A "Snowy" Year

Emily White

A “Snowy” Year
By Emily White, Featherfields

Owl watching in our own backyards here in southern Ontario is not a far-fetched idea. With the onset of winter, Snowy Owls start to appear on rural fence posts, utility poles and barn roofs throughout the province. They are yearly visitors to Ontario, but their numbers can fluctuate quite dramatically. 2011/12 is a Snowy Owl Irruption year. An irruption is a sudden increase in appearances of a particular species of bird, in an area that is outside of its normal range. This occurs when Snowy Owls leave their home range and travel southward, bringing the 'Snowies' much further south than their normal range, allowing those of us in the lower latitudes to get rare sightings of these beautiful birds.

The cause of Snowy Owl irruptions is usually a large drop in the populations of lemmings, a small rodent that is a primary food source for the owls. However, lemmings were born in huge numbers this year, so more young snowy owls survived the first critical months of their lives. Historic high lemming populations in the Arctic have allowed females to produce up to 12 eggs! Because owl numbers are at a peak, adult snowy owls protect their food source for themselves by pushing juvenile birds away from their home range and southwards.

Snowy Owls are big, mostly white birds with large, round heads and yellow eyes. Females and juveniles have dark bars and spots, with the heaviest markings on immature birds. In winter, they prefer open expanses similar to the habitat in which they breed. They are most often sighted on perches that command a view of the surrounding area. They are primarily active early and late in the day with long midday rest periods. This is prime time for bird watchers to spot them. They are not particularly active at night, which makes sense since there is no night during arctic summers, and Snowy Owls are thought to hunt primarily by sight rather than sound.
This has been an exceptional year for Snowy Owls in Southern Ontario with many birds being reported. In years when Snowy Owls irrupt, watch for Rough-legged Hawks too--their similar prey choices could create similar patterns of occurrence.

The Snowies can provide a means for us to get others excited about birding and also introduce birding ethics at the same time. We can share our binoculars and our scopes so that people can get a good look without stressing the owls. We can talk to people about why the owls are here and how important it is to protect their habitat and respect their need for space.
Featherfields carries many items to help in your search for owls. A great field guide and a good pair of binoculars (and maybe even a binocular harness for comfort) will definitely increase the likelihood of an owl encounter.
And remember, as usual...we have the cutest collection of Valentine’s cards in town!

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