9 December 2013. Hamilton ON. This posting has to be about Snowy Owls, after all I saw four of them this morning. Seeing one is always a thrill: they’re owls, and everyone loves owls, they’re Arctic birds that star in really good wildlife documentaries, and they’re so, so ghostly beautiful dressed in white. So you’d think that seeing four in one morning would be a quadruple thrill, but I find seeing that many to be rather disquieting; what’s going on?
Snowy Owls breed on the tundra and we know they head south as winter closes in. We also know that sometimes, when their usual supply of voles and lemmings is scarce, irruptions of Snowy Owls descend to the Great Lakes provinces and northern states. It is my feeling that these irruptions used to be occasional events, once every ten or fifteen years, but that they have become more frequent. What’s going on?
Two winters ago Snowy Owls invaded the Lake Ontario shores in large numbers. Anyone wanting to see one was more or less assured of success; this one even ventured onto the window ledge of a local office building allowing me this photograph.
My reference books note that Snowy Owls are expected winter residents. Robert Curry, in his excellent book Birds of Hamilton and Surrounding Areas, says, “We see it annually along the shores of Lake Ontario’s shores or in the open fields south of Hamilton.” and “..we have a long history of large numbers of Snowy Owls occurring during various southward irruptions. These flights are generally believed to be the result of a crash in lemming populations after several years of increase and concomitant high owl breeding success.”
Whether I’m right in sensing there’s something wrong about too many owls too often, or whether I just don’t know enough about their biology gives me something more to think about.
Anyway, back to today. I decided to take a look at a few of the easier to access windows to our large industrial harbour. Even though the temperature was above freezing, it was cold birding with a strong southwest wind driving surf-topped waves across the harbour. Wherever there was shelter there were ducks and gulls (notably Northern Shovelers looking quite strikingly colourful and many Great Black-backed Gulls) taking refuge.
Other birders had I think, already reported two of the owls I saw, but the other two may be new discoveries. Had it not been for the owls I might be writing about the large groups of Canvasbacks, Ruddy Ducks and Ring-necked Ducks bouncing around on very cold and choppy waters. Perhaps they’ll star another day. Here are my four Snowy Owls of today.