Nature Canada

Bird Conservation in Lac Seul and James Bay

Learn about the bird conservation efforts in Lac Seul First Nation and James Bay Cree Nations of Wemindji and Waskaganish.

In 2018, Nature Canada began supporting Lac Seul First Nation (LSFN) and the James Bay Cree Nations of Wemindji and Waskaganish in their efforts to protect Species at Risk within their traditional territory. These efforts were supported by a grant from Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Aboriginal Fund for Species At Risk (AFSAR).

Lac Seul First Nation (LSFN) is a community of three distinct settlements a) Frenchman’s Head, b) Kejick Bay, and c) Whitefish Bay. The current on-reserve population is about 860 with a total registered population of 3,372 (as of October 2015). Our people speak Ojibway, Oji-Cree and English. Our communities are found on the southeast shores of Lac Seul Lake and extends southward to the north shores of Lost Lake. This includes 66,248 acres of land. LSFN is about 40 kilometers from the town of Sioux Lookout, while Kejick Bay and Whitefish Bay are about 65 kilometers away. Lac Seul First Nation is part of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation of Treaty Three in Northwestern Ontario, Canada.

To learn more about Lac Seul First Nation:

 “As the birthplace of the fur trade and as one of the oldest settlements in Canada, Waskaganish remains one of the most historically significant place from which a continent was built. Today Waskaganish is a growing, vibrant community with an on-reserve population of approximately 2,300 people. Cree is the dominant language spoken, although the younger generations are becoming fluent in English and French as well. Trapping remains an important contributor to the local economy as well as a source of cultural and spiritual values. Many consider the community and its territory as one of North-America’s premier destination for migratory birds. The region is well known for its waterways and prime fishing spots, hosting an annual canoe brigade every summer.”

“As a contemporary and dynamic place, Waskaganish and its people look forward to a prosperous future firmly anchored in Cree values, traditions, history and spirituality while remaining open to the world at large.”

Information taken from the website of Cree Nation of Waskaganish.

“Wemindji, from wiimin uchii meaning "ochre hills" in Cree formerly known as Old Factory, a little island 45 kilometres south of the current location. Wemindji has been relocated since 1959 and sits at the mouth of the Maquatua River on the east coast of James Bay, in northern Quebec, Canada. Wemindji's nearest major city is Montreal and we are approximately 1400 kilometres north of it.

Since the relocation of our people from Old Factory Island to our current location, Wemindji has grown at a rapid pace now home to over 1,400 people. As the community grows in number, recommendations and needs of expansion are brought to the administration that are reviewed by Chief & Council.

The Cree people who live here, who also call themselves Iyiyuuch in our own language, meaning "the people" have a deep attachment to our past and to keeping our traditions alive. The Iyiyuuch continue to practice the ancient hunting, fishing and trapping way of life that sustained our ancestors for many generations. Today, within our community a third of our population still live year-round in the bush, while others go back to their family traplines' on weekends or when they have free time.

Our elders are the bedrock of Iyiyuu/Cree society, keeping traditions alive through stories and legends is what makes our nation as unique and strong as a people. Most lakes, rivers and mountains have a name and a story associated with them (sometimes many stories), knowledge of which has been passed down through the generations.”

Information taken from the website of Cree Nation of Wemindji.

What is the partnership that Nature Canada has with Lac Seul First Nation?

Nature Canada is supporting the LSFN to advance conservation and stewardship of species at risk within the LSFN traditional territory. We were invited into this partnership by requesting funding from the Federal Government’s AFSAR program. We received permission from the LSFN’s Chief and Council through at Band Council Resolution to work with the LSFN. Our key contact within the LSFN has been Liz Kejick, a very knowledgeable and dedicated band member. Another partner in this initiative is the Boreal Avian Modelling Program (BAM). BAM is a collaborative science program based out of the University of Alberta committed to improving understanding of the ecology of birds and their habitats in the boreal region of North America. Prior to applying for and receiving AFSAR funding, Nature Canada had invited a member of LSFN (Liz Kejick) to participate in a workshop on forestry and birds that was hosted by BAM.  

What do we want to achieve in the first stage of this project?

This project provides an important opportunity for collaboration to initiate species at risk conservation within the traditional territory of the LSFN. They have three "reserves" within their traditional territory of over 50,000 km2. The nation is entirely within the boreal forest region. Much of the forest has active forestry operations. The purpose of this one-year project is twofold:

  1. To raise awareness within the LSFN about seven species at risk within their territory, and
  2. To develop a data base of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and western science about the distribution and abundance of the species, their population trends and their particular importance to the LSFN.

Information will be available for future planning, management and conservation initiatives within the First Nation to protect species at risk.  There is an intention to continue this work into the future so that the community increases its internal capacity for conservation of species at risk and biodiversity, and also that these efforts result in meaningful conservation outcomes for LSFN.

What is the partnership that Nature Canada has with Cree Nations of Wemindji and Waskaganish?

Since 2012, Nature Canada has worked to support bird conservation along the James Bay Coast of Quebec. This work has been in support of the local Cree Nations and in partnership with regional Cree organizations and governments including the Cree Nation Government, the Cree Trappers Association and the Eeyou Marine Region Wildlife Board (EMRWB). Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) has financially supported this work through their Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk and their Habitat Stewardship Program funding. Bird Studies Canada has been also involved in one particular aspect of the project – deploying Motus Wildlife Tracking stations as a scientific tool to assess connectivity between the west and east sides of James Bay. We have been working with the Cree Trappers Association to build local capacity in managing the MOTUS system, and take responsibility for the system.

We spent the first several years of this initiative in the territory of the Cree Nation of Waskaganish where we assessed the area within their traditional coastal territory including Rupert Bay, Boatswain Bay and Charlton Island to determine if it met the criteria of the Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) program. The great news is that it does and will be officially announced as the Minishtikw-Wiinibek Globally-significant IBA in the spring of 2019.

In 2018, Nature Canada received one year funding to continue this work. The focus has been on training local EMRWB officers in the management and maintenance of the Motus equipment and on engaging the Cree Nation of Wemindji, to the north, in species at risk stewardship. Specifically we gathered traditional knowledge from local trappers and hunters, as well as other information on the historical and potential habitat for species at risk in their coastal area to inform future field work. Essentially we hope to replicate the type of work that we did with the Cree Nation of Waskaganish in the coastal area of Wemindji, but on a much shorter time frame.

In fact, we are hopeful to work with the two other Cree coastal nations of Eastmain and Chisasibi to do the same work. We are currently seeking funding to pursue this goal. Another element of this work is growing local capacity to engage in conservation and stewardship work. The Cree communities have a significant interest in growing their internal ability to undertake all forms of species at risk stewardship and bird conservation from field surveys to recovery actions.

The Cree are also deeply interested in protecting their homelands from industrial threats. For example, there is evidence that major hydrological alterations to the rivers flowing into the East side of James Bay are affecting coastal ecology in negative ways. Protection and restoration of their coastal homelands from large-scale threats deserve our full support and provide an exciting opportunity for Nature Canada to support the Cree realize their aspirations of coastal protection.

What are the species at risk that this project is concerned with?


Canada Warbler
Cardellina canadensis

A migratory songbird, the Canada Warbler overwinters in South America before flying more than 5,000 kilometers to return to North America to reproduce. It is one of the last warblers to arrive in North America and one of the first to leave in the fall. Its breeding range in Canada extends from northern Alberta to Nova Scotia. Residing in thick understoreys of mixed forests, it is a difficult bird to spot, however, its recognizable « warble » can alert birders to its presence. Canada Warbler preys on insects, both flying and crawling insects in the understorey vegetation. Since 2010, this species has been listed as Threatened under Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). 75% of Canada Warbler’s global population, or approximately 3 million individuals, reside in Canada. The main threats to the continued survival of Canada Warbler include habitat loss, particularly on its wintering grounds, removal of shrubs, reduced insect populations, and window collisions.


Caribou
Rangifer tarandus

Boreal Caribou, a distinct population of the Woodland Caribou, are distributed across Canada, ranging from Northeastern Yukon to Labrador, and south to Lake Superior. Caribou is the only member of the deer family, in which both the male and the female have antlers. The male caribou shed their antlers after breeding, however, a female caribou may not shed her antlers until the following spring. Caribou require large tracts of undisturbed forests, wetlands and bogs, which not only provide food in the form of lichen and other green vegetation but also protection from predators such as wolves, bears and cougars. The Boreal Caribou have been listed as Threatened under SARA, and unlike migratory caribou, they are sedentary, spending all of their lives in the boreal forest of Canada in groups of about 15 individuals. Caribou cows breed each year in traditional calving grounds, which are often isolated from threats. However, the loss of important habitat for Caribou has caused their population to decline across Canada. Over the last 20 years, Boreal Caribou have lost 30% of their population.


Common Nighthawk
Chordeiles minor

Common Nighthawk is a long distance migrant that travels in large flocks in one of the longest migration routes of any North American land bird. After overwintering in the southern regions of South America, the Common Nighthawk is one of the last North American birds to return in the spring to breed. Approximately 10% of its global population breeds throughout Canada, except in Nunavut. During the breeding season, the female Common Nighthawk lays her eggs directly on the ground, typically in gravel, sand, vegetation, rocky outcrops etc.  An aerial insectivore, the Common Nighthawk almost exclusively hunts insects on the wing during the dawn and dusk hours. The Common Nighthawk is listed as Threatened under Schedule 1 of SARA and seems to be declining significantly throughout its range. The major threats facing the survival of this species are habitat loss and fragmentation, declining insect populations, climate change and severe weather episodes, and pollution.


Eastern Whip-poor-will
Antrostomus vociferous

Named after its recognizable song, Eastern Whip-poor-will is a migratory bird that overwinters in Mexico and Central America before returning to North America in the spring to breed. Rarely seen but often heard, the Whip-poor-will is active only during twilight and moonlight hours. During the day, it sits motionless on a branch or the forest floor, well camouflaged by its plumage. This species prefers to breed in dry deciduous or mixed forests, often near open areas which make it easy to forage for insects. Listed as Threatened under Schedule 1 of SARA since 2011, Whip-poor-wills have experienced a national (2.77%) and a provincial (5.53%) level of annual decline from 2002-2012. Regardless, approximately 6% of the global population (120,000 individuals) are found in Canada during their breeding season. Although more research is required, some of the main threats that the Eastern Whip-poor-will faces are energy development, mineral extraction, loss of insect populations, urban expansion and agricultural expansion.


Horned Grebe
Podiceps auritus

A distinct bird with colorful plumage, the Horned Grebe is a wetland bird that breeds primarily in western Canada, from British Columbia to the Manitoba-Ontario border. During the winter months, it loses its breeding colours and has a dramatic change in appearance by which it turns its plumage into black and white. The western population of the Horned Grebe (B.C to Ontario) is listed as a species of Special Concern under the SARA. Around 92% of the Horned Grebe’s North American population can be found in wetlands in Canada. Therefore, the continued destruction of wetlands and waterways pose a significant challenge for this species’ continued survival. This bird’s tendency to breed in low densities while occupying a wide territory makes it extremely difficult to calculate current population levels. Some of the other threats that the Horned Grebe faces are breeding habitat loss, pollution and oil spills, nest predation and droughts.


Olive-sided Flycatcher
Contopus cooperi

Breeding only in North America, the Olive-sided Flycatcher nests in the boreal forests across Canada. It prefers nesting in forest edges and in open areas near water or wetlands, which provides it with ample opportunity to forage for flying insects on the wing. About 53% of its global breeding population (1.7 million) breeds in Canada. Like other aerial insectivores, the Olive-sided Flycatcher is currently undergoing population declines, most likely due to loss of insect populations and suitable breeding habitat. From 1966 to 1996, the Olive-sided Flycatcher lost an astounding 70% of its population across North America. According to the Breeding Bird Survey, the Olive-sided Flycatcher is currently estimated to have an annual rate of population decline of 3.4%. Listed as Threatened under Schedule 1 of SARA, some of threats facing the Olive-sided Flycatcher are increased pesticide use, deforestation, mining and energy exploration & extraction and development.


Rusty Blackbird
Euphagus carolinus

One of North America’s most rapidly declining bird, the Rusty Blackbird has lost an estimated 85-99% of its population over the last 40 years. The Rusty Blackbird breeds across the boreal region in Canada, in wet forests near water sources. Nearly 85% of the bird’s breeding habitat occurs in Canada. Although it mostly eats insects and plant matter, the Rusty Blackbird has been documented feeding on other bird species such as robins, sparrows and snipes. Historically, this bird was found in Ontario from the Southern Shield north to the Hudson Bay Lowlands, however, currently it is largely absent from its historical southern breeding range. It is listed as a species of Special Concern under Schedule 1 of the SARA. The most concerning threat to the survival of this bird may be the habitat loss and degradation on their wintering grounds in southeastern U.S due to wetland conversion to agricultural and residential purposes, as well as persecution as it is commonly treated as a crop pest in parts of the USA.


Red Knot rufa subspecies
Calidris canutus rufa

A long distance migratory shore bird, the Red Knot rufa subspecies (Red Knot Rufa, rufa) migrates annually from its breeding habitat in the Canadian Arctic to its overwintering grounds in Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, a journey of over 15,000 km. During its migration, the Red Knot Rufa makes several stops at key stopover areas to rest and feed. Although it is easily recognizable by its red plumage, the Red Knot Rufa has a much lighter intensity of red coloration as compared to other subspecies. One of the most important stopover points during the spring migration is Delaware Bay, where the Red Knot Rufa feed on the eggs of horseshoe crabs. In one day on the bay, nearly 90% of all Red Knot Rufa subspecies can be present on the island. The Red Knot rufa is listed as Endangered under the Schedule 1 of the federal and provincial Species at Risk Act. In the past 15 years, the rufa subspecies has shown a 70% decline in population levels. The main threats for the rufa subspecies has been overharvesting of Horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay. This has decimated the supply of eggs for the Red Knot Rufa, which is considered the most important supply of food during their migratory route. Other threats include decrease of wetland habitats, human disturbances, extreme weather, increased pollution and chemical use and impacts of climate change to their breeding habitat in the Canadian Arctic.

We located several flocks, together numbering over 500 individuals along Boatswain Bay and in the Charlton Island area.


Yellow Rail
Coturnicops noveboracensis

The Yellow Rail is a secretive bird that mainly nests in shallow, sedge-dominated wetlands, which provide its nests with some protection from predators. It can be found nesting in wetlands from eastern British Columbia to New Brunswick. Nearly 90% of the Yellow Rail’s breeding range occurs in Canada, home to approximately 10,000 mature Yellow Rail individuals. Like other rails, the Yellow Rail is rarely seen due to its elusive nature; however, its repetitive ticking call is quite distinctive. Currently listed as a species of Special Concern under the federal Species of Risk Act, this bird faces many risks towards its existence. The main threats revolve around loss and degradation of wetlands through agricultural, commercial, industrial and infrastructure development. These wetlands not only provide suitable breeding habitat for the Yellow Rail, but also good foraging habitat, which the Yellow Rail uses to feed on aquatic invertebrates and seeds.

During field work in the difficult to access Cabbage Willows Bay near Waskaganish, we located many “singing” Yellow Rails.  We also located some in wetlands on offshore islands.

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