People passionate about nature

Nature Manitoba’s History of Birding

100 years of ornithology


Bird studies (observations, public presentations, and documentation) and bird-watching outings have both been major activities of Nature Manitoba and its members since NM was founded in 1920. Nature Manitoba (then called the Natural History Society) was originally formed when members from the Manitoba Historical Society and a Manitoba Audubon group decided to amalgamate. In fact, the newsletter we now know as Nature Manitoba News originated as a newsletter for NM’s “ornithological section” in 1962.

Above: Group of Birders, year unknown (from NM archives)

Since 1920 Nature Manitoba has hosted birding excursions each year, and Nature Manitoba has bird counts and detailed records dating back many decades. Some trips are simply for viewing birds and enjoying them in the natural world, but many birding trips are for learning or are part of larger citizen science projects and ornithological studies.

Above: A young birder at Oak Hammock Marsh, 1980s, by Ian Ward

This is a history of some of the great projects Nature Manitoba has been fortunate enough to be a part of over the last hundred years. Most of these project (as well as our bird-viewing trips!) rely on dedicated volunteers who contribute their time and knowledge to educate others and to help protect Manitoba birds and their habitats.

Nature Manitoba would like to thank all our former/current birding volunteers and program staff for continuing to help us play an active role in the Manitoba birding community. Thank you to the following people who contributed to this history:

Christian Artuso
Ward Christianson
Lewis Cocks
Rudolf Koes
Tim Poole
Peter Taylor
Marlene Waldron

Christmas Bird Count:

Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) were first conducted in 1900, as an alternative to so-called “side hunts”, where teams would go out and see how many birds they could shoot. Initiated by Frank Chapman, that first year about 25 counts were held, including two in Canada.

Above: Birding in the winter months, 1950s (from NM archives)

Manitoba’s first official count took place in Winnipeg in 1925. In the early years, Winnipeg counts were reported irregularly to the National Audubon Society, but results were usually written up in the Winnipeg Free Press, by A. G. Lawrence, the long-time author of Chickadee Notes. Other long-time compilers of the Winnipeg count have included Herb Copland, Wayne Neily and Rudolf Koes.

Since the 1960s, counts have been conducted annually in Winnipeg, with a brief hiatus in the 1970s. Many counts have been hosted with support from Nature Manitoba, and a summary of Manitoba counts has been posted in NM’s various publications annually. The typical number of participants was 10 to 20 in the early years, but has exceeded 100 several times in the 1980s and 1990s.

Above: A group of birders out for a count, 1980s (from NM archives)

Currently about 70 field observers participate in the Winnipeg CBC, with others at feeding stations. The teams of counters walk and drive a prescribed area and record all the numbers and species encountered, while keeping track of time spent in the field and mileages.

In 2018 there were 463 counts in Canada. These included Manitoba counts in Balmoral, Brandon, Cypress River-Spruce Woods, Delta Marsh/Portage Plains, Oak Hammock Marsh, Pinawa-Lac du Bonnet, Riding Mountain National Park, Selkirk and several more.

More information about Manitoba CBCs is available here.

Manitoba Avian Research Committee:

In 1976 George Holland, a former president of Nature Manitoba, arrived in Winnipeg and promoted the idea of setting up a Manitoba Rare Bird Alert. This was a network of birders who shared sightings of rare birds with each other through a phoning loop (this was well before the internet!). This endeavour proved to be very successful, and brought many of the province’s keenest birders into regular contact.

Above: Birders on an outing, 1983 (from NM archives)

Soon after the Rare Bird Alert was established, several members got together and formed the Manitoba Avian Research Committee (MARC). The aim was to collect and publish historical and current information on distribution and seasonal occurrence of all the bird species in Manitoba. Phil Horch, another former president, came up with the name, and MARC’s first project was the compilation of the Field Check-list of the Birds of South-Eastern Manitoba (1978).

The Field Check-list of the Birds of Southeastern Manitoba, although a modest-looking booklet, required careful evaluation of the abundance of well over 300 bird species in each season within the defined area from the Ontario border to southern Lake Manitoba and the upper Pembina Valley. As new species continued to be added, and this first checklist went out of print, a full revision was published in 1995 but is now also out of print.

More ambitious was the Field Checklist of the Birds of Manitoba (1986), in which bird occurrence and seasonal abundance were assessed for three broad regions of the province: Farmland/Parkland, Boreal Forest, and Coastal Tundra. This checklist was jointly published with the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, superseding the previous provincial checklist issued by the Museum in the early 1960s and revised in 1969 and 1974.

Above: the most up-to-date version of the checklist 

A still earlier Field-checking list of Manitoba Birds was compiled by Alexander G. Lawrence (well known for his Chickadee Notes newspaper column) and published by the Natural History Society of Manitoba (Nature Manitoba) and the Manitoba Museum Association. It is undated, but we believe it was issued some time in the 1950s.

Further updates of the MARC provincial checklist were published with slightly different names: Manitoba Bird Checklist in 2000 and Checklist of the Birds of Manitoba in 2009. The last of these is currently available on the Nature Manitoba website. 

Above: a birder snapping photos in the field, 1983 (from NM archives)

Drawing from the same information base as the checklists was a series of Birder’s Guide books. The guide books aimed to give Manitoba residents and out-of-province birders information about our birding hot spots, such as providing driving and walking directions, as well as giving an idea of specialty birds that might be seen at each site.

The core of these guides is an annotated checklist with bar charts that indicate week-to-week abundance of each species. Two editions of Birder’s Guide to Southeastern Manitoba were published, one in 1980 as well as a much-expanded version in 1988 (Nature Manitoba’s Eco Series No. 1).

Independent of MARC, Brandon Natural History Society published a similar Birder’s Guide to Southwestern Manitoba in 1990. The two organizations later collaborated on a joint update, combining and expanding the original southeastern and southwestern guides, and extending the area covered almost to Thompson. This book, Finding Birds in Southern Manitoba, was published in 2006 and is still available.

Above: Finding Birds In Southern Manitoba is available to puchase here

By far the largest MARC project was The Birds of Manitoba, a dream that originated in the late 1970s and finally came to fruition in 2003, when 2300 copies (all now sold) came off the presses at Friesens Printers’ famous plant in Altona.

Above: Cover of The Birds of Manitoba book

This project extended far beyond the core MARC membership. Several introductory chapters and many individual species accounts were contributed by individual experts. For many of the 25 years we worked on it, this ambitious publication seemed beyond our grasp, but we couldn’t let it go. In the late 1990s and early 2000s several MARC members retired or semi-retired, giving our core editorial group of 11 the time and energy to complete the project.

This meant wrestling the many component parts of the book into a coherent whole. Equally important for such a large project (over 500 large-format pages), was raising funds to offset the production and distribution costs, while still permitting an affordable retail price. Manitoba Hydro provided invaluable design and production assistance.

Above: detail of page 191 from The Birds of Manitoba

The Birds of Manitoba was awarded the Best Illustrated Book of the Year Award by The Manitoba Writing and Publishing Awards in 2004.

Though not produced by MARC, several other bird publications should be mentioned. In 1980 a reprint volume of Ernest Thompson Seton in Manitoba 1882-1892 was published by Premium Ventures in co-operation with Nature Manitoba.

This brings to a wider audience a series of scholarly articles, primarily on the birds of Manitoba, but also on mammals, fishes, reptiles, and amphibians, by one of the foremost 19th Century naturalists associated with the province. The book includes an introduction by C. Stuart Houston, himself a prolific bird author and one of the three co-editors of the mammoth Birds of Saskatchewan, published by Nature Saskatchewan in 2019.

Manitoba Ornithological Records Committee:

The Manitoba Ornithological Records Committee (MORC) was formed not long after the inception of MARC. Its mandate is to evaluate reports of rare birds, especially for potential new additions to the Manitoba list.

The Committee has been comprised of four to five experienced birders, whose task it is to evaluate the reports based on the evidence submitted. Species which have been accepted by the Committee form the official list for the province.

In its early days, most records required detailed written notes, but this is an “art” that has become rare since the advent of digital photography.

Since the completion of the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Manitoba the committee has been more-or-less dormant.

Wings Along the Winnipeg:

In 1983, Peter Taylor’s Wings along the Winnipeg: the birds of the Pinawa–Lac du Bonnet region, Manitoba was published as Nature Manitoba’s Eco Series No. 2, and was reprinted with minor changes in 1985.

This was essentially a solo effort, inspired by similar regional publications (not involving Nature Manitoba) on the birds of Churchill (Joseph R. Jehl, Jr. and Blanche A. Smith, 1970), the Gainsborough–Lyleton region on the Saskatchewan–Manitoba border (Richard W. Knapton, 1979), and Oak Hammock Marsh (Kenneth A. Gardner, 1981).

Above: cover of Wings Along the Winnipeg

Great Bird Search:

In 1993 Nature Manitoba Board member, Letty Last, suggested that a birding activity be created that could act as a fundraiser for Nature Manitoba. Letty also wanted to ensure it was an activity that would attract a variety of members who would not typically go birding on their own, but would participate in a group outing.

Above: group of birders, year unknown (from NM archives)

Ward Christianson and Marlene Waldron created the Great Bird Search, a fundraising event and group outing for novice birders. It was half-day bird outing at a local park. Participants were given a bird checklist and divided into teams, each competing to see which would find the most species. Birders were encouraged to get sponsorships on a per-bird basis or a flat amount for the day.

The teams, led by Ward and Marlene, would scour the park for as many birds as possible in a specified amount of time, then meet back for a well-earned lunch of BBQ hamburgers, hot dogs and various salads contributed by participants.

The first Great Bird Searches were held at Assiniboine Park, then moved on to La Barrier Park and finally at Bird’s Hill Park. The last Great Bird Search was held in 2015.

Important Bird Areas Program

An Important Bird Area (IBA) is an internationally-designated site that is deemed one of the most important places on earth for birds to breed, feed, rest and overwinter.

The Manitoba Important Bird Area Program was initiated in the late 1990s when Bird Studies Canada (now Birds Canada) and Nature Canada began the process of identifying IBAs across all provinces and territories in Canada. In our province this process was led by Nature Manitoba.

Above: Shorebirds at Whitewater Lake IBA by Lynnea Parker

The goal was to engage birders, conservationists, government and the public in nominating places which might qualify as IBAs, and to find out why these places are special. 100 areas were nominated, from cities such as Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie, to lakes and wetlands. Eventually 38 areas were designated as IBAs, each meeting the standardised international criteria for this designation.

Once the IBAs were identified, the Manitoba IBA Program shifted toward a conservation focus. The first coordinator of the IBA Program, Cory Lindgren, engaged in creating community conservation plans for different IBAs. These were like business plans, with the intention that each IBA would engage communities and set conservation goals specific to each area. Unfortunately, these plans were never realised as funding dried up for the Program around 2003.

Above: Lapland Longspur, by Christian Artuso

It was in 2012 that Carol Scott approached Christian Artuso (who at that time was busy leading the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas), and suggested that Manitoba needed a new IBA Program which could engage volunteer caretakers. This was seen as an excellent opportunity to engage the many birding volunteers in a new program once the Atlas ended in 2014.

Christian became the first chair of the Manitoba IBA Steering Committee, and was joined by Carol Scott and Paula Grieef. Since the early rocky stages of the Program, we have been able to employ four different Manitoba IBA Program Coordinators: Michelle Mico, Diana Teal, Tim Poole and Amanda Shave. Each has bought their own unique set of skills to the post, enabling the program to grow.

Above: IBA programming in Churchill, 2017 by Tim Poole

In 2020, our IBA Program works with different partners and projects across the Manitoba IBA Network. We deliver workshops in communities throughout the province, including Churchill. We have engaged with several Indigenous communities, organised numerous blitzes designed to count lots of birds and engage new people in the program, pulled weeds, cleaned beaches, established the first International Shorebird Survey routes in Manitoba, and became a central part of grassland conservation delivery. This is just a small part of what the program is doing.

Above: IBA Program at Fox Lake Cree Nation, by Tim Poole

We initially started with 38 IBAs, but then reduced this to 35 because we amalgamated several IBAs on Lake Winnipegosis to create the North Lake Winnipegosis Reefs IBA. The number of IBAs rose to 36 in 2019 when we announced the Ellice-Archie and Spy Hill-Ellice Community Pastures IBA.

Through the years our volunteers have also been able to strengthen the cases for many of our IBAs, identifying concentrations of birds of global significance. For example, we now know that Delta Marsh hosts globally significant concentrations of Bonaparte's Gull, Franklin's Gull and Semipalmated Plover thanks to contributions from our diligent volunteers.

The IBA Program couldn’t continue its important work without our Steering Committee. Christian Artuso and Paula Grieef have been with the program since 2012, and the Committee is now joined by Bonnie Chartier, Tim Sopuck, Marika Olnyk and Tim Poole. Christian led the program as chair up until 2020, and has provided much of the vision and leadership which has made the program what it is today.

Birding for Beginners:

Over the years, many of Nature Manitoba’s bird outings were day-long trips that often entailed significant travel and some hiking. In the 1990s, these trips were organized and led by the Manitoba Avian Research Committee (MARC). Rudolf Koes was the key organizer then, and continues to do this for Nature Manitoba today. 

Above: Birders in an NM outing, year unknown (from NM archives)

In the winter of 2002-03 MARC was preparing for publication of “The Birds of Manitoba”, and found there was a need for less demanding outings geared for people who were new to birding.

Brad Carey offered to lead evening walks in the various city parks for the spring migration, usually 6 walks per season, spanning the end of April to the beginning of June.

“Birding for Beginners” started in the spring of 2003. These bird walks became well-known and highly popular with upwards of 30 people gathering each week at: Assiniboine Park, Bunn’s Creek, St. Vital Park, King’s Park and La Barriere Park.

When Brad left Winnipeg in 2012, Ward Christianson and Marlene Waldron took over leading the walks. They offer 5 walks each spring, starting the first week of May.

Birding for Beginners remains as popular as ever attracting newbie birders young and old alike. Families come with their children and long-standing birders attend, helping each other learn to identify birds in migration at the parks of the city of Winnipeg.

Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative:

Chimney Swifts are a long-distance migrant species in significant decline, according to Breeding Bird Surveys throughout its North and South American range (see the population trend in Canada here). 

In 2006 the Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative (MCSI) was formed with the aim to do something tangible for the species. This was made possible thanks to membership, multi-year funding and in-kind support from Nature Manitoba, the private sector and the Federal, Provincial and Municipal levels of government.

Because the distribution of Chimney Swifts was not well known, volunteers throughout the province were recruited to help shed some light on this. Volunteers have spent many evenings watching chimneys and counting the numbers of birds entering different sites.

Since the late 1800s, we knew that Chimney Swifts had adapted from living in tree cavities to living in urban area chimneys, especially the 1960 era open chimneys of factories and large homes. However, those chimneys were disappearing quickly. We set to work building artificial structures in the hope that Chimney Swifts would adapt again and take up residence in the stand-alone brick and cinder block chimneys that we built.

Early on we determined that the free-standing structures we built were not being used by the Chimney Swift. At this latitude they didn't retain heat as well as chimneys within an existing building. We then started to have some success with repairing old chimneys that had fallen into disrepair.

Above: Chimney Swift entering chimney, by Christian Artuso

Several papers have now been published by MCSI members in peer reviewed journals, which present a considerable amount about the breeding biology of these birds.  However, the reason for the decline of this and other bird species is much more complex than originally thought.

These declines are increasingly being attributed to disruptions due to climate change and related weather pattern changes, habitat destruction, insect abundance, pesticide use, and other factors which are still emerging that were not even imagined a few short years ago.

The MCSI Steering Committee along with our MSCI Coordinator, Amanda Shave, continues to work toward monitoring and protecting Chimney Swifts in Manitoba. The Committee has support from Nature Manitoba, Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development, Environment and Climate Change Canada, as well as independent researchers and experts. All are all very committed to conserving these special birds.

Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas:

The Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas is the largest natural history survey in Manitoba’s history and has produced an exceptionally high quality, comprehensive baseline against which future bird distribution and abundance will be measured.

From 2010 – 2014, 1,054 registered volunteers invested 42,620 hours in the field (and many other hours in preparation), collecting well over 300,000 bird records. Many of the province’s most remote and least known areas were surveyed, greatly improving our knowledge, and five species were added to the list of confirmed breeders in the province.

This massive project was led by a steering committee with representatives from seven organisations: Paul Goossen:  Environment Canada; Ken De Smet:  Manitoba Conservation; Jon McCracken :Bird Studies Canada; Rudolf Koes :Nature Manitoba; Sherrie Mason :Manitoba Hydro; Cary Hamel :The Nature Conservancy of Canada; Randy Mooi :The Manitoba Museum.

Above: Nature Manitoba's Ernest Thompson Seton Medal being presented to the Atlas Steering Committee, 2016 (photo by Les McCann)

Two Bird Studies Canada (BSC) staff members spearheaded the effort: Christian Artuso (coordinator) and Bonnie Chartier (assistant coordinator). Technical considerations were guided by a technical committee and especially with the guidance of Denis Lepage and Andrew Couturier of BSC. This was an extraordinary partnership of government, non-government, industry and individual partners and the philosophy of inclusivity that was adopted permitted engaging a broad cross-section of society (birders of all skill levels, canoeists, outdoor enthusiasts, rural communities, First Nations, school children and youth) and made this project truly unique.

Below is a summary by Christian Artuso of his experience with this project and what it means to the Manitoba ornithological community.

I find it difficult to summarise the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas; both in terms of its community engagement and the whole experience of so many people paddling in the same direction for nine years (five in the field), as well as in terms of the important ornithological baseline that it established.

Although breeding bird atlases have been completed in other provinces, it was always an ambitious concept to try to document the distribution and abundance of all nesting bird species in a province like Manitoba with so few people and so much wilderness (fewer than a quarter of approximately 7,000 atlas grid squares had any road access whatsoever).

Despite the challenges, when all was said and done, our “green army” (as dubbed by then Minister of Conservation and Water Stewardship, Gord Mackintosh St. Johns) consisted of over one thousand people (785 submitted data, others helped in numerous other ways). We donated over 42,000 hours of fieldwork, plus time in preparation, data-entry, data review, meetings, community outreach and other activities.

Every region, however remote, received coverage (2,994 atlas squares with data), and we now have a phenomenal online resource documenting 299 nesting bird species plus 13 others that were inconclusive as to whether local nesting occurred or not.

Above: Western Tanager, by Christian Artuso

Over and above understanding distribution patterns, our <38,000 point counts give an unparalleled ability to calculate relative abundance. Five species were confirmed breeding in the province for the first time (Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Snowy Egret, Long-tailed Jaeger and Mississippi Kite) and many other discoveries were made such as nesting Golden Eagles in the north.

Above: Long-tailed Jaeger pair, by Christian Artuso

What this all means is that in future, when we try to understand how birds have responded to the plethora of changes in their world (climate, habitat, landscape connectivity, food supply, etc.), we will have a foundational point of comparison.

Our atlas has received a long list of accolades including two awards: the provincial government’s Service Excellence Award in the partnership category in 2015 and the Nature Manitoba Ernest Thompson Seton Medal in 2016.

Every atlasser has their own story to tell, some funny, some about overcoming obstacles, some about the unexpected rewards or discoveries, whether in their local patch or in a far-flung corner of Manitoba. Some of these stories are told in the atlas newsletters; some were even immortalized in song, when, on 7 November 2014, Peter Taylor gave a rousing rendition of a Stompin' Tom tune, with lyrics changed to describe the atlassing experience, to the 200 or so people who attended the celebration dinner.

When I am asked to describe my personal highlights from the decade I devoted to this all-consuming challenge, my first response is usually the people stories, especially witnessing the tentative baby steps of volunteers blossom and bear magnificent fruit.

If I had to pick one personal moment that summed the whole thing up, I would recount an experience that was ironically a little more mammalian than avian. It is the story of how, after finishing my last point count on my last day of point counting so many parts of Manitoba that few people ever get to see, I met an animal I had never seen before nor since, a wolverine (see photos and full story here).

As an experience, it somehow encapsulates the sense of joy and satisfaction of getting a tough job done.

Bluebird Fund

The Manitoba Bluebird Fund (MBF), a charitable organization, was started in 2011 to help stop the decline in the numbers of Manitoba songbirds. A small fund, the MBF is owned by Nature Manitoba and its funds are managed by The Winnipeg Foundation. 

The initial aim of the MBF was to encourage Manitoba homeowners to plant fruit-bearing trees and shrubs, especially those that hold their fruit into the winter. The Fund offers to pay to the homeowner up to $110 of the cost of each tree or shrub. After a slow start in the early years, demand has grown to more than 80 trees/shrubs in 2019. 

Above: Eastern Bluebird, by Christian Artuso

After supporting Save Our Seine and Henteleff Park, in past years the MBF has also funded tree/shrub-planting on Bishop Grandin Greenway. This year the Fund has also provided funding to the Important Bird Areas Program of Manitoba, as well as the Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative.

MBF has also provided funds to the Friends of the Bluebirds in Brandon, for various operating expenses, including the many new nest boxes required for their numerous "bluebird trails". The MBF takes great pride and pleasure in helping an organization so dedicated to the welfare of Manitoba's songbirds.

As the Fund grows in future years it will expand its support not only to Manitoba songbirds, but to other Nature initiatives as well.

Grassland Bird Project

In 2013, the Manitoba IBA Program was awarded a grant from Environment and Climate Change Canada's EcoAction Program to provide outreach to landowners and community members in Manitoba's southwestern IBAs. Some of Manitoba's highest breeding concentrations of species are found in this region, including Sprague's Pipit, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Loggerhead Shrike and Baird's Sparrow.

During the three years of funding, we reached out to landowners, gave workshops, produced a landowners guide to grassland bird conservation, and in 2015 did our first ever IBA Blitz in the Southwestern Manitoba Mixed-grass Prairie IBA (during which we found 250 Chestnut-collared Longspurs and 41 Sprague's Pipits).

Above: Chestnut-collared Longspurs, by Christian Artuso

Christian Artuso, then Chair of the Manitoba IBA Program and Manitoba Program Director for Birds Canada, began to plot a new course with the IBA Program at the end of the EcoAction funding. It was becoming obvious to us that landowners, namely beef producers, were the key to conserving grassland birds.

This suite of birds had evolved in dynamic ecosystems, created and conserved by fire and grazing, mainly by the now extirpated Plains Bison. Cattle have now replaced the bison as the dominant grazing animal in these systems.

Above: Sprague's Pipit, by Christian Artuso

For this reason, in 2016, Nature Manitoba's IBA Program joined with the Manitoba Beef Producers, Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation, West Souris River Conservation District, Turtle Mountain Conservation District and Birds Canada. The goal was to establish the Keep Grazing initiative, funded by Environment and Climate Change Canada's Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Land (SARPAL) initiative.

The focus area for the program was in the Southwestern Manitoba Mixed-grass Prairie IBA and the Oak Lake and Plum Lakes IBA. Habitat proposals were planned by project partners in conjunction with the landowners, and the IBA Program’s role was to provide bird-centred advice, based on monitoring done by our program and Birds Canada.

The initiative operates on the understanding that the cattle are critical. If we lose the cattle from the prairie, it’s likely that the plough will follow and grassland bird habitat will be lost. To conserve the birds, we must conserve the ranching way of life, which is protecting the final remnants of this habitat.