We trudge across a washed out country road at 8am, standing on top of at least 5 inches of mud that clings to the bottom of our shoes. Most of the birders here have been up since 4:30am to make the nearly 3 hour drive from Winnipeg to Whitewater Lake. I look at the flocks of birds on the water while Christian Artuso, with Bird Studies Canada and Nature Manitoba board member, softly counts birds under his breath.
“One sweep from right to left and I’ve got two thousand seven hundred and fifty Avocets,” he says.
This number seems unbelievable to me, but when he tells me to look through his scope and count even one small flock I can see just how many birds are actually out on the water.
The American Avocets are just one species, and this is only one small section of the Whitewater Lake area. We are also just one group of three out of 26 people there to take part in a birding blitz.
A birding blitz is when you recruit as many people as possible out to an area to make a concentrated and organized count of the birds in that place and time. It’s like a snapshot of the area that gives researchers valuable information for conservation efforts.
Normally a birding blitz happens at an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA), and this day is no exception. It’s the first time the Manitoba IBA program has organized a blitz at Whitewater Lake, but less than an hour into the count and the numbers here are already staggering.
By the end of the day the count is close to 80,000 birds, but it’s not just the quantity that is impressive here. One of the first birds we see is the impressive White-faced Ibis. In fact 135 separate species are recorded this day. Some of them are rare, some of them are present in globally important concentrations.
Out of the tens of thousands of birds counted, the birders here count just one Sprague's Pipit (a globally-threatened grassland bird and Species At Risk in Canada), 8 Buff-breasted Sandpipers (also globally-threatened), and the only known breeding pair of Black-necked Stilt in Manitoba.
Whitewater Lake is one of the most unique and most biodiverse wetlands left in Manitoba, which explains why so many birds find the food and breeding sites that match their specific requirements here. But like so many other natural spaces, Whitewater itself is at-risk.
The washed out road we trudged down is just one of many in the area. There are miles of roads, fields and even some old homes that have been washed away by the swelling lake.
“Years of wet weather plus uncontrolled farming drainage has led to extraordinary high water levels,” Artuso says.
Whitewater is in fact larger than it has been in six or seven years, which makes it difficult to understand how something so vast could be at risk, and how anything could lead to habitat or biodiversity loss in the area.
In Nature Manitoba’s article Altering the Last Wetlands? from June, 2016, we told you about a proposal to create outlets from Whitewater Lake to reduce lake levels and keep them at a stable level, as well as our concerns about that proposal [read it here].
Over the course of several years Whitewater Lake fluctuates from being completely dry to being the vast lake and marshland it is right now. It’s the fluctuation between wet and dry cycles of the lake that creates the rich biodiversity and specific breeding sites birds need to thrive and in some cases, survive.
“Marshes thrive on fluctuating water levels. Forced stability equals death,” Artuso says. “As soon as you start stabilising water levels it can result in an environmental disaster.”
Some of the area around Whitewater Lake has been designated a wildlife management area, but Artuso says most of the ephemeral wetlands that surround the lake are not protected. Much of the area surrounding Whitewater Lake is private farmland. Although most of this was pasture or hayland in the past, there is an increase in crop farming here.
Artuso says the outlets are a solution that only benefit some in the short-term, but a big-picture approach would be more beneficial in the long term.
“We need a strategy to deal with water,” he says. “You can’t just push it around the land. What you do on your land affects your neighbour, and what you do in one place affects people downstream.”
This day the flooding of Whitewater Lake has also made it more difficult for birders and conservationists to monitor bird populations. Walking for miles down roads covered in waist-high grasses and filled with muskrat holes is tedious and even a bit treacherous. But it’s the dedication of volunteers like the ones at this birding blitz that help us recognize the value of protecting this unique ecosystem.
by: Lynsay Perkins