding birds. True to its name, it involves standing at a point and counting all of the birds that you see and hear during a five minute period. While some knowledge of bird song is required, it is a very simple and effective technique to gather data on bird diversity and relative abundance.

Each team would complete 15 point counts with each point needing to be at least 300 meters from the last. On average, it would take 3 to 4 hours to complete the counts, and you would end up covering up to 8 kilometres on the ground. Following the point counts we would meet back at camp for (second) breakfast, then break camp and canoe 15 to 20 kilometres, navigating the frequent small rapids that dot the Owl River, to the next survey point, where we would make camp to be ready for surveys the next morning.

Eventually, the trip concluded with a two-day stay at Parks Canada’s fenced compound near the mouth of the Owl River. The bunks in the shed there seemed like quite a luxury after nights of sleeping in tents. After a couple of days surveying around this area and an enjoyable hike to the shores of Hudson Bay (even though the tide was out and we couldn’t actually see the water), the group flew out by helicopter, back to Churchill.

Birding at sunset Birding at sunset
© Parks Canada

One of the goals of the trip was to document Species at Risk in Wapusk NP. Park Management has identified four species listed under Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act in the park, all of them birds: Olive-sided Flycatcher, Common Nighthawk, Rusty Blackbird and Yellow Rail. All four species were recorded on the trip, three of them inside the park. Common Nighthawks were observed in burn areas in the south-western corner of the park. Rusty Blackbirds proved to be common and widespread and were observed daily both on the river corridor and inland.

Yellow Rails, a secretive sparrow-sized marsh bird were searched for in some promising-looking inland sedge fens, but we didn’t find any in these locations. Surveying for Yellow Rails is always fun – they call from wetlands, mainly at night, and their call sounds like two small stones being tapped together. As a result, the best way to detect them is to simulate their call by – you guessed it – tapping two small stones together! This technique proved to be successful in the coastal sedge fens located between the Owl River compound and Hudson Bay, where a several rails responded to our imitations of their calls. In addition we also recorded one each of Horned Grebe and Short-eared Owl, both considered as species of special concern.

This is the first year of the multi-year agreement between Parks Canada and the MBBA. Plans for future years are already being developed and may include surveys along the Broad River, in the Nester 1 – Cape Churchill area and in the little-known southern edges of Wapusk NP.

Species at Risk Act

What is Parks Canada’s role?

Under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), Parks Canada is responsible for the protection and recovery of listed species found in national parks, national marine conservation areas, national historic sites and other protected heritage areas administered by Parks Canada.

Through its protected heritage areas, Parks Canada currently manages close to 265,000 square kilometres of land that is home to approximately half of the species at risk currently listed in Canada!

The team reaches the Hudson Bay Coast (left to right: Jill Larkin, Christian Artuso, Martin Scott, Dave Raitt, David Britton, Denis Funk) The team reaches the Hudson Bay Coast (left to right: Jill Larkin, Christian Artuso, Martin Scott, Dave Raitt, David Britton, Denis Funk)
© Denis Funk