Invasion of the Snowy Owls

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

It’s been said that this winter’s invasion of Snowy Owls is the greatest in 40 years. Large numbers have left the Arctic in search of a safe place to spend the winter; they have been found all across northeastern North America, from Newfoundland to the mid-western US states and even as far south as Florida. Bruce DiLabio, writer of the weekly bird column in the Ottawa Citizen, estimates there are at least 150 Snowy Owls in eastern Ontario alone.

There are two possible reasons for the extremely large movement of Snowy Owls this winter. The first is a scarcity of Arctic lemmings — one of their primary food sources – on their northern breeding grounds. The second is a population boom that has increased the number of birds competing in the same territories for the same food. I suspect it is the latter or a combination of both, for if there was a severe population collapse of lemmings we would probably see large numbers of other birds of prey heading south as well.

I’ve seen a few around Kanata now, but most have been too far to photograph, either perching in distant trees, on distance fence posts, or on the ground – in the distance. I’ve been jealous of the fantastic close-ups people have been posting on Facebook, but I knew that with patience, I too would find a Snowy Owl close enough to photograph. On Saturday while driving home the opportunity I had been hoping for finally materialized. I saw the grayish shape in the top of a tree fairly close to the road and knew it wasn’t a crow or a hawk; this was confirmed when I noticed a car parked along the shoulder and a photographer getting out of the car. There was a fence between the road and the tree, and because of the large expanse of snow between the shoulder and the fence I didn’t feel comfortable leaving the side of the road. The resulting photo isn’t great, but it shows a heavily barred young owl, probably female.

Snowy Owl

I took a few photos and left; however, just as I got into my car I was disgusted to see the photographer hop the fence and start walking across the farmer’s field to get closer to the owl. I was already pulling away, and didn’t see what happened next, but this sort of behaviour does no one any favours. First, it is trespassing, pure and simple, and is disrespectful of the people who own the land. Second, it gives all of us – birders and photographers alike – a bad name. I still remember birding along a quiet country road a few years ago in the spring, looking for meadowlarks and kestrels, when an older man asked me in an unfriendly tone of voice whether I was crossing any fences to take pictures. I assured him I wasn’t, but clearly he had had a bad experience with someone trespassing onto private property and seemed to assume that anyone carrying binoculars or a camera has no ethics. Third, owls often flush when approached, thus depriving others of seeing the owl.

The next day I went back out to look for owls, hawks and Snow Buntings for my year list and came across an owl that was even closer, but much higher. I pulled over and took a couple of pictures from my car. For the most part he sat looking around, but then he bent down and started preening:

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

It was fantastic to see one close up for a change, and to be able watch it unobserved from my car for several minutes. This is when I get the most enjoyment out of birding: watching a bird going about its business, free from any human interference. I would much rather take a photo of an owl simply sitting on its perch, just preening or snoozing or contemplating the world around him, than one flying away from me because I got too close, or one being baited with mice.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls are beautiful, magnificent birds, worthy of our admiration and respect. It’s a pleasure to have them around this winter.

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14 thoughts on “Invasion of the Snowy Owls

  1. I saw my first Snowy Owl this year in Maryland. At that location, folks were being respectful of the private property and the owl, and the owl stuck around for several weeks. My second Snowy was a few weeks later on the beach in Delaware. There, I saw the same kind of rude behavior from several people. I have to say, the experienced served as a strong reminder to be mindful of my own behavior whenever I’m out birding.

    • Hi Judy, there’s just something about owls that make people behave stupidly. Then again, I’ve seen stupid behavior with shorebirds and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet as well.

      Congrats on your first Snowy Owl!

  2. May I suggest “irruption” rather than “invasion”? Invasion implies alien, and is actually incorrect in terms of this kind of bird movement (I was corrected on this by Ron Pittaway when he helped edit an article I wrote for OFO News). Also, may I suggest not calling a bird or other animal “he” unless one is certain of the gender? Otherwise, a great entry Gillian, and have enjoyed your many others!

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for clarifying “irruption” vs. “invasion”. I wasn’t quite sure of the difference. Anyway, if this were a more serious and scientific article for publication I would probably distinguish the two and change it to “irruption” though it doesn’t have the same ring. However, I got so annoyed with the fellow I saw trespassing that it changed the direction of the post and turned it into a bit of a mini-rant instead.

  3. Beautiful photos! A few of these owls have been seen in our area this year, both on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My friends and I went for a walk this morning with high hopes of seeing one, but we had no luck…

    • Hi Rae,

      Check open fields, shorelines, agricultural areas and such. They like areas with few trees as its similar to the tundra where they breed. I’ve even found one in a field in the middle of the city!

      Cheers,
      Gillian

    • Hi Jason!

      Yes, I’m happy with the photos from the second outing though the weather was awful that day – snowy with very slippery roads. And yes, I changed the colour scheme for my blog…I was tired of the blue and wanted something warm and cheery. I even uploaded a couple of my own photos for the header!

      Cheers,
      Gillian

  4. I would have loved to have seen that guy. It would be a good picture of him climbing over the fence and ultimately flushing the owl. Don’t be shy next time. The pics are lovely too.

  5. We have been very lucky to spot a number of Snowy Owls this year. And were very surprised when standing on a sideroad looking at an owl on top of a windmill in the distance, another Snowy Owl flew towards us and landed in the tree above us. It seemed to be very curious about us. Finally it flushed us out and we left. Lovely photos and love the rant too.

    • Thanks for the comment, Leslie; I’m sorry I didn’t respond earlier.

      That sounds like an incredible experience. I hope you’ve been able to enjoy some more Snowy Owls since then.

      Cheers,
      Gillian

  6. I see no problem with people approaching owls. It teaches the owl to avoid people. Too bad if you like bird watching, but the owl doesn’t benefit from any bird watcher. At least a great photo allows people to see the bird without having to go find it in person. Please explain to me how putting out bird feeders is a good thing…for birds and any other wild animal?…yet you see it all the time by the ‘do gooders’.

    • Billy, the man didn’t just approach the owl, he entered private property to do so. And yes, there is a problem if people approach too closely and enter the bird’s comfort zone, causing it to flush. It interferes with the owl’s natural behaviour, whether it is actively hunting or trying to rest, and causes it to expend unnecessary energy. This is particularly detrimental to owls that sleep during the day, such as Long-eared Owls. If flushed multiple times, birds such as Long-eared Owls become vulnerable to predation by larger owls or birds of prey inhabiting the same area. While this may not be as much of a problem for an owl as large as a Snowy Owl, they are harassed and chased by Peregrine Falcons on occasion.

      The rest of your comment baffles me. You imply birdwatching is useless because it does not benefit the owl, while photographing owls is beneficial because then people don’t have to go see one in person. I might be missing something, but it seems photographing owls doesn’t benefit the owl directly either. And seeing great photos of owls doesn’t stop people from going out and looking for owls; rather the opposite, if the comments on the two Facebook birding groups to which I belong are any indication.

      As for the benefits of birdwatching, many birders pass on their sightings to local compilers and databases such as eBird. This allows local nature groups, provincial organizations, and provincial and national parks to produce accurate birding checklists for their area and to determine which areas are worth protecting. eBird helps scientists to determine whether a species’ range is changing over time, and map the extent of irruptions such as this year’s Snowy Owl irruption. It also helps scientists to monitor changes in population. eBird has started a project this spring (the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz) encouraging birders to report all Rusty Blackbird sightings in order to gather more information about this declining species. The data will help scientists understand the ecology of this species, which is critical for reversing the sharp decline in population and protecting this species. Citizen science and birdwatching therefore play a big part in monitoring species at risk and shaping conservation policy.

      I am not sure what bird feeders and “do-gooders” have to do with my blog post, owls or the rest of your comment, or why you require an explanation on the subject, but if you’re genuinely interested I’m sure that information is available on the web.

      Thanks for reading.

      Gillian

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