Shorebirds in the Prairies and the Value of Being in the Same Place Twice

In late May 2016, Brad Winn, Brian Harrington, and I hosted a Shorebird Ecology, Conservation, and Habitat Management workshop in Chaplin, Saskatchewan, in collaboration with Nature Saskatchewan, the Chaplin Nature Centre, and the University of Saskatchewan.  While we were there, the flock of Red Knots and Black-bellied Plovers were restless—it felt as though the slightest change in wind direction would send them aloft on the next breeze up to the arctic breeding grounds.

ed Knot and Black-bellied Plover

A flock of Red Knot and Black-bellied Plover roost at Reed Lake, Saskatchewan


As each day passed, the number of arctic-breeding shorebirds in Saskatchewan dwindled as the tundra continued to beckon them on their journey northward. Among the 450 Red Knots we encountered, we sighted two birds with colored flags on their upper legs. Both birds had been flagged by David Newstead of the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program in coastal Texas, highlighting the connectivity between the central coast of the United States and inland lakes and wetlands in the prairie pothole region of the northern United States and Canada.

For some species, Saskatchewan is the breeding area. Some of the locally breeding shorebirds include Wilson’s Snipe, Willet, Upland Sandpiper, American Avocet, and Marbled Godwit. They reminded us each day of their intent with their courtship flights, alarm calls, and by feigning broken wings to deter us away from their nests.


A pair of Upland Sandpiper forage along the edges of Chaplin Lake, Saskatchewan.

A pair of Upland Sandpiper forage along the edges of Chaplin Lake, Saskatchewan.

A Wilson’s Snipe calls to its mate.

A Wilson’s Snipe calls to its mate.


Our shorebird workshops featured field excursions and discussions that were focused on the Chaplin, Old Wives, and Reed Lake Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site, but also included discussions about conservation across the Canadian prairie. The 35 workshop participants came from all three Prairie Provinces (Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan) and included University professors and students as well as biologists and land managers from non-profits, provincial and federal agencies, and private consultants.


The 2016 workshop participants visit Reed Lake, Saskatchewan.

The 2016 workshop participants visit Reed Lake, Saskatchewan.


Among the group were seven individuals that Brian Harrington had met before. In May of 1999, they had attended a first-of-its-kind shorebird workshop in the Canadian prairies that Brian had collaborated with local partners to hold at the recently designated Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site. Today, each of the returning workshop participants plays a significant role in bird conservation. It was a pleasure to meet them and to talk with a few about their experiences since the last workshop and their motivation to attend another workshop years later.


From left to right: Brian Harrington and returning workshop participants Michael Barr, Barbara Hanbidge, Jordan Ignatiuk, Clem Millar, Lori Wilson, Alan Smith, and Andrew Hak.

From left to right: Brian Harrington and returning workshop participants Michael Barr, Barbara Hanbidge, Jordan Ignatiuk, Clem Millar, Lori Wilson, Alan Smith, and Andrew Hak.


Michael Barr attended the 1999 shorebird workshop as an avid bird enthusiast and Ducks Unlimited Canada biologist after working with Environment Canada to lead the charge on the nomination of Beaverhill Lake as a WHSRN site, the first and only in Alberta. Michael says he came to the 2016 workshop to reinvigorate and “up his shorebird game.” In his current capacity as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan Coordinator in Alberta, Michael says he is in a position to elevate shorebird conservation and to help move people to action. Michael stated that the workshop had made him re-inspired by shorebirds and that “Manomet brings the needed energy and gravity of the status of shorebirds to managers and biologists through their workshops.”

Barbara Hanbidge had never seen a Red Knot before her attendance at the 1999 workshop. She said the workshop gave her the skills to identify shorebirds and recognize their habitats. Since then, Barbara has influenced wetland management in ways that benefit shorebirds in Saskatchewan throughout her career with Ducks Unlimited Canada—an important contribution given that the province is losing 10,000 acres of wetlands each year. Barbara says she returned for a second workshop in 2016 to learn more and to stay connected with the latest in shorebird conservation efforts. Today, Barbara is a Provincial Policy Specialist in Saskatchewan and a longtime resident near Chaplin Lake. After the workshop in 1999, Barbara introduced her family to shorebirds through the Chaplin Nature Centre, including her 96 year-old mother-in-law who had lived her entire life in the region, but had never known that these international travelers (shorebirds) were right in her own backyard.

The workshop participants that we met this spring in Chaplin, Saskatchewan, included conservation professionals of a variety of ages and stages in their careers. It was a pleasure to meet them all, from the students to the seasoned professionals. We all have much to learn from each other as we work to conserve our shared shorebirds across international boundaries. It was quite the experience to reconnect with the individuals that have committed themselves to the conservation of the wetlands and lakes of Saskatchewan and to meet some of the next generation ready to learn and to make a difference.


Meet Virginia: The Lasting Impact of Manomet’s Shorebird Workshops

I often wonder about the impacts our Shorebird Habitat Management Workshops might have on workshop participants, how our time together might influence their work over the long term and the future conservation of shorebird populations. We recently completed teaching a collaborative workshop on shorebird habitat management in Lagoa do Peixe in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil and we caught a hint of just the kind of influence our workshops can have on individuals.

In 1983, Brian Harrington, Senior Scientist with Manomet collaborated with Paulo Antas of CEMAVE (Centro Nacional de Pesquisa para a Conservação das Aves Silvestres), and Martin Sander of the Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos to host a first-of-its-kind international shorebird workshop in South America held at Lagoa do Peixe.


A snap shot from a shorebird workshop Manomet ran in Lago do Peixe, Brazil in 1987.

A snapshot from a shorebird workshop Manomet ran in Lago do Peixe, Brazil in 1987


At the time, Maria Virginia Petry was a freshman in her first semester at college with a strong interest in biology. Ornithology, biochemistry, and entomology were all potential focus options but switching majors was on the table as well. She had begun working with a professor, Martin Sander, and was assisting him with multiple and varied research projects including studies of mosquito biology, forest birds, and Antarctic birds when she heard about the shorebird workshop.


As Virginia recalls, this workshop brought together biologists from every country in South America, was only offered to professional biologists, and was definitely somewhere she wanted to be. As an undergraduate, this also meant she was not on the invite list. Determined to participate in the workshop, Virginia offered to help with logistics during the classroom components held at the University – and was thus able to attend the lectures. When it came time to head to the field, she was told she could not attend as she was not an official workshop participant.  As the field vehicle transporting the workshop participants broke down and another vehicle from the University prepared to rescue the stranded biologists at Lagoa do Peixe (a 3-4 hour drive), with no one to stop her, Virginia hopped in the car.


The rest is history. With a clear passion for biology, Virginia learned to identify and monitor shorebirds during the workshop. She stayed after the workshop ended to assist Brian and others complete a shorebird survey along the central coast of Rio Grande do Sul. She has continued monitoring the shorebirds and other coastal wildlife on this same stretch of beach on and off over the years ever since.


Maria Virginia Petry at the 2016 shorebird workshop

Maria Virginia Petry at the 2016 workshop


Today, Virginia is an accomplished research scientist and professor at the Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos teaching both undergraduate and graduate students. She manages and coordinates a research laboratory of marine animals and birds, assists the management of the National Trust for Research and Technology of Antarctic Research, and is on the steering committee for the recently completed Shorebird Conservation Action Plan in Brazil. In fact, a previous manager of Lagoa do Peixe National Park was a student of Virginia’s.


When I asked her how attending the workshop influenced her career trajectory, she said that it inspired her to continue in the study of biology – and ornithology specifically.  It helped her develop a passion for coastal birds in particular and to understand the value of long term monitoring.


33 years later, Virginia attended our 2016 workshop at Lagoa do Peixe. She said she came to learn more about technological advances in migratory bird monitoring and to hear more about the status of the shorebird populations that connect us across the hemisphere. But for us, the workshop leaders, meeting and talking with Virginia was like peeking into the future. A small glimpse of the potential impact you can have when you combine personal passion with critical information, and of course, introduce people to the magic of shorebirds. I have high hopes for the future outcomes and long term impacts of our continued shorebird workshops to fostering collaborative conservation and igniting passion for shorebirds for future generations.