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Comox Valley birdwatchers delighted by rare sightings

Comox Valley birdwatchers were treated to two rare avian sightings this winter.
This burrowing owl was spotted at Air Force Beach in December. It's one of Canada's rarest birds of prey.

Comox Valley birdwatchers were treated to two rare avian sightings this winter.

Two endangered birds were recently spotted in the valley — a burrowing owl and a rusty - much to the delight of those who love to observe and record these winged-creatures.

In early December, the burrowing owl, one of Canada's rarest birds of prey, was first noticed by people walking their dogs at Air Force Beach. Although they were not able to identify it at first, they were able to snap a photo of the bird. It was posted on the web, as they wanted to know what kind of bird it was.

"We heard about it on December 19," said Art Martell, an avid birder and member of the Comox Valley Naturalists Society. "It probably showed up in mid-December. The last time we know it was around was late December. I have not heard any recent reports on it."

The a burrowing owl, an elfin chubby creature with bright-yellow eyes and not much taller than a robin, was last seen in the Comox Valley in 1993.

"It's interesting for us to know that a burrowing owl was spotted here and interesting from a conservation point of view as well," said Martell, who records reported avian sightings for the Comox Valley birds check list on a regular basis.

The burrowing owl nearly became extinct because of dwindling natural habitats, said Martell. The birds eat insects like grasshoppers and also rodents.

"Because of changes in agriculture and the use of pesticides, this population declined," said Martell. "The birds in B.C., we lost most of the breeding birds, but not all, by the 1980s. We used to have some pretty healthy populations primarily in the Okanagan. There was also a small colony of burrowing owls on Sea Island where Vancouver Airport is while there was still enough wild land there in the '60s or so."

There had been frequent sightings of burrowing owls in the Comox Valley from the 1920s and ‘30s up to the 1960s. Martell assumes they were mostly from Sea Island or from the Okanagan.

Conservation efforts were initiated in the early ‘90s in the Okanagan to reintroduce the burrowing owls and Martell believes this bird that strayed at Air Force Beach could be one of them.

Lately, Martell said, there's been the odd burrowing owl showing up on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. There have been recorded incidences where a burrowing owl was seen in Campbell River just a few years ago, as well as a banded bird showing up in Tofino, which indicated that it was a reintroduced bird.

"In Canada they are very scarce," said Martell. "You have to basically go to southeastern Alberta or western Saskatchewan in that area. I have seen them down through there.

"The bird that was seen here was not wintering where you expect it to be. They like to feed on insects and there's not much here in the winter. But because it's a burrowing owl, it narrowly goes into burrows and things. It spends most of the day down and under, either in driftwood piles or in big rip-rap holes. So it would have been underground most of the day. This type of bird hunts early in the morning and late evening."

With a lot of human activity in the area, as well as dogs being present, Martell said they would have reduced the feeding time of the bird.

"That could have had a negative effect on it," said Martell. "I wasn't particularly worried about the dogs catching the bird. On the other hand, our shores are frequented by minks, which are good at getting down into holes, driftwoods and rocks. So it was more at risk from minks because it was in the wrong location, right in the shoreline, than at risk from people. The bird has disappeared and I guessed it has died."

The rusty blackbird was spotted at Point Holmes on Lazo Road in a flock of Brewer's blackbirds on Dec. 28 by a birdwatcher from Nanoose, who was in the valley hoping to see the burrowing owl.

The rare type of bird is found primarily in the east of the Rockies. It breeds in the boreal forest and migrates southeast down to the U.S. for the winter.

"Rusty blackbirds are at risk," said Martell. "They had huge drops in their numbers. It doesn't get out here often but regularly some rusty blackbirds manage to find their way here to British Columbia in the winter. When they do that, they almost always hang out with Brewer's blackbird flocks and feeding with them. They're related."

The Rusty blackbird is quite noticeable. This one was seen for only a few days on Dec. 28 and 31. The last time this type of species was observed in the valley was in 2004. And prior to that, according to records Martell has, was in 1937.

"It's a rare bird out here and across the continent," said Martell. "It's an interesting one when it happens to drop in here. It has taken a wrong turn instead of heading to the U.S."

Rare bird sightings in the Comox Valley may pave the way for conservation tourism to blossom in the region. The Comox Valley Naturalists Society is the major proponent of this new industry, which it is using to persuade the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Comox Valley Economic Development, to help preserve Mack Laing's Baybrook house, that the Town of Comox wanted to demolish.

In 2012, a mega-rare Citrine Wagtail was spotted in the Comox Valley and it drew thousands of curious birdwatchers from all over the region and also abroad.

"This happens all the time in the Comox Valley," said Loys Maingon, president of the CVNS. "We get a lot of rare birds. This is an opportunity to develop conservation tourism. This is big bucks. The Citrine Wagtail, when it hung around for a few months, brought in probably over half-a-million in revenue to the valley. This could really enhance tourism and conservation tourism here."