They arrived here in late January and apparently looked at the weather forecast for March and decided the troubling mid-winter warmth in southern Ontario wasn’t to their liking.

I am talking about snowy owls.

On recent expeditions I have not been able to find a single one. Even the young male that had become used to me trudging through the mud to greet him and, who sometimes remained in place after dark, has seemingly vanished.

Saturday was the last time I spotted any snowy owl in the area I focus upon. And this was as I was taking a final lap of the area.

There in the gloomy light was a white spot. The adult male owl that arrived in this area only two weeks ago was perched on a fencepost so I stopped. The field, instead of being covered in snow as it is in a typical winter, was a muddy mess.

I wandered as far as I could along strip of grass and took a few shots. Had I been wearing my waterproof trousers – in my haste I had forgotten they were on the back seat of my car – I would have maneuvered into a better position – not closer, but where I might have a head on shot. Besides, I didn’t think this might be my last time viewing him. I always think there will be future opportunities.

At one point he turned towards me and lowered his head. He seemed to be tracing movement behind me. I figured it was one of the short-eared owls that I have seen hunting at dusk. I was thinking ‘go on, go after it’.  Snowy owls will prey on short-eared owls. In fact Scott Weidensaul of Project Snowstorm told me that, in the absence of snowy owls in much of North America this winter, it has become a ‘banner year’ for shorties.

Norman Smith of the Massachusetts Audubon Society has been trapping and releasing snowy owls at Boston Logan International Airport for 43 years and would normally have trapped dozens by this time. He has only seen one snowy this winter. Lots of short-eared owls though.

Still, while I was backing up my recent photos to two external hard drives the other day I realized that I have been fortunate to have thousands of hours with snowy owls over the years. Many people have not been as lucky.   Then I thought about some of the encounters I have enjoyed this ‘winter’.

The young male that I have blogged about was a joy to behold. Truly, he had become comfortable with me as I had employed the same tactic that I have used over the past decade.- going into the field, taking a few pictures then leaving him alone to consider me as a non-threat. The fact that he would clean his feathers and talons and sit for sometimes an hour and twenty minutes with me near by told me he was comfortable.

Normally by this time I would have had at least twice as many encounters and that could often result in watching an owl hunt and swallow prey. Like this female who regularly hunted – and ate her prey – in front of me during the winter of 2017-2018.

Or, the star of my winter of 2020/2021 this young female who regularly caught voles and gulped them down with me in the field watching. She was so considerate that she would always turn to face me.

This winter has had challenges for both wildlife and for humans. Farmers, for instance, want to see frozen ground covered by snow at this time.  Out on the prairies there is fear of a drought ahead. 

Climate change is likely at the bottom of this conundrum. Still, when I look at the experiences I have had this past month I have to admit there has been much enjoyment even if I didn’t capture the intimacy of a successful hunt with my camera.  

These next two photos were shot a couple of weeks ago. There was just me and the owl in the same field he had chosen all that week. I removed my teleconverter before I went into the field this time to maximize light. The teleconverter causes a loss of light and at dusk there’s not much to begin with.

After about an hour he decided it was time to move. He was looking across the fields behind him possibly at the short-eared owls that like to hunt there. And he looked up in the air at something that he could see flying. When he ultimately took off I managed a sequence of shots as he flew to the tree.

I left him there, surveying the fields from his commanding position, and walked back through the mud to my car. Again, I had to think how blessed I had been to spend time with him.

I will make a few more visits up there just in case the owls have simply moved to a nearby field that I haven’t surveyed. But I am feeling less confident of finding them.  Perhaps, they have begun their migration back to the arctic. Of course, there are short-eared owls to experience.

Hopefully, snowy owls will rebound in coming years but I am not overly optimistic. Their numbers have been decreasing globally for the past decade and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classifies them as ‘Vulnerable’ which is one step away from ‘Endangered’. 

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Registration for ‘Coyotes: The Misunderstood Predator’ has gone so well that the folks at Idea Exchange have opened up another 40 seats.

Once again this photo presentation is scheduled for Wednesday April 17th at Idea Exchange (The Old Post Office) 12 Water St. S, Cambridge. Please note that it begins at 6:30 p.m. in order to allow time for questions following my formal presentation.

Here, again, is the link to register – please copy and past into your browser. There is no admission cost but registration will help ensure there is adequate seating.

https://ideaexchange.libnet.info/event/10054061

6 Comments

    1. Paul E Gains

      Thanks, Brad. Let’s see what researchers find during the arctic breeding season. Over the past five or six weeks I have met a lot of folks who just want to see a snowy owl. The magnetism of this species is amazing!

  1. Patricia Bruce

    Thanks again Paul for you great photos and story along with the photos. I sure understand why the Snowys are a favorite they are such a magnificent looking Owl.
    We didn’t even go looking for Snowy this year after you only sighting one. We will try next year in hopes of more.

    1. Paul E Gains

      Hi Pat, it has not been a very good year for snowy sightings anywhere in southern Ontario or the northern US either. But I must emphasise I go to the same 10 square kilometre area every year. There may be owls in fields outside ‘my’ area. The fact that birders and photographers were driving two or three hours to see the owls in these fields would further support the notion that this was ‘the hot spot’ again this year. Actually, I have just got home from another surgery of the area. Again, I didn’t see any owls. And, the farmer who owns the field where I photographed that adult male Saturday told me today that was the only owl he’d seen all winter. It appeared only last week to him. Troubling! Let’s hope things turn around.

    1. Paul E Gains

      I am reminded by Scott Weidensaul at Project Snowstorm there have been other years where snowy owl numbers have been low. But, from a personal experience, this has been the worst year I have ever seen. And others have said the same thing. Perhaps they will breed well in the arctic during the summer and so will the lemmings upon which the snowies depend.

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