Over a morning coffee I decided today to visit what I refer to with affection as ‘snowy owl country’ about 40 minutes from my home. It was to be a reconnaissance mission.
Each winter many snowy owls migrate from the Arctic in search of food. There have been sightings in Boston and if you can believe it, in California, recently. So I knew the farmland I am familiar with should have these visitors by now.
As faithful readers know the snowy owl is my absolute favourite species and I have become obsessed with learning all I can about them. Over the past ten years I estimate I have spent roughly 2,500 hours with this species.
My snowy owl feature stories have appeared in several periodicals including the Toronto Star and most recently Canadian Geographic.
And I suppose this is also a good time to plug my January 31st Zoom photo presentation ‘Snowy Owls – Visitors From the Arctic’ If you copy and paste this link in your browser you should be able to register. It’s free!
But I digress……………The two ladies who work at the Elmira Esso gas station, where I filled up my car, wished me luck on today’s adventure. Over the years they have become used to hearing my experiences.
As I approached the area which I limit my search to – on account of having permission to wander onto private property in these fields and these fields only – I pulled my car over to the shoulder and stopped.
I adjusted my camera settings and placed my Nikon D500 camera on the passenger seat. Then I took out my Vortex 8 x 42 binoculars and put them on my lap. Driving slowly I looked along fence lines where in most years I have seen snowy owls roosting on the ground or on the fenceposts. And, I looked on top of grain silos, another common perch for these birds. I stopped to glass one area.
A car pulled over in front of mine. The driver got out and approached me. He was a fellow photographer whom I had met a year ago on this same road. He had seen an owl a few days ago but nothing today.
We exchanged pleasantries and I wished him luck before continuing my search. Shortly after I spotted a pair of bald eagles in a tree. A juvenile eagle was on the ground. As tempting as it was to linger and watch the eagles I reminded myself that the objective was to see if the snowy owls were around. If I came home with some photos, well, that would be bonus.
Ten minutes later as I was maybe half way through my lap I saw my first snowy owl of the 2022/2023 winter. It was perched in the middle of a field. Through my binoculars I could see she was scoping the field across the road which is often a sign of other owls nearby. When I got out of my car and began to enter the field the owl suddenly flew up to a hydro pole on the main road.
I drove my car to within about 60 metres of her position, parked and then walked out into the field into which she was facing. Without looking directly at her I trudged further into the field keeping my distance. It is important not to get too close. Once I was satisfied with my position- both the wind and the sun behind me – I stopped and kneeled down in the snow.
The owl looked at me but something over my left shoulder also caught her attention. Owls can see great distances and I wondered if another owl was on the move.
The sound of a car racing along the wet road seemed to startle her. Suddenly she took off – straight towards me.
As she approached I could see her looking at me – a good sign she will recognize me next time.
The more time I can spend with her the quicker she will become comfortable with me. That’s when I might observe her preening, stretching, yawning, regurgitating pellets and, possibly, hunting meadow voles, mice, pigeons and other prey.
I watched her fly deep into the field and was delighted to see another snowy owl take flight as she closed the distance. I got back in my car and turned around, That’s when I saw a young male owl on the ground. Was this perhaps the one the young female had stirred? Now I know there are at least two owls in those fields.
Not a bad start to the winter; and I got some passable images as well. I also had a chance to catch up with two wildlife photographers I know as well as a couple of farmers. One farmer stopped me to ask if I had seen any owls because he and his family haven’t seen any yet. When I reported the two owls he smiled. Clearly, everybody loves snowy owls!