The most enchanting lump of snow
As the end of the year approaches, we, the editorial staff at the Nature Conservancy of Canada, search high and low for species’ close encounter stories from our colleagues across the country. As I anxiously waited for submissions, I had forgotten that I have a story to tell too!
A few years ago, being newly wedded and in a pre-kids era, I was deeply enthralled by the world of birding. I had read about an irruption of snowy owls (an unpredictable influx of the birds, usually related to food supply, from the north to further south than they normally would be) that winter and was determined to see one in the wild. There is something magical about this bird of prey, although I was probably influenced by the Harry Potter series and the protagonist’s loyal sidekick, Hedwig.
I was tipped off by a family friend who had seen one hanging out on the rooftop of a farm building in rural Ontario. I had read about how to observe snowy owls and respect their space. I had learned about ethical birding, and I was ready to see one, I will see one.
That weekend, I dragged my husband, who wasn’t thrilled about early Saturday morning birding, behind the wheel and we set out to look for the owl. We drove past the GPS checkpoint several times but didn’t see the bird. Disappointed, I thought, “Maybe I’ll see it another day.”
I recalled reading in the papers that snowies like to hang out around farm fields and other places that resemble their tundra habitat. I started scanning the empty fields in the horizon. In the middle of one field there was a peculiar pile of snow.
I peered through my binoculars and, lo and behold, there was something on top of the mound. The lump had dark bars all over it. My heart raced and I yelled with joy, “It’s a snowy owl!” In the moment of discovery, I felt like a child again. The feeling of awe and wonder of seeing an animal in the wild is indescribable.
The owl had its back toward us, but for a moment it turned its head completely around (that thing that owls do) and stared right at us. I wondered if she was as curious about us as I was about her (I was almost certain it was a her because of the heavily barred plumage).
Prior to this trip, I had joked to my husband that I was going to scan every lump of snow on the ground and one of them would be a snowy owl. I still find it comical how the snowy owl decided to perch on the only pile of snow in the entire field, as if it was a great camouflage.
Although I didn’t have a fancy telephoto lens to capture the amazing moment, the distant image of the owl through my low-powered binoculars is forever etched in my memory.
I know that if I want to see a snowy owl I could just visit Toronto Zoo. But there is magic in seeing an owl in the wild, because when you do see one, you feel as if the circumstances chose you, instead of the opposite.
The snowy owl is one of 19 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.