Oak Lake Bird Walk (Photo by NCC)

Oak Lake Bird Walk (Photo by NCC)

Birds and beetles and plants, oh my!

Western Manitoba Bioblitz a Success

Scarab beetle larva (Photo by NCC)

Scarab beetle larva (Photo by NCC)

On July 15, 2017, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and the Manitoba Important Bird Areas (IBA) program teamed up to conduct a bioblitz in western Manitoba. The area surveyed encompasses part of both the Oak Lake Sandhills and Wetlands Natural Area and the Oak Lake/Plum Lakes Important Bird Area.

A group of 10 birders split into teams to conduct a comprehensive survey of the wetlands, forests and grasslands around Oak Lake, resulting in a count of more than 10,000 birds representing 122 species. Read more about the bird survey on the Manitoba IBA blog here.

Meanwhile, eight volunteers joined NCC for the sandhills portion of the bioblitz, which took place on an NCC property and adjacent lands in the Routledge Sandhills. Located just south of the Trans-Canada Highway near the town of Oak Lake, these inactive (vegetated) sand dunes support a mosaic of prairie ridges, patches of open sand and aspen-oak woodlands. Two of the volunteers, Terry Galloway and Bob Wrigley, were entomology experts and long-time NCC supporters.

Unfortunately, no prairie skink or plains hog-nosed snakes were spotted (or any reptiles for that matter), but the insects were much more forthcoming. Of particular interest were a number of species associated with early-successional and open sand habitats — areas where natural disturbance maintains sparse vegetation and open sand habitat that many plants and animals rely on.

Between them, Wrigley and Galloway spotted three species of tiger beetles: big sand tiger beetle, blowout tiger beetle and punctured tiger beetle. Known for their distinct, colourful patterns and fast speed, tiger beetles are a treat to watch as they appear to almost float across the ground. The first two species are generally associated with very sandy, loose soil, which the beetles burrow into. The third species is not restricted to sand, and occurs on dry, open ground, often along packed trails (like the cattle trails these were found on).

Galloway also spotted the aptly named sandhill or sand dune ant. This species is only observed in loose, very sandy soil, where the vegetation is generally somewhat sparse. This brightly coloured ant can be distinguished from other similar-looking red ants you may find in sandy areas by their aggressive behaviour. This species will swarm and attack when disturbed, while the other species will scatter and run off.

Another much larger red “ant” also made an appearance. Velvet ants are actually hairy wasps, the females of which are wingless. The females pack a very nasty sting, earning them the perhaps slightly exaggerated name of "cow killers" (the sting really hurts, but it won’t kill a healthy cow). This wasp preys on ground-nesting bees, wasps and other insects, and is generally solitary, so you won’t find them in large numbers.

The prize for grossest critter of the day went to scarab beetle larvae that was plucked out of a cow patty by Wrigley, while the most colourful creature of the day was a leafy spurge hawk moth caterpillar.

A number of rare and uncommon plants that are typically only found in sandy or gravelly prairie were also spotted. Green milkweed, so named for its green flowers, isn’t very common — even in suitable habitat — and there are often only a few plants widely scattered throughout an area. Also spotted was Schweintz’s flatsedge, found in areas with some open sand. It can be locally abundant when found, but naturally patchy due to its association with these disturbance areas. Green milkweed is a rather spindly plant and can be easily overlooked among the other vegetation. Schweintz’s flatsedge, on the other hand, is easier to spot within the patches of open sand.

Spiny star cactus were abundant, along with sand bluestem with its somewhat turquoise leaves. Unfortunately it was too early in the season for its distinctive hairy flower heads.

Another species that is uncommon in the province but often locally abundant is dense spikemoss. This plant isn’t a true moss, but part of a group of more primitive vascular plants. This very low-growing species provides important ground cover in dry habitats. Dense spikemoss is short and often hidden by other vegetation and often not noticed, despite sometimes being quite abundant in an area.

And, of course we had our own list of 22 birds courtesy of volunteer Lee Fehler, who thankfully managed to keep an eye on the trees while the rest of the volunteers were pre-occupied crawling around in the sand! Volunteers were fortunate to hear eastern wood-pewees — listed nationally as special concern — singing throughout the morning and spotted two species that hadn’t been reported by the rest of the birding groups: ruby-throated hummingbird and yellow-throated vireo.

All in all, it was an excellent day of surveying with some fantastic volunteers, and resulted in a few new records for the area, with the possibility of more to come once all the specimens have been identified.

This event was funded in part by the Government of Canada’s Natural Areas Program (NACP), a unique public-private partnership led by the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

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