Thursday, February 20, 2014

Snowy Owls

A snowy owl is seen at the Leslie Spit in Toronto. (MIKE QUIGG)

I just found out that a group of owls is called a "parliament". It seems that there are many parliaments of snowy owls are making their way southward from the Canadian Arctic down to the open fields, beaches and airports of Newfoundland, eastern North America, Bermuda and Florida.

Snowy owls are migratory birds. It used to be thought that higher numbers of Arctic owls drifted southward when more northerly prey was scarce, but fairly recently there has been new information that the reverse is true. Last summer the snowy owls' chief prey, arctic lemmings, were particularly numerous so that the owl nestlings enjoyed a higher than normal survival rate.

When prey is abundant, snowy owls lay up to 9 eggs and of these, there are, in normal years, maybe two owlets that survive to fledge. Last summer though, thanks to the abundance of lemmings, there are now vast numbers of young snowys taking to the air and exploring widely during their southern migration. 

snowy owl © Norman Smith
Since there are so many more snowy owls around, bird watchers are spotting them more often and their sightings are making headlines. See The Globe and Mail .

One of the unfortunate things about so many snowy owls in our more populated part of the country is that they look for landing areas that resemble the Arctic tundra - low and flat, such as beaches or airports. At airports they scare off other birds, such as gulls, but they are, in turn, threats themselves to aviation.

For some reason people find owls attractive in a way that they do not find, say vultures and buzzards attractive. Owls, with their wide, forward stare and beautiful plumage, seem "cute" to many of us (including me) and it's important to keep in mind that owls are raptors: expert and ruthless hunters.

Speaking of migration, snowy owls travel vast distances. Here's the map of one owl tracked between March 2012 and January 2013:
  •  Owl 99906, a juvenile female, was equipped with a transmitter and released at Parker River Wildlife Refuge (in Massachusetts)  on March 4. She moved south near Boston's Logan Airport and was spotted there on Monday, 12 March. From March 12 - April 26, the owl is moving north relatively quickly compared with some of the more recent past owls and as of 26 April she was east of James Bay in Quebec Province. She continues to move north and by May 25 was approaching northern Quebec's Ungava peninsula region. PTT temperature and activity sensor values are within normal parameters.

Overview of Owl 099906 movements between March 6, 2012 and January 15, 2013

Snowy owl hunting for prey in winter snow

Here's a video about a snowy owl rescued in Ohio recently:

Video: Rescued snowy owl recovering at Lake Erie Nature ...

More excellent snowy owl videos at this BBC website.