With December now upon us, birders across the region will be focusing their attention on locating one bird in particular, the Snowy Owl. Sightings from around our region were reported this past week from both the Strathroy and Lucan areas, two locations well known for supporting overwintering Snowy Owls in previous years. Early December can be a great time to search for these large white owls as the lack of snow makes locating them much easier.
When searching for Snowy Owls there are a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost, patience is key. Once an owl is located, be prepared to return to the same location many times to achieve an optimal view or photo. Many times these birds will be too far from the road to get a great look or a decent photograph. 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 fence post to fence 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. Snowy Owls will stay in the same area until February or March if not disturbed.
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 and cause it to fly. Once in position, roll your window down but stay in your car. You might be surprised at how quickly a Snowy Owl will spook by the clicking sound of a door handle. Placing your elbow on the door’s armrest will help steady your camera to ensure a sharp image.
If adding a Snowy Owl to your year or life list is something you wish to achieve, the eBird species map is a great resource for finding recent sightings in your area. Simply type in the name of the species, in this case Snowy Owl, as well as your location. Reported sightings to eBird will then appear on the map. Zoom in on the map to then view specific locations where these birds were reported from. Submitting your observation to eBird will keep the database updated and help other birders locate Snowy Owls.
As I mentioned earlier, the area to the west of Strathroy, Ontario is a great place to observe Snowy Owls each winter. The large block bordered by Egremont Drive to the south, Cuddy Drive to the north, Seed Road to the west, and School Road to the east, has numerous Snowy Owl sightings every winter, including one this week. Roman Line, northwest of Lucan, Ontario is another location that typically has Snowy Owls overwintering annually. The section of Roman Line between Fallon Drive and Mooresville Drive is traditionally the most rewarding. Areas south of London, Ontario have also had multiple Snowy Owl sightings over the past two winters. Manning Drive between Wellington Road and White Oak Road near the city dump, is one area where I have seen several Snowy Owls in previous years. Further to the east, Westminster drive between Wellington Road and Old Victoria Road, and Scotland Drive between Wellington Road and Old Victoria Road, have also yielded great views for me.
The previous two winters we experienced Snowy Owl irruptions (a dramatic unpredictable migration) with large numbers of these birds migrating south for the winter, and experts are predicting a third straight irruption year this winter. Wisconsin in particular has already seen an unprecedented number of Snowy Owls sightings with as many as 30 birds being reported as early as October. Snowy Owls irruptions are believed to be produced by an abundance of food during their breeding season as more available food leads to larger clutch sizes.
Take the time this winter to get out and search for Snowy Owls. Use valuable resources like the eBird species map to improve your odds and narrow your search. We have several months to enjoy these beautiful birds while they are in our area, so be patient and you will be rewarded with quality views. Remember when out searching for Snowy Owls to be respectful of property owners, other birders, and most importantly the owls.