My first time seeing a snowy owl, also known as the arctic owl or the great white owl, was more than five years ago. Carol Lapointe and I decided we wanted to see a snowy (Bubo nyctea scandiaca) and were willing to go wherever necessary. We discovered that sightings were coming in from all over Ontario, and foolishly got our hopes up for an easy adventure. It wasn’t until many hours after driving up and down country roads, staring through binoculars at dozens of fields and waterfronts, and finally giving up that we realized how hard it was going to be to see one of these birds.
As always seems to be the case, it was at that moment, when we finally called it quits, that I looked one last time at the nearby field and noticed a strange lump of snow. For whatever reason it caught my eye and as I stared at it for a few seconds, I saw the lump move. Within heartbeats my camera was up and I was snapping photos of my first snowy.
It took four hours, but we finally found our owl. After a few high fives and many smiles we were back on the road to head home. Just a few moments later, however, Carol thought she saw another owl or a white bucket off in the distance. We didn’t think we could be that lucky, but pulled over anyway. What happened next I will never forget: As I stepped out of the car a huge, white, yellow-eyed snowy owl came flying right towards us! I froze in wonder as a beautiful male flew right over my head, circled in the distance, and came around for another pass. I’ll never know why he flew so close to us – perhaps he was looking for food, or perhaps he was trying to give us a scare.
A snowy owl can live up to 9.5 years in the wild. They weigh 3.5 to 6.5 lbs (1.6 to 3 kg) and have a wingspan of 4.2 to 4.8 ft (1.3 to 1.5 m). Most owls sleep all day and hunt all night, but the snowy owl is the opposite – it is diurnal, like most of us. They eat mice, voles, ducks, rabbits, small birds and even geese. My favourite feature of the snowy owl is their golden-coloured eyes, which are rather small for an owl, and their toes and claws thickly covered with feathers. Their dark bills are short, strong and sharply pointed. Perhaps the most famous snowy was Harry Potter’s companion Hedwig – who remembers him?
It appears that massive numbers of snowy owls are heading south this year, at least according to sightings from across Canada, the US and even Bermuda. What is not known is whether so many owls are heading south because it has been a good breeding year or because of food shortages. The Toronto Wildlife Centre and The Owl Foundation have been receiving juvenile Snowy Owls that have been hit by cars or found starving and too weak to fly.
If you are hoping to see a snowy owl this year, try Tommy Thompson Park – just be prepared for a long walk to the end of spit.
A few guidelines for watching any owl:
1. Respect the owl’s space and keep your distance. Watch the owls for signs of aggravation, for example if their ears are up, back off.
2. Be quiet. When talking is absolutely necessary, speaking in a low voice is less of a disturbance than whispering.
3. Do not play recordings of owl calls.
4. Do not use flashlights or flash cameras.
If you spot an injured owl, call the Toronto Wildlife Centre at 416-631-0662, or visit theowlfoundation.ca.
Ann Brokelman is an avid birder and nature photographer. See more photos at naturephotosbyann.blogspot.ca.