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.