The sighting of a barn owl may seriously delay construction of the Port Ryerse Wind Farm.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has confirmed that at least one of the endangered birds was spotted in the Port Ryerse area this summer.
Wind farm developer Boralex last week agreed to delay construction of the four-turbine project for one month while the ministry investigates further.
If the barn owl merely stopped over in Port Ryerse on a flight to its home elsewhere, the wind farm project won’t be affected.
But if the owl took up residence with a mate, the province might order a one-year moratorium on construction within one kilometre of the owls’ home.
Further owl sightings could lead to a five-year moratorium.
Barn owls are an endangered species in Ontario.
The province had only four pairs in the early 1980s.
This summer’s sighting in Port Ryerse was the first in Ontario in about five years.
Residents took photos and retrieved feathers to document the owl.
Some villagers say they saw two owls and heard the owls talking at night.
Many Port Ryerse people have fought the proposed wind farm since its announcement in 2011.
In August, the Ministry of Environment approved the project to be built on four farms east of Port Ryerse.
Two residents filed appeals with the Environmental Review Tribunal. The tribunal started dealing with the appeals at a session in Simcoe on Oct. 6.
But the session didn’t get far before barn owls were mentioned.
The tribunal stayed its proceedings for a month to give the MNR time to research the Port Ryerse owl sighting.
There are many questions, said Bernie Solymar of the Ontario Barn Owl Recovery Project, which works closely with the MNR and Bird Studies Canada.
Was there more than one owl? If so, were the owls breeding?
The barn owl was sighted on a number of occasions in July.
For the last two months, there’s been no sign of the owl, Mr. Solymar said in an interview.
It’s believed that barn owls fly to southern Ohio or New York State for the winter.
But they do return to their nests in warm weather. Their offspring return too.
This summer’s sighting was a surprise after the harsh winter, Mr. Solymar said.
Owl nesting boxes were built in the Port Ryerse area in the early 2000s.
These boxes need to be checked, Mr. Solymar said.
The barn owl sighting gives hope that the Port Ryerse Wind Farm can be stopped, said Bill Irvin, a village resident who filed one of the appeals to the review tribunal.
“The barn owl being endangered could end up being the turning point and the symbol of all that’s going on,” he said.
A pair of eagles built a nest and raised their young near the wind turbine site this year.
Eagles are not considered endangered.
Boralex has promised to take steps to protect the eagles, especially while young birds are learning to fly.
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