Sunday, 15 April 2012

Hungry snowy owls flock around Vancouver

Only once every four or five years, driven by lack of prey in their usual wintering grounds, snowy owls fly south to Pacific Northwest shores.

This has been such a year, and the high numbers of North America’s largest owl, concentrated near Vancouver, have created a mecca for birdwatchers and photographers.

Nature Vancouver’s online Rare Bird Alert had reported large numbers of owls near 72nd Street on Boundary Bay, plus more in the Brunswick Point area of Delta.

One source counted more than 70 owls at one point. In the winter of 1973-’74, a record 107 snowy owls were seen during Ladner’s Christmas Bird Count.

Numbers this high constitute a major snowy owl flight year, with the birds expected to remain into mid-April. Observers, including excited birders and eager photographers, have been asked to keep a respectful distance, in order not to flush or frighten off the large, imposing owl of the north, which measures 58 centimeters – about two feet in height – with an enormous 127 cm wingspan.

The massive bird of prey tends to sit motionless, with large golden eyes ever watchful for small waterfowl and other prey. Snowy owl flight years tend to make the news simply because of their relative rarity and the bird’s size and mystique.

Snowy owls lead nomadic lives and travel vast distances from year to year searching for productive feeding areas. Some years, most recently in the winter of 2011-’12, conditions cause them to come south in great numbers.

Year-round, the snowy owl traditionally makes its home in the Yukon and in Alaska, where native arctic lemmings abound. Yet every four or five years, owl reproduction increases, and lemming and vole numbers decline, forcing hungry owls to fly south for food.

It’s been five years since such numbers have been seen on B.C.’s southern coast.

All is not bliss in the snowies’ oceanview feeding grounds, as wildlife rehabilitators have received several owls in poor shape. Upon arrival to our shores, the owls are exhausted, emaciated and fragile, having flown thousands of kilometres in search of prey.

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