Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Summer days at Cherry Lake

White beardtongue on the prairie

This posting is an attempt to catch up and show some of what I've been doing and seeing out at our place at Cherry Lake in the Upper Indian Head Creek Valley. (This will be my last posting for a week or two. I am taking my daughter, Maia, on a tour of the prairie places I love best and some places I have never seen.)

These intrepid and happy (though moist) folks were with me on the 29th of May doing the first annual Cherry Lake Birdathon. We stayed mostly in the Indian Head Creek drainage, within 15 kms of Cherry Lake and managed on a very wet day to record 116 species, including two Mourning Warblers, a Connecticut Warbler, and a Sandhill Crane (one or two seem to hang around the Strawberry Lakes each summer). All told, we raised $2115 dollars for Bird Studies Canada, the lion's share going to the Last Mountain Bird Observatory banding station. Thanks to all who came out for the day and to those who donated to the cause.

The following Sunday we held "Bright Wings," a bird festival. 55 people came out for the day, taking workshops and tours to learn about the birds we share this watershed with. In this photo, the workshop and tour leaders are meeting for a short confab before getting started.

A photographer friend, Rocky Marchigiano led bird photography workshops with Ryan Peterson. Here are some photos he took during the festival, which he graciously allowed me to post.

A Black-crowned Night Heron. . .

And a Wilson's Phalarope. . .

And, another characteristic bird of the valley, American White Pelican.

There are always bright wings at Cherry Lake and not all of them are avian. Like most prairie farms, our place has a lilac hedge and when it blooms, as it was two weeks ago, the butterflies arrive. A pair of Monarch butterflies spent two days working the hedge blossoms.

Several Red Admirals joined in. . . .

As well as this Northwestern Frittilary. . . .

. . .and this ragged and torn Mourning Cloak.

A bumble bee (left) and a Yellow Warbler were in the hedge at the same time.

That evening, we went for a walk up on the grassland to look at the profusion of blooms on the prairie after the months of rain. Here are some of the flowers.

Great Plains Indian Paintbrush. . . .

Yellow Umbrellaplant. . . .

Indian Breadroot. . . .

Ground Plum (these are the seed pods). . . .

And the beautiful Plains Rough Fescue.

This guy was running through a patch of speargrass on a hilltop: the Smooth Green Snake, a species that reaches its limits in this part of Saskatchewan and is not that common, though we find it regularly each summer at Cherry Lake.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Breeding Bird Survey where there once was grass

Breeding Bird Survey point on cropland near Francis, Saskatchewan

On the weekend Karen and I did the Tyvan Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and later this week, if the weather holds, my son Jon and I will head to Crooked Lake to do another one.

On Saturday morning there was no wind or rain to interfere with the chorus of birds along the 25 mile route across cropland in the Upper Wascana Creek drainage. The BBS, said to be the most important citizen science effort on the continent, has been going since 1966. The effort depends almost entirely on the ear-birding skills of amateurs, who are dispatched to pre-determined routes in breeding season to record the presence of birds by stopping to listen for three minutes at 50 stops a half-mile apart.

With all the rain this year there were wetlands everywhere on the first part of the Tyvan route. Ducks and other wetland birds were in good numbers and I was especially happy to hear so many American Bitterns, a bird that the BBS shows is declining over much of its range. I haven't tallied the results yet but I think I heard somewhere between 8 and 11 bitterns in the first 14 stops. Trouble is, the bittern's slough-pump, "ha-runk-a-dunk" call can be heard at least a mile away if things are quiet. So I was never quite sure if I was hearing the same individual at two consecutive survey stops.

American Bittern image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Tyvan--Francis area ranges from gently rolling moraine to level glacial lake bed. I would estimate that more than 90% of the land is cultivated and so there is not a lot of grassland on the route but plenty of erstwhile grassland now growing grain, canola, lentils, and peas. The most common grassland birds are horned larks. . .

image courtesy of Val Thomas

Savannah Sparrows. . .

Vesper Sparrows. . .

Bobolinks. . .

Western Meadowlarks. . .

and Upland Sandpipers.

Some of the upland sandpipers seemed to be singing and flying over cultivated fields and horned larks were in cropland with short vegetation. Savannah and Vesper Sparrows were at almost every stop as long as there were open landscapes of some kind. The meadowlarks were in places where there is either hay land, native pasture (only three or four of the fifty stops), or cropland with grassy margins. I found bobolinks only at two or three stops where the grass was high enough, usually near a wetland.

At the end of the route, for the last ten stops or so, I am in a landscape that looks like a wasteland--nothing but crop running off to all horizons and almost no grass at the edges. Here is a typical view of these level, empty fields.

The emptiness is all the more pronounced by the paucity of birds. At each of these last stops, I typically count nothing but a couple of Savannah Sparrows and Horned Larks, with perhaps a passing gull or Brown-headed Cowbird.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Keep an eye out for Burrowing Owls

In your travels on the Saskatchewan prairie this summer you may come across a burrowing owl. If you do and the landowner has not already reported it to Operation Burrowing Owl (OBO), please be sure to call in to the HOOT line (1-800-667-HOOT (4668))and let them know where you saw it.

Here are two images that show the difference between a Burrowing Owl and the more common Short-eared Owl that will also be seen perching on fence posts or on the ground.

Here is a burrowing owl (note long legs, barring on breast)

(image courtesy of Alan MacKeigan)

and here is a Short-eared Owl (note distinctive face pattern and streaking rather than barring on breast; legs short)

If you are a landowner or know a landowner with owls who is not currently participating in OBO programs, please at least have a look at the Nature Sask web page on OBO to see what the program entails.

People can be reluctant to report endangered species on their property for fear that the government will somehow take control over how they use the land, but any farmer or rancher registered in OBO will assure you that nothing like that happens.

We are down to a few hundred pairs of these wonderful creatures in Saskatchewan and despite some recent signes of hope they are believed to still be in long term decline.

I was in Kamloops, British Columbia last weekend where I spoke to conservationists about grassland and grassland birds at the 10th anniversary of the Grasslands Conservation Council of B.C. British Columbia gave up its last wild burrowing owls a few years back, but they have instituted a re-introduction program that is now getting some good results. My host Bob Moody, Executive Director of the Grassland Conservation Council took me out to see a local pasture where conservationists have built artificial burrows and placed captive-bred owls. Some of these birds have migrated back to their nesting grounds on their own so there is a lot of hope that the program will over time develop some viable colonies of burrowing owls.

I met some of the folks involved in this work. They belong to the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of B.C., another amazing British Columbia group full of energetic people making somer real progress on behalf of grassland ecosystems. Take a look at their website, for my money one of the best I have seen by an ENGO in a while.

I am going to close this posting with a series of images from their web site:

owls just outside the burrow

a field crew making burrows

young captive-bred owls ready for release

installing a new artificial burrow

captive-bred owl just outside one of the artificial burrows

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Grasslands in B.C.

image by Chris Hamilton, from the GCCBC web site

Grassland advocacy can be a lonely, discouraging path to follow. With grassland ecology and species in rapid retreat and threats from human activity multiplying (we can now add wind farms to the mix--if the proposed "Wild Rose" wind farms in southeastern Alta go ahead, the last Greater Sage-grouse of that province will vanish), you find yourself always scanning the horizon for any signs of hope, anyone doing something that might help. One group that came up on my horizon this winter was the Grassland Conservation Council of British Columbia (GCCBC).

Grassland in B.C.? I know, British Columbia is mountains, forests, and seashore. But they have grassland too. As the council points out on their website, “BC’s grasslands represent less than one percent of the provincial land base and are one of Canada’s most endangered ecosystems.”

Most states and provinces have at least some grassland, and the interesting thing is that the ones with very little, places like B.C. and Ontario and some eastern states, seem to have the best conservation and (especially) restoration programs in place. They have looked at their endangered species lists and seen that a good many of the species at risk depend on grassland (from the GCCBC website again: “More than 30 percent of British Columbia’s threatened or endangered species depend on grasslands for their survival.”)

This Saturday I have the privilege of addressing the B.C. council at its tenth anniversary celebration. I was happy to be invited to come to this great event but I have my own agenda too: I hope to learn something about what it takes to get such an organization started, because this province desperately needs a group dedicated to conserving and restoring grassland ecosystems. During the recent struggle to stop the provincial government from selling off our crown wildlife lands, it became abundantly clear that we do not have such a voice for grassland in Saskatchewan.

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