Arctic Visitors – Snowy Owls Head South

Snowy Owls This Far South?

Last weekend, two friends and I made a day trip to the Vancouver area to do a little birdwatching. We on the West Coast are very lucky this year to have a large number of Snowy Owls wintering at Boundary Bay. This is not a yearly event, as Snowy Owls tend to remain in the northern Arctic. However, the owls occasionally venture this far south when their main food source (lemmings, primarily) is scarce in the arctic tundra. This happens every four years or so, as the lemming population cycles through boom and bust phases. This year the Snowies were first sighted in the bay in late November; their last visit to this area in high numbers was about five years ago.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl at Boundary Bay

Snowy Owl Fun Facts

Snowy owls differ from our local owl species in that they are chiefly diurnal (daytime) hunters – they spend most of their time perched on strategic outlooks, keeping a sharp eye out for tasty rodent morsels. Being one of the largest and heaviest of North America’s owls, Snowies need to eat a lot to maintain their weight. They typically eat between three and five lemmings a day! Young snowy owls, like the one pictured here, have lots of bars on their feathers – older females will keep some of these bars, while older males tend to lose most of their bars, becoming almost pure white as they age. Cornell’s All About Birds site helped me out with this info – check out their Snowy Owl page if you want to learn more about their natural history, it’s a great resource for all things bird-y.

The Boundary Bay Experience

In what I like to think of as a boon to the more casual birdwatcher (trust me, I’m not one of those who feels the siren call of the binoculars at 5AM!), the Snowy Owls at Boundary Bay roost conveniently along the delta shoreline all day long. When we arrived at just after 9AM there was a good-sized owl fan club gathered along the park’s dike, looking out at the marshy area where the owls were perched on driftwood. Despite the dodgy weather – it was cold enough that we were bundled in scarves and mittens and hats, a West Coast rarity, and rainy enough that people had protective covers on all their gear – there was a crowd of forty or so people on the banks.

Pair of Snowy Owls

Pair of Snowy Owls

The sheer amount of high-end camera equipment, spotting scopes, and other birdwatching accoutrements was a little dazzling. I diffidently took some shots with my little Canon Rebel with its modest 250 mm telephoto lens, trying not to get in the way of all the tripod legs crowded on the dike. It was quite the experience standing alongside so many avid photographers – kind of like a crowd of paparazzi on the red carpet sidelines, because every time one of the owls shifted you could hear a chain reaction of shutter clicks up and down the bank!

Some of the owls were quite close to the dike. There was a group of four sitting about 20 metres or so away, and several other groups and single owls further out toward the water. Being large, white, and stationary, they immediately won me over with their ease of visibility (I told you I was a rather lazy birder). Then, as I looked closer, they totally captured my heart with their exotic beauty and stoicism in the face of the driving wind and rain. The wind can be pretty intense on the unprotected bay, and it hadn’t abated when we returned later in the afternoon when the weather had cleared considerably. Despite the wind, it’s definitely worth bundling up for the chance to see these serenely beautiful visitors.

Some Words of Caution

If you’re interested in checking out these amazing birds, Nature Vancouver’s Rare Bird Alert advises the following:

This has become a major Snowy Owl flight year, with recent reports of up to 28 birds near the foot of 72nd Street on Boundary Bay, plus 6 more in the Brunswick Point area of Delta. Birders and photographers are asked to observe Snowy Owl from a respectful distance, to make an effort not to flush or frighten off the owls, and to speak to anyone who appears to be crowding an owl too much.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl Stretching Its Wings

While we were there everyone was really good about staying on the path and getting their close-up owl views through binoculars. However, there have been reports of people pursuing the birds down into the marsh area. Although it can be tempting to get just a little closer, it’s really important to disturb the owls as little as possible. They’ve already flown thousands of kilometres in search of food, so any added stress is costly for them.

Unfortunately there are also hunters in the area, and we could hear frequent gunshots while we were there. Waterfowl hunting is allowed in the Boundary Bay Wildlife Management Area (although not within the Boundary Bay Regional Park where the owls are) from September to March, and hunters and their dogs pass through the park to get to the hunting area.

Boundary Bay – More Than Just Great Owls

Boundary Bay Regional Park is a favoured birding area year round. In our brief visit there, although we kind of had our Snowy Owl glasses on, we also saw a Northern Harrier swooping through the marsh and several Great Blue Herons. In the afternoon we were also lucky enough to see a Short-Eared Owl hunting in the area. If you’re planning a visit, British Columbia Wildlife Watch has produced a detailed checklist of common birds in the Boundary Bay area, with information regarding their seasonal abundance.

Finally, if you haven’t had quite enough eye candy, check out my Flickr set – there are a few more Snowy Owl photos posted there. In addition, we also visited Reifel Bird Sanctuary as part of our day o’ birding.

Snowy Owl at Boundary Bay

Resting Snowy Owl at Boundary Bay

Have you had a chance to see the Snowy Owls? Or have you been lucky enough to spot an owl or two in your area? I’d love it if you shared your owl tales below!

More Heart of the West Coast:

Discover Reifel Bird Sanctuary

Encountering the Sandhill Crane

A Tale of Mice and ‘Fir’ Trees

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