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Rare Boreal Owl highlights winter season of birding

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Owls always attract great interest, whether seen or heard hooting at night. Remarkably, there are 12 species in the Whistler region, but luck is the key ingredient to seeing any.

Owls are sometimes heard near the forest-urban edge, especially if a recording of their hoots is used to attract their attention. Great Horned, Northern Pygmy and Barred owls are the usual hooters around the edge of town. As for the other nine species, the Spotted had not been seen or heard since the 1940s, although a few are still around Lillooet Lake to the east of us, leaving eight others to create excitement when they rarely turn up.

This winter an injured Boreal owl created the interest - a species of the northern forests right across the entire country. It is our third or fourth record of the species in 87 years of off-and-on birding in the Whistler region, rare because it is beyond their usual range. Unfortunately, the bird did not survive and who knows how long it will be before we see or hear another!

As for other bird species seen over the winter, the numbers on all were sparse, other than in the village or at the compactor site with its array of Glaucous-winged gulls, crows, ravens and few Bald eagles. Monthly bird walks from Lorimer Road to Rainbow Park yielded low counts on everything, although Chris Dale's sharp vision spotted a lonely Northern Pygmy owl. The small patches of open water sometimes produced a Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, or Hooded Merganser duck, while most of the others departed in mid-December when the polar outflow winds chilled the country-side and froze up all lakes and ponds. The last of the Trumpeter swans and Great Blue herons departed in early January.

Meanwhile, Gray jays and Pine grosbeaks descended the mountain to valley floor level to find food sources. But in February's sunshine and warming temperatures, there was a noticeable increase in bird activity. More jays were about, song sparrows began to sing and waterfowl began to appear in trial runs northward. However, the latter to no avail, swans and geese turned around and were last seen flying back to Squamish, or farther.

During the winter there were a few good finds. Residents at Nicklaus North saw a flock of Bohemian waxwings - a typical migrant into the interior of the province in winter. A Northern shriek was looking at targetted prey at feeders in the same area. Evening grosbeaks and Common redpolls finally showed up near the end of the season, after many earlier reports of their presence at Pemberton. As well, it was a low year for the usual ubiquitous flocks of Pine siskins. Definitely, all species in the cyclic finch family were hard to come by, with the exception of the urban House finch seen regularly at Tapley's Farm and sometimes at Nicklaus North.

The season wound down on Feb. 28th with a final tally of 66 species of the 119 on our winter bird list, hardly surprising, but it could have been worse. Overdue in the absentees are: Golden eagle, Blue (sooty) grouse, American coot, Band-tailed pigeon, American three-toed woodpecker, Ruby-crowned kinglet, Purple finch, White-crowned sparrow, and somehow we failed to get a report on any Great horned owls!

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