Mapping patterns in the distribution and abundance of upland songbirds on the Mattheis Research Ranch

Dr. Scott Nielsen | Associate Professor and Alberta Biodiversity Conservation Chair
Department of Renewable Resources
Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences
University of Alberta

Dr. Nielsen’s research team conducted repeated point counts in two consecutive years at 372 locations throughout upland habitats of the Mattheis Research Ranch, detecting a total of 100 species of grassland songbirds, shorebirds, ducks, and raptors. Information collected during these surveys allowed for the mapping of occupancy and abundance of upland songbirds across the ranch, and the creation of habitat preference models and predictive maps for individual songbird species. The most common species observed on the ranch were western meadowlark, Sprague’s pipit, savannah sparrow, vesper sparrow, clay-coloured sparrow, brown-headed cowbird, marbled godwit, ring-necked pheasant, willet, red-winged blackbird, grasshopper sparrow, upland sandpiper, and eastern kingbird. Habitat features such as power lines, wetland presence and shrub density affected bird richness on the ranch. Shrubby areas had high species richness, likely because these provided nesting cover, perch sites, and shelter from weather and predators for some species. Shrub encroachment is a problem in many grassland areas, as it modifies the original plant communities. Shrubby areas on the Mattheis Ranch create habitat for some species, but potentially at the cost of habitat for other species, specifically grassland obligates. Future work on bird populations at the Mattheis Ranch could focus on the distribution and abundance of grassland-obligate species, between-year species turnover, management for species at risk, and songbird responses to specific grazing regimes.