Celebrating Canadian species: Snowy owl
A few years ago, I became absolutely obsessed with finding a snowy owl. I would spend long car rides travelling to visit relatives, with my nose literally pressed against the glass (with my husband driving, I promise!), scanning every fence post and telephone pole for that telltale big white body.
There was one winter where it felt like everybody I knew got to see a snowy owl, except me. I remember my little niece explaining to me one Christmas, “Aunt Kristyn, we saw this big, white owl!” and instead of feeling happy for her, I was intensely jealous!
But then, in January 2015, I had my moment — it was actually five moments in a row, spread out over one incredible afternoon near the Minesing Wetlands in Ontario. I was lucky enough to spend a beautiful winter day gazing at five separate snowy owls. I burst into the meeting I was due at that afternoon, freezing cold, 10 minutes late and vibrating with excitement, showing my colleagues the 300 pictures I had taken (I wish that was an exaggeration; they likely do as well).
My love affair with these owls has continued in earnest ever since and doesn’t show any sign of letting up.
I just love the way it feels when I lock eyes with this incredible creature — my green to its yellow. I find myself wondering about where it’s been, what winter here in southern Ontario must be like for it, and what life looks like for this particular snowy owl during the summer months when daylight is long and lemmings, a snowy owl's favourite food source, are plentiful up on the Arctic tundra.
I find the pictures from the summer breeding grounds of snowy owls, in which their nests are literally lined with heaps of dead lemmings, just hilarious. I picture the owls having the most fabulous feasts, producing record numbers of chicks, and dining and having a “hoot” with their fellow feathered friends about how good the eats are. It’s these super productive summers that send a lot of owls deeper south to Canada and in bigger numbers than usual, and I’ve heard rumours that this winter may be another year where we can expect higher than usual numbers of snowy owls. This is so exciting, and I will certainly be on the lookout at this year’s Guelph Christmas Bird Count (Sunday, December 18, 2016) and during long drives across Ontario.
The Bird Count also brings up an important point that must be always kept at the forefront: We need to take care to always view these owls from a distance, noting their body language and behaviour and knowing when it’s time to move on.
Though the long, cold, dark days of winter can bring some serious snow shovelling, damp and chilly feet, and those dreaded winter blues, it always helps me to think about the incredible things that can blow in from the Arctic on the back of winter winds, including the majestic, mysterious and always compelling snowy owl.
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The snowy owl is one of nine species featured in NCC’s gift giving campaign: Gifts of Canadian nature. To learn more and to give the gift of conservation this holiday season, click here.