This winter in Southern Ontario has so far presented a mix of conditions including bitter cold wind chills of -22C as well as milder days with temperatures well above freezing. There have also been a few horrid days of freezing rain which have left roads and fields treacherous.
Throughout I have visited the visiting snowy owls on the chance of making some memorable images.
Last Friday I found five snowy owls roosting in fields after a night of freezing rain. Every blade of grass, every corn stalk, was encased with ice so walking across the fields was both hazardous and very noisy. The owls were surprised by each step I made.
I chose to focus on one of two pure white adult males that I am finding consistently. Both have proven easier to develop a ‘relationship’ with than others – meaning they will allow me fairly close.
As a rule of thumb if an owl – or any species for that matter – alters its behaviour because of your presence then you are too close.
I went into a field intent on capturing this one surrounded by ice. He watched and heard me approach. When I got close enough I tried to kneel down but the ice wouldn’t allow a comfortable position. I went back to my car to stretch my legs and then changed batteries before returning to the owl.
Since it was late in the afternoon, a time when the owls prepare to go to their preferred hunting spot, this owl was looking around studying two or three others in the area. He cleaned his feathers and talons and generally bided his time. Another thirty minutes passed before an owl in an adjacent field flew away.
This male remained in place for another few minutes then walked a few steps to a clear spot on the ground. He pooped then took off across the ice covered field. If you look close he even has ice across the back of his head.
Two days later the weather was much different. Some sunshine between cloudy periods and a temperature of 3C rendering the fields a near flood zone. I discovered my waterproof boots and pants were no longer waterproof.
This same male roosting was about a hundred metres from where I had photographed him on Friday. This time he was in an adjacent field. A female owl was standing another hundred metres further away facing the wind and surveying her options for the evening hunt. I would meet up with her later in the evening. When she flew to her favourite tree the male owl watched intently.
He groomed his feathers, cleaned the mud out of his talons and kept looking around. When another car came slowly down the dirt road – another photographer – he stared intensely. Moments later he flew past the spot where the female had been and landed on top of a fencepost. So, that’s where he likes to hunt! A useful bit of intelligence.
As I write I am preparing for today’s visit to snowy owl country. I have fully charged three camera batteries although with the temperature milder today I probably won’t need all three. I have prepared my bottle of ice-water and grabbed a snack.
A reader asked what time is the best time to see owls and I must say with the days getting longer it means the owls roost later. Patience is essential. I will not approach an owl until about two hours prior to sundown and preferably if they there is activity already.
With the weather fluctuations I still hope we will see these owls for another six weeks or so. But with the arctic warming there were fewer nesting snowy owls last summer and those that did breed appeared to do so later. These are challenging times for nature. We are blessed to have these beautiful birds each winter.