Distribution and habitat of the least bittern and other marsh bird species in southern Manitoba
Call-response surveys were conducted to better delineate and estimate the population of the nationally threatened least bittern and their habitat requirements in southern Manitoba, Canada. Other marsh bird species whose populations are believed to be declining due to wetland loss throughout, or in parts of, their range were also surveyed including the American bittern, pied-billed grebe, sora, Virginia rail and yellow rail. Surveys were conducted during the 2003 and 2004 breeding seasons within 46 different wetlands. Least bitterns were encountered on 26 occasions at 15 sites within 5 wetlands. The sora was the most abundant and widely distributed target species and was encountered on 330 occasions in 39 of the 46 surveyed wetlands. Yellow rails were not detected during either survey year due to survey methodology. Use of the call-response survey protocol led to an increase in the numbers of all target species detected. This increase was more significant for the least bittern, sora and Virginia rail. Habitat was assessed as percent vegetation cover within a 50-m radius around the calling sites, and forest resource inventory data were used in a Geographic Information System to determine the landscape composition within a 500-m radius around the sites and within a 5-km radius around the wetlands surveyed. Logistic regression analyses were used to evaluate the relationship between the presence of the target species and the site and landscape characteristics. The target species responded differently to different site and landscape characteristics. Least bittern and pied-billed grebe selected areas with higher proportions of Typha spp. and tall shrubs; American bittern also selected areas with higher proportions of tall shrubs. At the 5-km scale, the American bittern responded positively to the amount of wetland and some positive trends were also detected for the pied-billed grebe. Sora and Virginia rail were not associated with any of the measured landscape characteristics. One of the most important steps towards the conservation of marsh bird species in Manitoba and elsewhere is the development, adoption, and implementation of a standardized survey protocol. Based on the results of the present study, I recommend that future surveys include both a passive and call-broadcast period for marsh bird species. Future surveys should be conducted in both the morning and evening and sites should be visited 3 times each during the breeding season. In southern Manitoba, call-response surveys should begin as early as the beginning of May to ensure the survey incorporates the period of peak vocalization. I recommend that future yellow rail surveys be conducted after dark. In this study many of the target species selected sites that had a greater area of wetland habitat surrounding them. Future wetland conservation efforts should focus on the protection and/or restoration of wetland complexes to ensure that remaining wetlands do not become smaller and increasingly isolated from one another. In addition, the Rat River Swamp was found to be the most productive marsh complex for least bittern in southern Manitoba. Measures should be taken to protect this area from future development and alteration.