A small West Coast bird that somehow landed in eastern Ontario in 2015 is finally catching a plane home to British Columbia today — but it's departing on a sad note.

Ray Holland, the Ottawa-area birdwatcher who first spotted and rescued the Bullock's oriole — and then staunchly defended the bird's identity despite claims he'd miscategorized it — died before he could see the bird off.

The 73-year-old Holland died of heart failure at the Ottawa Heart Institute last week.

"We're so sad for his family. He was so important to the birding community. We hope that people are inspired by his work," said Sandra Iseman, a spokesperson for the Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre, which has been caring for the bird after it nearly froze to death some two years ago.

bullock's oriole

The sighting of this Bullock's oriole in 2015 drew hundreds of birdwatchers to Pakenham, Ont. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Unlikely discovery

In the fall of 2015, Holland, an avid birder, and a colleague made the exceedingly rare discovery of an orange-plumed Bullock's oriole in Pakenham, Ont., while out looking for a completely different species.

"Quite by chance, sitting in a tree with a whole bunch of house sparrows, there was [the oriole]," Holland said at the time. "We had to look at each other twice."

Amateur ornithologists from across the province flocked by the hundreds to Pakenham to focus their binoculars and telephoto lenses on the exotic visitor, which closely resembles the better-known Baltimore oriole.

Holland kept a fatherly eye on the oriole and a month later — when the temperatures dipped below those suitable for a California native — he scooped the motionless creature out of the snow and had it delivered to the bird care centre to recover.

Fragile yet resilient

Iseman said interest in the bird Holland discovered drew more donations, more inquires and more offers of help than any bird they've had before.

"I think this lost oriole, who's so fragile yet so resilient, has really captivated that spirt that people see as representing hope," she said.

Not everyone believed Holland's claim the bird was, in fact, a Bullock's oriole. Initial mitochondrial DNA testing seemed to suggest the bird had a fair bit of Baltimore oriole ancestry — and that led to both good-natured jesting and claims of malfeasance.

Sandra Iseman

Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre spokesperson Sandra Iseman said the Bullock's oriole Ray Holland saved brought in more donations and offers of help than any other bird.

"It's horrible going into a pub and have a lot people saying, 'Holland! How's your fake bird doing?" he said 2016. "People were saying it was a big scam to get money for the Wild Bird Care Centre ... It became a big joke."

Nuclear DNA testing later proved both of the bird's parents were Bullock's orioles, restoring Holland's reputation.

The province of British Columbia later expedited a permit needed to move the migratory bird across provincial borders and get it back to the coast. Air Canada even offered to fly the oriole in a special carrier, in a first-class seat, from Ottawa to Vancouver.

A 'fantastic mentor'

While Holland didn't live to see the bird make her westward journey, his family has asked that donations be made in his name to the Wild Bird Care Centre.

A date for memorial hasn't been set. 

The local birding community is still in shock over Holland's sudden death, said Richard Waters, who was with him the day they found the wayward oriole.

'Ray loved showing that bird to people.' - Richard Waters, Ray Holland's colleague

Holland was a "fantastic mentor" with a competitive streak, once pitching the idea of a trophy for the local birdwatcher who spotted the most birds in one year, said Waters.

"People ring me up every day to give me their condolences because they knew Ray and me were pretty close. It's just such a shock that he went so quickly," Waters said.

"Ray loved showing that bird to people. They came from all around the country to see that bird. He loved it."