When you spend a lot of time observing and photographing a particular bird or animal you can grow attached to them. You notice their absence. And, I must admit, this can be a source of concern.

A female snowy owl which had become comfortable enough with me that she would hunt while I stood in ‘her’ field seemed to have vanished.  I hadn’t seen her for a couple of weeks. The tree where I would normally find her is often occupied now by a rough legged hawk. Why these large owls would avoid other raptors is a mystery.

Every winter dozens of snowy owls are hit by motor vehicles in southern Ontario and I feared my ‘friend’ had been a victim.

Driving my usual lap of farm roads yesterday I spotted a female owl in a field. She was on the ground which was not at all surprising since the wind was very, very strong. I rolled down my car window and looked at this owl through my binoculars and was delighted to see it was my favourite owl, her ‘eyebrows’ distinctive from other owls in the area. This field was across the road from where she had formerly hunted.

As I stood at the side of the road the wind was coming straight at me and it was very hard to hold my camera still. There was also a slight drizzle making light challenging. She stared at me. I remember what I had been told by a biologist friend: that owls are smart and may well recognize me and my car. After a couple of minutes she spotted movement in the field near me and suddenly lifted off.

Spotting her prey the owl lifts off in powerful winds to attack.

Within seconds she had captured a meadow vole in her talons about 15 metres from me and took it back to her original spot to dine.

In a short few seconds she gulped down the vole – swallowing it whole. I have seen her do this twice before in recent weeks and I had seen her catch a mouse too.

She carried the vole to a comfortable space then took it from her talons with her beak.

I had the impression that she wanted to go to higher ground, a utility pole perhaps, but the wind was incredible. Several times she lifted off and the wind carried her ten or fifteen metres before she would land.  I couldn’t bear to watch. Since it was a little after 5pm the traffic was constant along this road and I feared she might be struck if she made a wrong move and drifted into the path of a truck. I have seen owls struggle to land on a perch on days like this.

I noticed her attention was further down the field and I suppose she was watching the movements of another owl that had slowly made its way to a spot maybe 1,500 metres further along.

After swallowing the vole she moved about the same area but always looked behind maybe at another owl.

The rain was now causing havoc with my glasses and  camera equipment. And because snowy owls can go several days without hunting I figured I would not see her hunt again so I decided to leave the area.

After wiping off my equipment I started to drive home stopping only to see if another female owl I had photographed several times was in her usual place. As I drove slowly I saw her land in a field next to the road. Again I used my binoculars to identify the owl  and concluded it was, indeed, the same one that is here like clockwork. 

Once again I had been fortunate to see a snowy owl in action. They won’t be here much longer as the begin their migration back to the Arctic breeding grounds in March or early April. The conditions may not always be the best for photography but I am always grateful for the experiences I have with these remarkable birds


  1. Lynn Kanuka

    Wow… absolutely gorgeous… and so natural… so primitive… I’m so glad this environment still exists in some places for these incredible creatures… my daughter once had a huge fascination with owls… we would go to the wild bird refuge centre to see the birds that had been rescued and I remember being horrified to discover their main predator is MAN because these beautiful creatures are hit by cars as they try to dive for that rodent who is chasing the apple core thrown from the car…
    Thank-you for sharing… it fills me with energy to see them:)

    1. Paul E Gains

      Thanks Lynn. It gives me great pleasure to watch animals – and especially this snowy owl – in action. And that is cool that you took your daughter to the wild bird refuge centre. You and your kids obviously get great enjoyment from wildlife too. The folks at those rehab centres do amazing work; it would break my heart to be behind the scenes at such places. Two years ago I wrote a magazine feature on snowy owls and the staff at the Owl Foundation in Vineland, Ontario were kind enough to share their statistics. Literally dozens of snowy owls each year struck by motor vehicles! Many had to be euthanized. Sadly, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature raised the concern states for snowy owls to ‘vulnerable’ as their numbers decline. Global warming is also affecting their breeding. We must enjoy them and figure out a way to protect these and other species!

  2. Jeff P Evans

    That’s impressive, Paul. I love that bird, have never seen one so am enjoying their magnificence vicariously. I do believe the only way we will be able to save the Snowy Owl from human influence is to reduce the number of humans!
    I hope you are able to get a few more shots before they leave for the north.

    1. Paul E Gains

      They are amazing to see and equally thrilling to see in flight – and on the hunt. I am never disappointed when I watch them. This particular owl is special though! To see any animal or bird behave as if you are invisible to them makes the experience even better. I do expect to get more shots over the next month, for sure! Pleased to hear you are enjoying these blogs, Jeff. All the best.

  3. Ben Lanthier

    Thanks Paul. Your skillful writing has made me a fan of your favourite owl friend. I’m learning a lot from your adventures and admire your dedication to your craft. I’m getting a chill reading your description of the wind and drizzle. Thanks for doing what you do – it’s important to have dedicated persons like you advocate for these creatures and educate us along the way.
    Take care.

    1. Paul E Gains

      Thanks very much for your kind words, Ben. I hope that readers will not only appreciate my words and pictures but also appreciate nature that surrounds them too. Being with wildlife is meditative for sure!

  4. Leslie Gisburn

    Thank you Paul for sharing your experiences and photo’s of the Snowy Owl. I was able to see snowy owls for three winters in Collingwood in our backyard. Now that we have moved away I miss looking for the snowy owl but my memories are still very vivid. I think it was the same owl every winter as it let me get very close for photo’s. I wish everyone could experience what I saw. Leslie Gisburn.

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