Last week I drove up to Mennonite farm country three times in search of what has been my favourite species – the snowy owl. Normally, I find a handful in the fields where I concentrate my efforts. I have yet to see one in the 2023/2024 winter.

My owl biologist friends tell me that they were unable to find a single snowy owl nest in the arctic last summer. Following on from the year 2022 – when they found only one successful nest – it doesn’t bode well for large numbers of snowy owls migrating this far south again.

Indeed, a year ago none of the owls I photographed were yearlings – those born in the summer. All showed signs of feather moulting which happens on an annual basis. They were two and three years olds along with several fully mature ones.

Still, there have been recent sightings along Lake Erie, on Amherst Island near Kingston and even in the area I attend. A fellow Cambridge photographer showed me an image he’d captured of a heavily barred snowy atop a grain silo. So there is reason for optimism.

It is always a pleasant experience when set out on a mission to find snowy owls. There is a familiarity with the people up there which I quite enjoy. While filling up my recently bought charcoal grey Mazda 3 hatchback at an Elmira gas station Friday a voice came over the intercom. “Paul, is that a new car? I miss the blue one!”

I waved to the lady who has been serving there for as long as I remember. Big snowy owls fans at that Esso station!

Further on my route there were numerous double takes as Mennonite mothers or fathers drove by and at the last second recognized me – if not my car – as I drove slowly with my windows down in the freezing cold. They waved and smiled. 

When I saw two ladies walking with a stroller from one farm I stopped to say hello. One of them laughed and said, ‘You got rid of your blue car!’ 

Three slow laps of the area yielded nothing. Lots of crows. A rough-legged hawk which has made two fields its exclusive hunting grounds was perched in its favourite tree. Then I spotted what I thought was a female northern harrier gliding along hedgerows occasionally changing direction abruptly. At one point it sat on a fencepost to rest.

Through my binoculars I realized it was not a harrier at all. Rather, it was a short-eared owl and, judging by its dark feathers, an adult female.

I turned my car around and waited to see if she might come back towards me but she went along the fence line at the back of this property. I drove slowly along the road to the next hedgerow just in case she might return. I am glad I did. She came towards me and although the light was very poor – it was dusk after all – I managed a few images.

She continued her journey listening for mice and voles and pouncing on occasion. I didn’t have to wait long before she returned.

It is wonderful to encounter a species which I have never EVER even seen in the wild before let alone capture in flight. They are considered a ‘species of special concern’ in Canada even though they are widespread across Europe and Asia as well as the Americas. However, their numbers, like those of many birds, are declining.

As I often say, you never know what you might find when you get outdoors. I hope to have more encounters with short-eared owls as I await the arrival of the much larger snowy owls to these fields. 




  1. Julie Elder

    Hi Paul, happy New Years.

    No Snowy out my way either. Not cold enough maybe. I’m in Welland and have been following you for awhile. Only saw 1 Snowy last year, 2023, but too far for my lens. Saw 0 in 2022. I’ve been following Snowies for about 10 years plus. I started in Ottawa South.

    I’m laid off at the moment, so I should go scout about. I ought to invest in a better lens though.

    The hot spot in St. Catharines for Snowy is the back roads by St. Catherine’s Hospital. I’ll touch base if I see them again. One year there was more 5 of them. Think that was 2018.

    Chat soon,

    1. Paul E Gains

      Hi Julie, good luck in your search! I know the numbers are down with my contacts in Saskatchewan where the researchers would find 35 or so owls on a typical morning – a few years back! And Norman Smith, who has been trapping and releasing snowy owls at Boston Logan International Airport for decades has only seen one there! So the lack of nests and perhaps avian flu (?) might have something to do with it. Fingers crossed!

    1. Paul E Gains

      Hi Brad, I hold out hope that it’s just a matter of them settling down in a place they are comfortable. The population numbers are decreasing so maybe they don’t have to migrate as far to find a winter dining room! I will keep looking just not as frequent as usual! Happy new year!

  2. Patricia Bruce

    Hi Paul, Happy New Year, the photos of the Short Eared Owl were so good my favorite was the one it was looking straight at you, beautiful bird.
    It’s worrisome new about the Snowy, we need to stay positive there will be many sightings soon.

    1. Paul E Gains

      Yes it is concerning. But I spoke with a wildlife rescue person in Saskatchewan this evening and she casually mentioned they have seen lots of snowy owls out that way. It’s a shorter distance from the arctic. So I have my fingers crossed that we might see some down this way in the next couple of weeks. And ironically another snowy owl contact, who deals traps, bands and releases snowy owls at Boston Logan International Airport has only see one snowy but several short-eared owls this winter so far. So, let’s give it up for the short-eared owl!

  3. Daniel Entz

    Those are excellent shots, Paul.

    Four days ago, on January 4, I saw a Short=eared Owl near Plattsville. It’s been 15 plus years since I’ve seen one, so I was super-excited.

    Well done.

    Daniel Entz

    1. Paul E Gains

      Excellent! They seem to be turning up where snowy owls are normally found. A contact in Massachusetts told me he’s only seen one snowy owl down that way – highly unusual, but several short-eared owls. I was delighted to capture a few images though I will be out again looking for them in better light! Keep at it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *