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Desert Society News

December 2014
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Dear Supporters:

As this is my first President's Message, here are a few words of introduction. I moved to our farm near Nighthawk in 1970, and my interest in the wild lands of the South Okanagan and Similkameen quickly developed. With concern, I have watched the rather rapid conversion of the surrounding landscape. I have worked on numerous conservation initiatives, including stewardship of wild places on privately held lands, and was delighted to join the Osoyoos Desert Society Board in 2011 and become your new President at the 2014 Annual General Meeting. Following the dedicated guidance Past President, Mat Hassen gave to the Board was a daunting thought. However, with his assistance and the patience of Board members and our Executive Director, I am easing my way into the position.

As the winter solstice approaches we reflect on the successes of our 24th year and on how insightful the Desert Society's Founding Board were. Without their vision and dedication, we would not be watching the rebirth of this 67 acre site.

As in the past, many Society projects were underway or completed during 2014. Several projects are highlighted in this newsletter. In addition to the featured projects, the Desert Society also hosted a very successful Winter Program series last year, and once again welcomed thousands of visitors to the Desert Centre to learn about the South Okanagan's incredible natural habitat.

Several factors facilitate our successes. Each factor is equally important, one complementing the other. Funding from BC Gaming, the Town of Osoyoos, RDOS Area A, foundations, local businesses, and individuals, provide more than half the Society's budget. The board, staff and members thank each and every funder for helping preserve the antelope-brush ecosystem at the Desert Centre.

Volunteers and members are integral to the success of both the Board and the Desert Centre. Your support IS our success. May we be blessed with it into our 25th year and long beyond.

In closing, I wish you all many lovely surprises over the holiday season and may 2015 be one of good health and good cheer.

Lee McFadyen
President, Osoyoos Desert Society

Clever as a Crow
By Michelle Lancaster
Education Coordinator, Osoyoos Desert Society

There are multiple ways to describe intelligence. It has been defined as one's ability for logic, communication and abstract thought or the ability to learn, plan, problem solve and memorize. Webster's dictionary defines intelligence as the ability to learn or understand things or to deal with new or difficult situations. Whichever definition you choose, one thing is for sure ... crows are pretty smart.

When it comes to the animal kingdom, crows exhibit more complex communication than most other species. They use their beaks, wings and body language much like we use hand gestures to point or draw attention. Such complex gestures have only been documented in humans and primates. Crows also communicate with warning calls, and have different warning calls for people, hawks and cats. In fact, scientists have identified over 250 distinct crow calls. Each crow has an individual voice as well, with at least two different dialects. One loud version for the general crow community and a separate soft version for talk within the family.

Research has shown crows have the ability to recognize human faces and even pick a particular face out of a crowd. In a study by wildlife biologist John M. Marzluff with the University of Washington, crows were able to recognize a "dangerous" face and remember it. They were also able to pass this information on to other crows and teach it to their young. The young birds learned "that person is dangerous" without ever directly experiencing the danger first hand. This means that crows are able to pass information on to the next generation. This type of communication has only been recorded in a few species such as humans, apes, monkeys and dolphins.

Scientists have done other tests to see if crows have the ability to use tools. Not only were most test subjects able to master the different challenges, the majority were able to figure out the solution on the first attempt. One such experiment forced crows to think "outside the box". Scientists armed a crow with a short stick then left the crow in a room with two cages. One cage housed a tempting chunk of meat just out of reach of the short stick. The second cage contained a longer stick. The crow made fast work of the test by immediately using the shorter stick to retrieve the longer stick which it then used to reach the food. In another test, scientists filled a pitcher with water and floated a worm in the water just beyond the reach of the crows. The crows were supplied with a pile of stones. Not only did the crows use the stones to raise the water level in the pitcher, they were also able to recognize they should use the larger of the stones first.

Cunning as a fox. Strong as an ox. Brave as a bear. Clever as a crow? It may not be a common phrase but a well deserving title nonetheless
New Interpretive Signage

Thanks to funding from Fortis BC and the Community Foundation of the South Okanagan Similkameen, the Society is replacing the interpretive signage at the Desert Centre. Some new signage is already on display - the remaining signs will be installed in the spring of 2015. We hope you will stop by next season to check them out!

New Viewing Deck

As part of its interpretive signage project, the Society is planning to build a new viewing deck at the Desert Centre. The deck will provide visitors with a better view of signage and a place to stop and enjoy the scenery. If you would like to make a donation to help fund the new deck, please  click here to download a Membership/Donation form.

Wildlife Cameras

For the past two years the Society has been collecting data on wildlife at the Desert Centre using game cameras funded by the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation. Notable species photographed so far include black bear, coyote, deer, cottontail, racoon and bobcat (pictured below). We plan to continue to use the cameras in the years ahead, and hope to one day get a close-up of a cougar and a badger.

Water-wise Garden

This October the Society partnered with the RBC Blue Water Project and the Town of Osoyoos to create a water-wise garden next to Town Hall Square. The garden features native and drought-tolerant plants and is designed to showcase the benefits of water-wise landscaping. Work on the garden will continue in the spring, including the addition of an informational sign.

2015 Winter Program Series 
Hosted by the Osoyoos Desert Society
Sponsored by Watermark Beach Resort 
February 21 ~ 2-4 pm ~ Watermark Beach Resort

Get a glimpse into the world of wolves in the documentary 'The Rise of Black Wolf'. Join local ecologists John and Mary Theberge, wolf researchers personally familiar with the black wolf featured in the film. Find out about the Theberge's current wolf research, as well as the results of their intensive wolf-prey research in Algonquin Park, Ontario and its conservation success.
FOOD & GMOs-Movie & An Expert
February 28 ~ 2-4 pm ~ Watermark Beach Resort

View the documentary 'GMO OMG' for an up-close and personal look at the issue of genetically modified food. The film tells the story of a father's discovery of GMOs in relationship to his children and the world around him. Following the film, get an insider's perspective on farming issues in the South Okanagan with local organic farmer and naturalist Lee McFadyen.
BIRDS OF PREY-Behind-the-Scenes
March 21 ~ 2-4 pm
at the South Okanagan Rehabilitation Centre for Owls
Space is limited ~ Registration required ~ 250-495-2470

Tour the SORCO facility with Executive Manager Lauren Meads. Learn about the release process and get a behind-the-scenes peek at the Centre's new rehabilitation facility. See the Burrowing Owl breeding facility on-site and learn about efforts to re-introduce this endangered bird in BC.
WATER WAYS-Movie & An Expert
Date TBA ~ 2-4 pm ~ Watermark Beach Resort

View an award-winning documentary focusing on water. Experience the natural beauty of our water habitats, and the challenges they are facing. Following the film, learn about the water quality and quantity issues impacting Osoyoos Lake in a question and answer session presented by the Osoyoos Lake Water Quality Society.


Bringing the Burrowing Owl Back to BC's Grasslands
By Lauren Meads, BSc, MSc
South Okanagan Site Coordinator for the
Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC

Natural History of the Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) are a small (150-180 g) species of owl that nests in the natural grasslands of North and South America. They live in burrows that are first constructed by other burrowing mammals; in British Columbia these mammals are usually badgers and ground squirrels. They are the only owl that nests in the ground, hence their name "burrowing." When they first establish a burrow, they remodel the inside by kicking out old dirt. Preferring to hunt at dawn and dusk, they often spend the day loafing around their burrows or perched on fence posts. They hunt primarily rodents such as deer mice, pocket gophers and voles. They also dine on grasshoppers, which is beneficial to the ranching community. Additional food items caught include other insects, small birds, small amphibians and reptiles. Red-tailed Hawks, Swainson's Hawks and Northern Harriers are their main predators.

The Burrowing Owl is found throughout North America. In Canada, they breed in the grasslands of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba. Historically, they could also be found in the grasslands of the Thompson-Nicola region and the South Okanagan. In early fall (September and October), the Canadian owls migrate to the southern United States and Mexico. These owls return from their wintering grounds in March and early April. The male owls then build a food cache to attract a female to breed with. After copulation they will build a nest, which can include shredded cattle manure, and lay 6-12 eggs. During the 25-day incubation period, the male must hunt to feed both him and the female. The chicks hatch over several days, resulting in the smallest juvenile being unable to compete with its older and larger siblings. For successful brood rearing, both female and male owls need to be excellent hunters and must provide up to 30 rodents per day for their fast growing offspring. After eight weeks the juveniles fledge and learn to hunt on their own in preparation for their fall migration.

Sadly, these charismatic owls have been disappearing throughout their range over the last 30 years. In Canada they are listed as endangered, and in British Columbia they were deemed extirpated in the early 1980s. Populations in Alberta and Saskatchewan are still decreasing, and the population in Manitoba was also deemed extirpated in the late 1990s.

There are several potential reasons for declines in Burrowing Owl populations: loss of habitat due to land development; loss of prey species (rodents, grasshoppers), possibly due to agriculture spraying; and the loss of burrowing animals (badgers, ground squirrels, marmots) to dig the holes Burrowing Owls live in. These factors combined with climate changes make this a complex, multi-level conservation issue.

Re-Introducing Burrowing Owls to BC

In 1990 a group of dedicated volunteers headed by Mike Mackintosh decided to establish a captive breeding re-introduction program for the Burrowing Owl. In 2000, they officially established the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC (BOCS) in response to the need for captive breeding, field activities, education programs and further scientific knowledge.
BOCS works with the Burrowing Owl National Recovery Team and the Ministry of Environment to re-establish populations of Burrowing Owls in British Columbia. The Burrowing Owl Estate Winery located in Oliver, BC initially offered volunteer support and over the last 10 years has been a major financial contributor to the program. Other government grants and public support have enabled the work to continue.

The largest breeding facility was established at the BC Wildlife Park in Kamloops in the mid-1990s, to accompany the breeding facility (started in the early 1990s) in the Lower Mainland which is now located in Port Kells, BC. The breeding facilities maintain a founder population of Burrowing Owls to produce genetically diverse juveniles, which are released as one-year olds. The first release of captive-bred owls in BC occurred in 1992, when nine owls were placed into artificial burrows in the Thompson-Nicola region. The breeding and release program has flourished over the last 20 years, and now close to 50 pairs of young owls are released each year in the Thompson-Nicola.

Starting in 2010, BOCS also began releasing Burrowing Owls back into the South Okanagan. Currently, owls are released at three sites on ranch land, Provincial Land and a Nature Conservancy site. To complement the reintroduction efforts in the South Okanagan, a third breeding facility was built in Oliver, BC and opened in 2011. Breeding started in earnest at this facility in 2013, with the introduction of new wild caught owls from Oregon to increase the genetic diversity of the captive-bred population.

Currently the Society monitors 14 active release sites located on private ranch, Provincial and NGO land between Kamloops and Merritt, and in the South Okanagan. Since 1991, the Society has built and installed over 800 artificial burrows. The artificial burrow system is constructed with landscaping buckets and 3m long pipe buried deep in the ground.

In early April, before the owls are released, 35-40 soft-release cages are erected at the burrows to house each released Burrowing Owl pair for two weeks. The 4x4x4-foot enclosures are made of a PVC frame covered by a fine mesh that is placed over the burrow entrances. Research by Aimee Mitchell (MSc, 2008) demonstrated that the soft-release cages increase reproductive success and site fidelity and aid in the transition from captivity to the wild (See Table 1). This allows the owls to see the environment into which they've been released while protecting them from predators. The owls are fed a diet of farmed mice while the soft-release cages are up and after two weeks the cages are removed. At the time of cage removal the majority of pairs have initiated nesting and/or egg production.

Field monitors visit the released sites throughout the breeding season to document the behaviours of the released yearling owls, provide supplementary food, count eggs and nestlings, band juveniles, identify returning owls (back from migration) and track the movements of the owls.

All of the released adult owls and 4-5 week old wild-born juveniles are banded with a US Fish and Wildlife Service aluminum band and a Green/Black alpha-numeric band. The Green/Black band is unique to BC Burrowing Owls, allowing them to be identified along their migration route and at the wintering grounds. BC owls have been sighted from Washington to California.

Number of released and returned birds from 1992-2013 (adopted from Aimee Mitchell, 2008)
BOLD: Years using soft release caging
Total no. recruited to population: The number of owls that have returned from migration each year

Outlook for BC's Burrowing Owls
The good grassland stewardship practices (i.e. grazing regimes) of the private landowners involved in the Burrowing Owl re-introduction program ensure foraging opportunities for cattle and owls. The landowners of the Thompson-Nicola region and South Okanagan are instrumental to the future survival of the Burrowing Owl in British Columbia. They have contributed to the success of the recovery program and are essential to its future.

Ongoing Burrowing Owl recovery work in British Columbia will focus on increasing our knowledge of their migration route, expanding public education about grassland ecology, continuing to monitor and survey released and returning owls and supporting landowners and ranchers in their stewardship efforts.

Protecting existing grasslands is paramount to the survival of Burrowing Owls. You can also contribute by reporting any sightings of Burrowing Owls to the BOCS (www.burrowingowlbc.org). The combined efforts of BOCS, BC ranchers and the public can help ensure these charismatic birds will be found in British Columbia for years to come.
As 2014 draws to a close, the Osoyoos Desert Society would like to acknowledge and thank all the
government agencies, foundations, businesses and individuals who generously supported us
throughout the past year. Your support makes our projects and programs possible.

* BC Gaming
* Fortis BC
* Global Awareness Club
* Osoyoos Golf Club
* RBC Blue Water Project
* Real Estate Foundation of BC
* Regional District-RDOS, Area A
* Royal Canadian Legion Branch #173
* Suncor Energy Foundation
* Town Of Osoyoos

Our sincere appreciation to all the individuals who gave donations to the Society throughout the year, as well as the businesses who kindly donated services and products to support our programs and projects.

Romancing the Desert Supporters
A big thank you to our 'Romancing the Desert' supporters. The Desert Society's annual fundraiser would not be possible without the generosity of the participating restaurants and wineries, and the many local businesses and individuals who donate their products and expertise. Thanks to you, this year's 'Romancing' raised over $10,000 to help support the Society's conservation, restoration and education efforts.

Volunteers and Members
As always, a very special thanks to our volunteers and members. You make it possible for the Osoyoos Desert Society to exist and continue to pursue its mission. Thank you for helping to conserve our desert habitat for future generations!
Your support makes a difference. Memberships and donations help fund the Desert Society's
habitat conservation, restoration and education efforts.

Membership is $25/year.

Members receive a bi-annual newsletter, and FREE admission to the Desert Centre.


Payment may be made through the secure, encrypted PayPal link, or you can  click here  to download a mail-in registration form.


Thank you!

For more information visit our website www.desert.org or follow us on social media. 
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 The Osoyoos Desert Society