Snowy owls becoming more common in Comox Valley

In the past few weeks, six snowy owls have been admitted to MARS...

SNOWY OWL OSCAR is part of a current full house at MARS — another snowy owl

Snowy owls are one of my favorite owls.

My first encounter with one of these stunning creatures was back in 2005, once a rare visitor at MARS we are seeing more each year.

Winter is always full of surprises as weather systems can produce severe winter storms as we have seen this year. Last week birders from many places “flocked” to the Comox Valley in pursuit of a bird that is so rare that only two have ever been spotted in North America.

Normally found in Asia, the first North American sighting was in Mississippi 20 years ago.

This “Mega rare bird alert” has taken the stage away from the sighting of another bird at risk, the snowy owl.

There are many reasons why birds and other wildlife species show up in areas that they usually don’t call home. Most often in the case of birds they become disorientated or blown off course during severe storms which would certainly account for the increased number of different local birds.

However there are other reasons why the snowy owls have strayed from their normal habitat, which may be changing. In my 11 years as a volunteer at MARS, I treasure each encounter with a snowy owl — they are breathtakingly beautiful.

In the past few weeks, six snowy owls have been admitted to MARS and a further seven sightings or attempted rescues have been made.

Snowy owls are one of the largest owls in North America inhabiting one of the most inhospitable environments in the world. They are found in Northern Canada and Alaska, and also in the arctic areas of Europe where they eke out their existence on the frozen tundra.

These owls stand between 52 and 71 centimetres with a wingspan of 125 to 150 centimetres. They weigh between 1.9 and three kilograms. As in all raptor species, the females are larger than the males.

Unmistakeable and almost ghostly in appearance, they have large white, rounded heads, bright yellow eyes with subtle facial discs and a large black beak almost hidden amongst white fluffy feathers.

Their powerful legs clad in long shaggy feathers hide super sharp black talons with more feathers protruding from their between their toes. Their dense feathers are especially designed to insulate the owl against the extreme winter temperatures and they must consume vast quantities of food to provide heat and energy.

Snowy owls are formidable, stealthy daytime hunters, searching for prey between dawn and dusk. Due to the severity of the climate they live in, they are opportunistic feeders with a diet including their favorite lemmings, other rodents and small mammals, game birds, other owls and snowshoe hares.

Their hunting and capture skills are unique. They will “sit and wait,” swooping down on prey even if the prey is under the snow — and are also known to catch fish. Probably one of the most versatile feats involves capturing a hare, which the owl will snag in one powerful talon and then hop along with the hare until the hare has no energy left.

Why are we seeing so many snowy owls? It is thought that last year was an irruptive year for the lemming populations, which rise and fall; in turn this allowed the owls to produce higher than normal quantities of eggs and the young thrived on plentiful food.

The down side of an irruptive season is that the juveniles are sent packing to find their own territory and their own food supply, one might say the ultimate “tough love.”

Oscar, the only surviving snowy owl, has had a hard-fought battle to regain his strength, arriving at MARS extremely emaciated. His progress has been very slow and labour-intensive. I joined other volunteers on the night feedings, which were necessary every four hours.

He is now showing signs that he can take whole food in small amounts and ate a mouse on his own. Offering such food too soon will kill the bird as the stress of trying to digest the food saps whatever strength they may have left.

We ask people to observe any snowy owls from a distance. They are easily stressed and if they appear not to move they may well be conserving what little heat and energy they have left. Please stay well back and do not try to make them fly.

Take advantage of the “lull between the storms” to look for birds in sheltered areas. You may see a rare visitor.

To follow Oscar’s progress, go to www.wingtips.org. To report snowy owls or other injured wildlife, call 1-800-304-9968, and for all other calls, phone 250-337-2021.

Donations are welcome. We currently have a full house at MARS —two snowy owls, eight other owls, two turkey vultures, a bald eagle, three gulls, a kingfisher, a trumpeter swan and a tundra swan, plus our three resident ambassadors.

Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Friday.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Courtenay Easter Promenade has a homemade theme this year

Decorate your house; chance to win prizes

Woofy’s now selling Girl Guide Cookies

Another business has stepped up to help the Girl Guides sell their… Continue reading

Comox Valley handyDART offers free grocery delivery

The handyDART service in the Comox Valley is offering free deliveries for… Continue reading

Comox Valley RCMP seeking witnesses to Courtenay 7-Eleven robbery

The Comox Valley RCMP is requesting assistance from the public to help… Continue reading

No more ferries will sail from Departure Bay, Mill Bay, Brentwood Bay during COVID-19 pandemic

B.C. Ferries announces major changes to sailing schedules for 60 days starting Saturday, April 4

VIDEO: How doctors in Canada will decide who lives and dies if pandemic worsens

Officials in several provinces have been developing guides so that doctors don’t feel alone

Comox Valley grocers going extra mile during coronavirus

We have had numerous requests to post a fluid article directing consumers… Continue reading

Sex workers face new risks during COVID-19 pandemic

‘Desperation has kicked in’ for vulnerable, undocumented workers unable to access help

Unclear if Cowichan couple refusing to self-isolate will face penalty

No fines or charges have been laid to date, including Cowichan couple who won’t self isolate

North Island-Powell River MP credits Canadians for doing their best during crisis

North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney is working from home as she… Continue reading

COVID-19: Postponed surgeries will be done, B.C. health minister says

Contract with private surgical clinic to help clear backlog

Black Press Media ad sparks discussion about value of community newspapers

White Rock resident hopes front-page note shines light on revenue loss during COVID-19 crisis

Nanaimo man arrested after allegedly setting house fire

Firefighters arrived to find mobile home ablaze on Barnes Road in Cedar on Thursday

Emergency funding available for North Island College students

Funding for students experiencing financial strain that may affect their ability to continue studies

Most Read