Snowy owls are never far from my thoughts and they have figured prominently lately.
My feature on this magnificent species appeared in Canadian Geographic at the end of 2022. Then last week I presented ‘Snowy Owls: Visitors From the Arctic’ to an Idea Exchange audience, which included folks from as far away as Alaska and Dorset, England. The magic of Zoom.
Monday night I was in Woodstock, Ontario to speak on birds of prey to the Woodstock Field Naturalists Club. Of course, snowy owls were part of my presentation and were the focus of several questions from this very knowledgable audience.
On top of that, a young environmental journalist I know named Leah Gerber asked if she could accompany me on one of my snowy owl outings so she could write a newspaper story on my obsession with these arctic migrants. I agreed even though I have never before taken anyone out to find ‘snowies’. Focus is necessary to find the owls and my preference is to go it alone. Less distraction.
Still, I invited her to join me last Friday, a day when the temperature dipped to -19C and roughly -22C when you factor in the 32km/hr winds. Of all the days to initiate a ‘rookie’ eh? She must have thought I was mad.
This is the worst year since 2010/2011 to see snowy owls in Southern Canada. My contacts in the US agree. Finding nesting owls in the Arctic last summer was a challenge and so the migrant owls we are seeing now are older owls and not the yearlings which normally get pushed this far south in search of food. Where are the yearlings? Are there any yearlings?
So I was relieved when Leah texted me to say she would be ten minutes late to our meetup. I used the time to go and find owls.
Thankfully, I spotted three owls on my first lap of the area I regularly target so the day would be productive for her story.
A female snowy owl roosting in the bitter cold wind.
As the sun dropped and the sky took on a pale hue in keeping with arctic like temperatures I could see one of the female owls I have been photographing perched in a tree down a side road. I stopped the car about fifty metres away and got out.
Leah watched me walk into the field maintaining about 35 metres distance between me and the owl. Believe me it was bitter.
I covered my wool hat with the hood of my down jacket. Luckily I had also remembered to bring along a bandanna which I used to prevent frostbite of my nose. The owl took off after fifteen minutes or so and headed for a grain silo in the next field over.
A female snowy owl taking off at dusk on a bitter cold evening
I am guessing she had surmised that there were more options along the road where voles and mice come out to play in the ditch. I came away with a sequence of the owl in flight and Leah herself got some shots of myself photographing the owl even managing a few shots of the owl before it flew. Hopefully, the frozen fingers she got for her persistence was worth it.
Wednesday there was much better light and the temperature was a balmy 4C. With Rilo ‘the wonder dog’ along for the ride I completed my first circuit of the area and found two snowy owls roosting on the ground. It was about 3 o’clock and there was some nice light – much better than that torturous Friday. I decided to keep looking for owls rather than disturb this pair. They would become active later.
To my surprise two cars stopped while I was surveilling a field. I recognized the folks as members of the Woodstock Field Naturalists whom I met two nights ago. We exchanged pleasantries and I told them where I had seen the two roosting owls. On my next lap I saw the group with their spotting scopes watching the owls from a great distance. These are real birders to whom observing an owl brings great joy.
I took Rilo out of the car to relieve himself and to give him some water and a treat. The group and I chatted further and after ten minutes or so we all left the area. I hoped to find other owls but my intention was always to come back when the roosting pair would become active.
On the next road I spotted an owl perched on a fencepost and stopped to scope it with my binoculars. This property belongs to a farmer who has refused me permission to go into his fields. I understand his reasoning. He has seen photographers trespass and, worse, harass owls while they are roosting. So I continued my lap hoping this owl would move to a site where it might be more accessible for photographs. Then I returned to the roosting pair.
There was a choice to make. Which of the two owls should I approach? Through my binoculars I could see them both looking around choosing a place to perch for the hunt. The sun was now very low in the sky. Perfect.
On one side of the dirt road the field was a combination of snow and mud. In it was a female owl I am pretty sure I have photographed several times. The other side presented a field deep in snow. I chose this one – better background.
I left Rilo in the car and walked down the road and then into the field keeping my distance from the owl. I walked as if I hadn’t seen the bird.
The owl was facing the wind which happened to line up with the sun and out of the corner of my eye I could see it was an adult male – pure white and stunningly beautiful. In good light I always prefer to photograph adult males. I made my way into a position where the sun and the wind were at my back and the owl was directly in front of me.
I approached slowly, zig zagging until I was as close as I needed to be. Then I waited kneeling in the snow.
The bird remained on the ground for some time. I started thinking about Rilo being in the car on his own. He is fine, I told myself. Not much longer and this owl will spring into action. Fifteen minutes to be precise. He looked at a grain silo to his right and at the row of hydro poles next to the field. Suddenly he lifted off and headed for a pole not far from where the female was seated.
Liftoff for this adult male snowy owl.
I moved across the field and stopped about thirty five metres from where he was perched. He preened he looked down in the ditch below him and for a moment I thought he would hunt in front of me again. About ten days ago he came off a hydro pole, hovered and then grabbed a vole. I got the shots on that occasion but the light was awful. Now, he was watching the female which had now flown to a hydro pole about fifty metres away.
Eventually the male flew across the field and went to the grain silo he had considered while on the ground.
I went back to Rilo and received a hero’s welcome as he jumped out of the car delighted I had returned. He had been watching me the whole time, of course. On my drive home I saw two other female owls perched on hydro poles. It’s not the six to ten owls I would see in a good year but any owl is a joy to encounter.
For those of you close to Cambridge, Ontario I will be presenting ‘Predators: Life in the Wild’ on Thursday April 20th at Idea Exchange (7:00 pm). I plan to show images of some of the magnificent predators I have encountered around the world: grizzlies, wolves, jaguars, pumas – and snowy owls of course!