I’ve seen Snowy Owls many times but only in captivity. Several zoos and raptor rehabilitation facilities keep Snowies that are not able to be returned to the wild due to severe injuries. I’ve always wanted to see a “wild” one though and I keep a half-hearted eye on fence posts and barn roofs when driving by wide open fields in winter. That wasn’t how I finally saw my first wild Snowy though.
I believe this is a female (juvenile or adult) Snowy Owl given the intensely dark barring.
According to the Cornell University website, there is a major irruption of Snowy Owls in south-eastern Canada and the north-east US this year. This map of sightings from eBird makes that obvious!
Snowy reports were being made all around me. There were owls in farm fields, owls at airports and owls at parks and marinas. If I was going to get a glimpse of one, this seemed like the month to try.
Yesterday was the first day the sun has shone around here in weeks. It was brisk, about -9 C with a light chilling breeze. The worst of the recent snow had been cleared off the main roads. So I took a chance and went to a park along Lake Ontario to try my luck.
My Snowy is in here. Can you spot it?
The park has large limestone boulders dumped into breakwaters. More limestone blocks guard the shore from erosion. The calmer water had frozen, cracked into large shields, and re-frozen. I looked at this jumble of grey rock and sullen ice, sparkling snow and glittering icicles and wondered why I thought I’d ever be able to spot a white and black or dark brown bird in this perfect environment for a Snowy’s camouflage.
Snowy’s are large owls but that doesn’t mean they are big animals. They are only about 60 cm (2 feet) “long.”
So I stood in a snow drift and started to scan along the ridge of the distant breakwater looking for anything that didn’t quite match. At one point, I did see a ‘bump’ and I took two careful photos. I started to scan further along, when my peripheral vision said the colour of the ‘bump’ had changed. Excited, I re-focused and took more photos. Yes! It was moving. And I was sure that it must be turning its head flashing a white face mask towards then away from me.
I opened the cover to check my camera’s screen. By zooming I was finally able to see what I was looking at and yes, it was a Snowy. My first “wild” view!
Given the great distance between us, I knew I wouldn’t get any of the razor sharp photos you see in magazines. But I kept taking shots anyway.
The bird was resting, but keeping an eye on anything happening. It had chosen a spot where it could scout the lake and the inner harbour without moving anything but its head. Canada Geese and mergansers flew by and it watched them. Other times, it closed its eyes and rested.
Notice that the Snowy has turned to face the geese.
Most of us know Snowy’s eat lemmings but I didn’t know until recently that they enjoy a dinner of duck, grebe and goose too. Given the location of this bird, that’s probably what its preferred prey would consist of.
Happy with my chance to see an undisturbed owl, I eventually left. Needless to say, I was bubbling with happiness for the rest of the day!
Have you seen a “wild” Snowy this year? Please share your experiences with a comment.