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.