Grassland Bird Monitoring Project

Chestnut-collared longspur (Photo by May Haga)

Chestnut-collared longspur (Photo by May Haga)

Native grasslands are one of the most endangered and least protected ecosystems globally. Within Canada, it is estimated that less than 25 per cent of original native grassland remains. As well, the grassland that does remain is often under threat of degradation and fragmentation. With such high levels of habitat loss, it is not surprising that grassland birds are experiencing population declines. The State of Canada’s Birds Report shows that grassland bird populations have declined by 57 per cent over the past 50 years and that grassland birds are one of the groups of birds with the steepest declines. As a result of these precipitous population declines, many species of grassland birds are now of conservation concern. For example, of the 37 grassland bird species native to the Great Plains, 15 are federally listed as species at risk or are under consideration for listing by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. 

Sprague's pipit (Photo by NCC)

The main tool used to determine population trends for North American birds is the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), which uses roadside point-count surveys to determine abundance estimates. However, evidence suggests that grassland birds are not well detected by roadside surveys, since many grassland bird species avoid roads. Therefore, to account for this the Grassland Bird Monitoring Program (GBM) was set up in Canada's prairies. The GBM also uses point-count surveys but conducts them away from roads and within large tracts of grassland habitat. Data from the GBM is used to supplement BBS data to get a more accurate picture of grassland bird population trends.

NCC's Hole in the Wall property (Photo by Sarah Ludlow)

NCC's Hole in the Wall property (Photo by Sarah Ludlow/NCC staff)

In 2017, NCC-SK began its own grassland bird monitoring project with the goal of creating a long-term database of grassland bird abundance on three large grassland properties in southwest Saskatchewan. The properties included in the project are Old Man on His Back, Wideview and Hole in the Wall. All three of these properties are large tracts of predominantly native grassland and have documented occurrences of multiple grassland bird species, including species at risk. A series of point counts were distributed across each of these properties, and these surveys are completed each summer. Data from the project will be used to inform NCC’s management on these properties, to ensure it is done in a way that benefits grassland birds. In addition, data is shared with the scientists in charge of the GBM for inclusion in that dataset; in this way, NCC Saskatchewan Region's grassland bird monitoring project is contributing to broader grassland bird conservation efforts.

NCC's Wideview property (Photo by Sarah Ludlow)

NCC's Wideview property (Photo by Sarah Ludlow/NCC staff)

NCC's Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area (Photo by Sarah Ludlow)

NCC's Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area (Photo by Sarah Ludlow/NCC staff)

Staff are currently preparing for the 2021 season of the grassland bird monitoring project and plan to conduct the surveys in early to mid-June. It will be interesting to see what they find and as always, promises to be a great early-morning walk through some beautiful landscapes.

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