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