While many people may have been dreaming of a white Christmas, the lack of snow in our area has made locating one bird much easier. Snowy Owls have returned to overwinter and new sightings are being reported daily throughout Southwestern Ontario. These large owls are often found sitting on the ground in open fields, and are much easier to locate without any snow. Increased sightings and a lack of snow make now the perfect time to search for these owls.
I decided to check out a well known wintering area west of London for Snowy Owls last week, and quickly located three in a couple of kilometer stretch of road. Knowing that Snowy Owls also like to perch high up on hydro poles, on fences posts, and even on top of agricultural buildings, I scanned high and low searching for these owls. Two of the birds were perched high up on hydro poles, and one was on a fence post. The bird on the fence post could have easily gone unnoticed if there was snow in the background. With no snow accumulation in the forecast for our area until late in the week, I recommend getting out there and searching for Snowy Owls. To see if any Snowy Owls have been reported In your area, you can search the list of recent sightings reported to eBird here.
When searching for Snowy Owls there are a few things to keep in mind. Patience is key. Snowy Owls will stay in the same area until February or March if not disturbed. Once an owl is located, be prepared to return to the same location many times to achieve and optimal view or photo. Many times these birds will be too far from the road to get a great look or a decent photo. By simply returning another day the same bird may be in a better location providing excellent views and photo opportunities. Remember to be respectful of property owners, fellow birders, and most importantly the owls. So often I see people chasing the owls out in the fields or from post to post hoping to get an optimal look or photo. Keep in mind many of these birds are on private property and land owners do not want birders trespassing on their land. Chasing the owls puts unnecessary stress on the birds, and denies other birders the opportunity to observe the bird. If the view or photo you are hoping for doesn’t present itself, return another day.
When you do come across a Snowy Owl and wish to photograph it, stay in your car. Snowy Owls are less stressed by humans in cars and you will be able to achieve better and longer views than if you try to approach on foot. If needed, circle back to position your vehicle in an ideal location so you are not shooting into the sun, but stay in your car. Again be patient. If you need to drive down the road to safely turn around, do so. There is no need to jam on the brakes and pull a U turn if you suddenly spot a Snowy Owl on top of a hydro pole. In fact, erratic car movements such as quickly braking, accelerating or turning are more likely to startle the owl causing it to fly. Once in position, roll your window down and shut off your car. Use the top of your door to help steady your camera. Turning the car off will eliminate any camera shake caused by engine vibrations.
By staying in my vehicle I was able to achieve great views of this Snowy Owl and managed several photos. The owl was not stressed by my presence and casually turned its head from side to side as other vehicles passed. Satisfied with my views and photos, I carried on leaving the owl unstressed and in the same location for others to enjoy. Would I have preferred a more dramatic background than a cloudy, rainy sky? Of course I would, but I know I can return multiple times this winter to this area and find the same owls perhaps against a different backdrop. It is more important to me as a birder to put the best interest of the birds first, than to achieve the “perfect shot” as a photographer.