People passionate about nature

A Day in the Life of a Bird Surveyor

By Nate Entz - 2020 Grassland Bird Survey Technician with the IBA program

Above: Nate Entz worked with the IBA program in 2020 (Photo courtesy of Nate Entz)

This summer I had the privilege to not only work during a pandemic, but also to put my passion of birdwatching to work in one of Canada’s most unique and ecologically important regions. As a Grassland Bird Survey Technician my role was to complete point count surveys across Southwestern Manitoba’s Mixed-grass Prairie Ecosystem. This involved documenting the quantity and diversity of bird species, specifically those that depend on the grasslands during breeding season.

I worked with Amanda Shave, the Manitoba Important Bird Areas Program Coordinator, who helped get me into the rhythm of field work involving landowners. Preparing for the field season had me mapping out routes on Google Earth to efficiently survey each section of land. The landowners were contacted (at least 24 hours before survey time) and we were set to survey their section(s) in the bright and early morning.

Above: Starting a bird survey at sunrise (Photo: Amanda Shave)

A typical day put us on the road before 5:00 am to get to our first section for point counts by sunrise. Each point count was five minutes long, where we recorded every species seen or heard. The number of points we completed depended on the area being surveyed. A minimum of four points were required for a quarter section (160 acres) and a minimum of 12 points for a full section (640 acres).

We made notes if the bird was observed in its breeding plumage, ideal breeding territory, or making territorial displays. GPS points were taken at each point count and wherever we observed a listed grassland species that wasn’t a part of a previous point count.

Above: Willit in a muddy field in a Manitoba IBA (Photo: Amanda Shave)

Sifting through all the morning bird songs during a point count was overwhelming the first few days. After some practice separating each song, I was able to cut through the chorus of Western Meadowlarks to listen for the quieter songs such as the Horned Lark and Wilson’s Phalarope. What amazed me the most was the vocal gymnastics of a single species. I have been birdwatching for about four years now and I was shocked to hear how many sounds a little Meadowlark could make. Shocked, and well, a tad annoyed sometimes!

I was fortunate enough to come across a family of my favourite birds, the Loggerhead Shrike, a memory I will hopefully never forget. The little fledglings were just starting to grow into their big bird feathers but still looked like little balls of fluff. I almost forgot that they are one of the more vicious songbirds in North America!

That day I also came across a family of Ferruginous Hawks and 2 young coyotes - hopefully looking for a non-endangered species snack, all on one property! Another highlight was hearing a Burrowing Owl in the distance. It took a lot of willpower not to spend the rest of the day looking for it!

Above: Nate (in orange) and team enjoying a socially-distanced break from a Shoal Lake blitz in August, 2020 (Photo: Randy Mooi)

This field season gave me an opportunity to observe the efforts that many Manitoba cattle producers put in place to help offset biodiversity loss on their land. I now see cattle on the land in a more positive light after observing how much biodiversity these native pasturelands can hold. Although some land was less than ideal for wildlife, hopefully we continue to see improvement in the coming years. This field season was truly a blast and I hope I will get the opportunity to be a part of the Manitoba IBA team in upcoming seasons.

The Manitoba IBA program will continue to work with program partners and landowners in southwestern Manitoba this summer to expand our knowledge of bird species in this threatened grassland habitat.