Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Great White Birds stay on the Prairie this summer

Whooping crane image courtesy of James Villeneuve
Among the most positive bird news this summer was the record nesting success for the whooping cranes at Wood Buffalo National Park. The community brought forth 63 new birds, beating the previous record of 49 set in 2006.

Biologists counted 98 nests this spring and there were four pairs of twins. The wild population at the park is now over 400 birds. While they winter on the Texas Gulf coast at Aransas where Hurricane Harvey struck recently, the cranes are just beginning their southward migration and will not arrive until much later. News from Aransas indicates that the habitat should recover from the surge of salt water.

With that many cranes now breeding at Wood Buffalo, we may begin to see more young cranes stop short and spend the summer at prairie wetlands--within their historic range. (See this story.)

This summer, a pair of young adult Whooping Cranes got to know one another at a wetland near the town of Minton, an hour and a half south of Regina on Highway 6. Photographer James Villeneuve spent several days with them, photographing them from a safe distance. Here is what he had to say when I asked him to describe the experience:

"I was fortunate enough to spend a few hours a day with them for a little more than a week. It was especially great to see that one of the birds was a second year bird (there is still some brown on the coverts). At sunset each night they would perform a dance together, it was special to watch. One night they chased a coyote that was approaching the edge of the water, I believe it was after one of the shorebirds sharing the water. After a series of cold fronts pushed through on consecutive days they left in high winds for what I believe to be the last time on July 30th."
Take a close look at the bird on the left in this photo by James and you will see those brown feathers he mentions on the wings near the black feathers.

This whooping crane pair summered on the prairie near Minton, Sask.
Image courtesy of James Villeneuve


Monday, August 21, 2017

Warblers passing through

Wood warbler migration is underway on the northern Plains, flushing birds from the forests to the north down to our urban forest here in Regina. August 20st was a good day for wood warblers in the back yard. They were ignoring me so I went in again and got my camera. I sat in a lawn chair and took these images with a Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XSi, with a 400 mm f/5.6  lens. In an hour and a half I had photos of six species. Here they are strung together in a short video (to get a larger view of the video be sure to click the Youtube button on the bottom right corner):


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Summers are for hummers



A few weeks ago, Jared Clarke, naturalist, bird bander, teacher, and host of CJTR Radio's "The Prairie Naturalist" asked me a question: "How many hummingbirds are you seeing at your feeders?"

"Six or seven," I said.

"So you've got 21."

I thought he hadn't heard me so I said it again--six or seven.

Then he explained. When it looks like you have three hummingbirds you likely have ten or more coming to  your feeders. Trouble is, you can't be sure until you start banding them.

Over the past month, Jared has been banding ruby-throated hummingbirds at acreages, farms, and cottages in the Qu'Appelle Lakes and surrounding area. He has come to our weekend farm south of Indian Head three times now and I finally had a chance to join him one morning earlier this week. So far he has banded 23 of them at our place and more than a hundred in general this summer. Here are some photos from the morning we spent together fishing for hummingbirds together.

Here is the rig he uses.



A simple and entirely safe trap that he suspends above a feeder, dropping the rolled up cylinder of soft mesh with a kite string from twenty feet away when a hummer comes into to drink.

Here we are holding the string and waiting (click on any image for a larger view).



In a minute we had our first bird. I can't recall if this was an adult female or a juvenile born this summer.


Jared has designed the project so that he will return to the same feeders over several years, which will help him learn about the hummingbirds' rate of survival and loyalty to breeding areas.

The bands are so small I would need a magnifier to read the numbers.

Here is an adult male. It is smaller than the females so Jared has to trim about a half millimetre off of the band or it might slip right off its foot.

And here is a young male born this year. You can see he has grown the first feather of his gorget, already glowing metallic red.

We talked the morning away as I retrieved birds from the trap and brought them to Jared for processing. If there is a more relaxing way to catch and band birds I haven't seen it.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

200 cattle die at Shamrock Pasture


PFRA pasture managers working with cattle at Wolverine Community Pasture
 (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj)
When a couple of cows die suddenly, the people who own them want to know why. When a couple hundred die, the animal cruelty officers want to know too.

Last week, as we heard in the media, 200 cows and calves died of dehydration and drinking toxic water in the former Shamrock PFRA Community Pasture. The shareholders of the new Shamrock Grazing Corporation are understandably shaken by the event--for the hundreds of thousands of dollars represented in the loss, but also for the suffering their animals went through.

Shareholder representatives (many of whom would be former PFRA patrons) have been quick to defend the contract staff who were responsible for checking on the livestock, and that perspective is to be admired. However, animal cruelty officers are on site interviewing people to see if they can determine if neglect may have led to the tragedy.

What I know about cattle and water management would not eclipse the period at the end of this sentence, but if the only available water evaporated enough to concentrate down to a toxic level of salts during the heat of the last week, then it might be fair to ask if an experienced manager with training and resources at his disposal would have provided the livestock in that field with a safer alternative source of water to avoid such a risk.

I asked a former manager of another PF pasture what he thought of the events at Shamrock. Not wanting to be seen as criticizing current managers, the former manager requested anonymity but said the following:

"This is exactly what I predicted would happen. The new lessees would not pay the pasture manager the salary he expected as they could find someone who would do the job for less. . . . This might be a lesson and a costly one for the producers, that maybe the former managers did have some value in the operation of the pastures. I had some dugouts that were potentially toxic and took measures to ensure that the cattle had other options for potable water. . . . .My experience is if it is bad in the spring it will only get worse, and if it is borderline for toxicity in the spring you had better have an alternative or back up plan, there will be more of this type of nightmares, I am guessing."

Some transitioned federal pastures were able to convince their PFRA manager to make the move and work for the new grazing corporation--often by allowing them to graze their own livestock on the pasture. Shamrock, however, seems to have gone elsewhere to secure a manager. They put the position out for contract tender. Here is the SaskJobs posting they ran just last January. The list of "credentials (certificates, licences, memberships, courses, etc.)" has but one entry: "driver's licence;" however, the job description does mention water management.

None of which incriminates the grazing corporation in the least. If there is anyone to be blamed here, it is the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, for rushing the pastures through a privatization process without providing the kind of support and oversight that would ensure that under new governance the land and cattle will be managed at the same standard the PFRA always provided. 

Instead of leaving the grazing patrons with the financial headroom and the incentives they needed to hire quality managers, the Province is taking as much revenue as they can from the transitioned pastures. It is only from the shareholders own ingenuity and effort that many of the transitioned pastures have been able to find good managers.

However, it is worth recalling that the federal PF managers were recruited, trained, and promoted in a system that not only reduced the incidence of such mishaps; the system included built-in public accountability through a chain of command ending at a minister's office when mistakes did occur or when private or public interests in the use of the land were at stake.

And if the Province is now neglecting to provide that accountability and internal oversight of local management on the private grazing and livestock side of pasture use, what should we expect in the way of accountability and oversight for the management of public interest, such as carbon sequestration, species at risk conservation, and access for Indigenous people's customary use? 

In the new pasture dispensation, instead of the buck stops here, we have the bucks going into the provincial treasury and no one accountable for the proper management of these rare and important public lands. 

healthy wetlands water livestock but provide important habitat on
 public grasslands including community pastures

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Grassland loss in Saskatchewan by the numbers

freshly broken prairie in Southwest Sask. where I often hear that no-one
breaks native grassland anymore

“Grassland being broken in substantial acreages is just not an issue.” 
Hon. Lyle Stewart, Minister of Saskatchewan Agriculture, Western Producer, September 26, 2013.

According to Stats Canada (Table 004-0203 - Census of Agriculture, land use, every 5 years), Saskatchewan lost 2,068,246 acres of “natural land for pasture” in the province between 1991 and 2016.

This means that more than 2 million acres of native grassland, aspen parkland and other forms of natural pasture land in the province were plowed under in the last 25 years.

How much is 2 million acres? It is nearly ten times the size of Grasslands National Park, one of our last remaining protected grassland areas of any size in the province.
native grassland next to broken land--image taken in late May this year

That 2 million acres amounts to one-sixth of the prairie area in Canada being destroyed in a single generation.

At that rate Saskatchewan is losing 80,000 acres on average every year, or more than 200 acres a day, or 9 acres every hour.

That is a 15.5% decrease over 25 years. How does that compare to rainforest loss? Well, Brazil lost 9.5% of its rainforest over the same period(To be perfectly clear--in absolute acres lost per year the rainforest loss is much higher than our loss of native prairie, but the yearly percentage loss of prairie in SK is greater than the yearly percentage loss of rainforest in Brazil.)


Long-Billed Curlew, one of many species in rapid decline because of
grassland loss

Oh--almost forgot. It is Native Prairie Appreciation Week next week, so get out there and appreciate what we have left of our native prairie.



Thursday, May 25, 2017

Grassland voices

the Western Meadowlark, one of the many songbirds that thrive on community
pastures--(image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

On Saturday afternoon I am joining Ed Rodger, volunteer caretaker for the Govenlock-Nashlyn-Battle Creek Grasslands Important Bird Area in Saskatchewan's southwest corner, to sample breeding bird populations for the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas project.

We will head out each morning in time for the dawn chorus of bird song and record every bird we hear or see. (Information on the Breeding Bird Atlas here.)

The IBA is composed of three of the most ecologically significant community pastures in the federal community pasture program, which are all in their final year of operation as pastures managed by Agriculture and Agri-food Canada. Nashyln and Battle Creek are scheduled to be transitioned to private management by the grazing patrons but it remains to be seen what will happen to Govenlock, which, for now, remains federal land. Grassland conservation groups are waiting for the federal government to work out an agreement with the private cattle producers dependent on Govenlock--one that would ensure their grazing rights on acceptable terms while providing support and programming for biodiversity and species at risk conservation.

The vast stretch of native grassland enclosed by these three contiguous pastures (nearly 850 sq kms of land (330 sq. mi.)) hosts some of the greatest densities of species at risk on the northern Great Plains. At this time of year, the air above these lands is filled with the song of thousands of birds--grassland longspurs and sparrows, lark buntings, meadowlarks and pipits. Here are a few of them in living colour and full voice, courtesy of the video work of Wildbird Video Productions and others on Youtube.

First, the Chestnut-collared Longspur:




It's cousin of the short-grass, the McCown's Longpur, (Wild Bird Video):



The Baird's sparrow (courtesy of Birdchick):



Brewer's sparrow (Wild Bird Video), voice of the sage-brush country:


Its much rarer neighbour the Sage Thrasher (Wild Bird Video):


the Lark Bunting, with one of the most distinctive voices on the prairie (courtesy of VHS Ark):


everyone's prairie favourite, the Western Meadowlark (Wild Bird Video):


and finally, the song that falls from the skies, the Sprague's Pipit, which as this video illustrates, is one of the hardest birds to get a good look at (courtesy of Charlotte Wasylik):



Thursday, May 18, 2017

Grassland protection and loss--by the numbers


[Thanks to Katherine Arbuthnott of Public Pastures--Public Interest for gathering the data and research for many of the figures shown below.]

  • We estimate that we have somewhere around 20% of our native prairie remaining but it is a very rough estimate based on old and inadequate data. (See this document by the Prairie Conservation Action Plan.) According to the most recent estimates which are all based on research from the 1994 Southern Digital Land Cover (SDLC) Digital Data--Saskatchewan has lost more than 80% of its native grasslands to cultivation and urban development. We should have a more up to date and accurate figure, but the province has never done a proper inventory of its native land cover south of the boreal forest.
  • Per cent of grassland remaining by eco-region: 13% in aspen parkland, 16% in moist mixed grassland, and 31% in mixed grassland(From Hammermeister, A., Gauthier, D., & McGovern, K. (2001). Saskatchewan’s native prairie: Taking stock of a vanishing ecosystem and dwindling resource. Native Plant Society of SK report. And Statistics Canada census of agriculture, 2006; access here.)
  • Between 1971 and 1986, approximately 25% of grasslands were lost to agriculture, industry, and urban development.
    ( From Coupland, R.T. (1987). Endangered prairie habitats: the mixed prairie. In Proceedings of the Workshop on Endangered Species in the Prairie Provinces, Edmonton, AB, 24-26 January, 1986. )
  • Between 1987 and 2001, an additional 10% was lost across all eco-regions: 15% in aspen parkland, 8% in mixed grasslands, and 5% in Cyprus uplands. This means that approximately 1% of the small areas of native grasslands remaining are lost each year. (From Watmough, M.D., & Schmoll, M.J. (2007). Environment Canada’s prairie and northern region habitat monitoring program, Phase II. Technical report series No. 493. Environment Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, Edmonton, AB.)























  • 85% of the land south of our forest is privately owned.
    ("Game Management Plan: 2017-2027", Government of Saskatchewan).
  • Saskatchewan has 24% of all private land in Canada, but merely 6.5% of the nation's total area ("Land Use in Saskatchewan," P.C.. Rump and Kent Harper, Govt of Sask, 1980). In Saskatchewan most habitat loss is driven by industrialized agriculture on privately owned land.
  • Some areas of Saskatchewan have among the highest rates of grassland habitat loss in the entire Great Plains.
    (World Wildlife Fund Plowprint Report, 2016.). 
  • The transfer of the former federal community pastures has effectively removed all conservation programming and protection from 1.78 M acres of land, which are all listed under Saskatchewan's Representative Areas Network as officially protected. . . at least for now.
  • The Province of Saskatchewan has removed another 1.8 M acres of public land in the grassland eco-zone from the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act to make it available for sale--effectively removing its legislative protection.
  • In its March Budget the Province announced that it is shutting down the Provincial Community Pasture program (another 780,000 acres, 590,000 acres of which have also been listed under Saskatchewan's Representative Areas Network as officially protected).

  • It remains to be seen whether some of these grasslands will be subdivided and sold, but if they are no longer receiving any form of government management or programming and will be treated more or less like any other privately leased Crown grasslands, their status as protected areas will eventually be lost.
  • This brings the tally of acres losing conservation programming and protection in Saskatchewan to more than 2.3 Million. That puts at risk more than one-third of the 6 Million acres in Saskatchewan's prairie ecozone officially protected under our (much neglected) Representative Areas Network.

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