Snowy Owls spend the winters in Alberta only to return to the arctic in March and April. Last weekend (April 6) we were out by Beaverhills Lake Natural Area, crisscrossing the country roads looking for returning migrants. We were hoping for a diverse assortment of water fowl and crossing our fingers for the ephemeral Snow Goose. We had just checked out a waterlogged field where a large group of Snow Geese had been seen the previous day. Alas, they had moved on by the time we made it there. A bit bummed we rumbled on along the dusty gravel roads when, all of a sudden, in the distance I noticed a large “poofy” mass on top of a fence post along the road. Although I am an owl noob, I have seen enough owls this winter that I know to scan for “large poofy masses”. I though to myself, “that looks like an owl”, never actually seriously thinking it would be an owl. As we approached, I could not help myself from slowing down, just in case. Well, would you believe it. It was a lonesome and gorgeous Snowy Owl. The car came to a screeching halt. I yelled to my companions in the back seat: “OWL UP AHEAD”. Everyone dropped what they were doing. I have never seen a pair of teens becoming unglued from their cell phones so fast. We had barely come to a stop, the windows were already down, binoculars up and I threw myself out of the car with the camera ready to shoot. The owl could not care less. It sat there looking at us indifferently and eerily cool. This was an unexpected treat. While we did see a Snowy Owl a few months ago I had simply assumed that they had all left for their arctic summer. Checking eBird later that day, revealed that, indeed the only Snowy Owl sightings for the month of April in Alberta were right in the area were we were. As a matter of fact, the same day another reporting of a Snowy Owl was recorded just a few km away along the same range road. Could it be the same owl? It’s possible, or maybe there are more holding on to our Alberta spring. I assume this will be the last Snowy Owl for this winter. So long Snowy Owls. Bon voyage and see you next winter.
This year’s Family Day weekend coincided with the Great Backyard Bird Count so obviously this called for heading out into the wild for some birding with family and friends. For the past three weeks, however, Alberta has been under, what appears to be, an unbreakable cold spell. The normal seasonal temperature this time of year in Edmonton is around -10 °C, but all through February temperatures have hovered around -30 °C…, and that is without taking the windchill into account. With the windchill, night temperatures have dropped down to between -30 °C to -40 °C. Needless to say, birding has been put on the back burner during this cold spell.
After three weeks of increasing cabin fever, it was decided, it was time to brave the deep freeze and head out in the frozen wilds. We ended up doing two excursions over the weekend, one to Ray Gibbon Drive in St. Albert in search of our first Snowy Owl and a second to the Whitemud Creek for some general winter bird awesomeness.
Ray Gibbon Drive is a major thoroughfare with lots of traffic and I would have never expected for such a large owl to be hanging out in plain daylight in such a busy and mundane location. We had, however, received reliable intel from a fellow birder that Snowy Owls can often be seen perching on the light and utility poles along the road. So it was with anticipation and mounting excitement we headed north to Ray Gibbon Drive on Sunday. The heavy traffic and the lack of shoulders do not allow a car to stop so our strategy was simple. Drive as slowly as possible, but not so slow that drivers behind us would lose their cool (which would be indicated by honking and visible fists in our rear mirrors)…, while systematically scanning the roadside for owls. We figured that at a slow enough speed and with three pairs of eyeballs it would be difficult for an owl to go unnoticed. If we did not spot an owl on the first pass, we would drive to the end of the road, turn around and do another pass…, and repeat as long as necessary. As it turned out, luck was on our side. On our first pass, we spotted a large “poofy” organic-looking mass on the cross arm of a wooden utility pole. We decided to try to get a better view, so we pulled off the main road, parked at a gravel road and ventured into the Grey Nuns Spruce Woodlot. The good news is that after a bit of a hike we were able to get a clear view of the owl from a distance. The not so good news is that the cold got the better of us and we had to cut the birding short and as we do not have a camera yet we were not able to get a picture of the owl. The specimen was a large white snowy owl that looked completely at ease on its perch, despite the heavy traffic close by.
This sighting is special for us. Not only is it a lifer for all three of us but it is also our very first owl! One cannot help but be in awe of such a magnificent bird on a blisteringly cold winter day such as this, particularly when you consider that they migrate south to Edmonton to overwinter.
The following day we ventured to Whitemud Creek. Over 150 species of birds have been identified along this creek, making it somewhat of a birding hotspot due to the riparian habitat and abundance of old growth forest with dead standing trees. Despite the biting cold we saw all the regular inhabitants of the area, from the bold and chatty Black-capped Chickadees demanding sunflower seeds, the odd White-breasted Nuthatch to a timid Downy Woodpecker and a splendid Pileated Woodpecker that could not care less about us ogling him as he was working away on a tree stump with such ferocity woodchips were whirling around him like there was no tomorrow. The highlight, however, was undoubtedly the Great Horned Owl pair we found, with the female snuggled up in a large cavity in a dead tree and the male hiding among the low-level branches of a nearby spruce tree. The pair, silent and perfectly camouflaged blended in with the bark of the trees. How did we find them? We just followed the throng of primates carrying cameras with large telephoto lenses. It turns out that the owl pair is a bit of celebrity for people that regularly visit the creek.
All in all, the weekend’s birding did not become memorable for the sheer number of species but rather for the two iconic and majestic owls that both were lifers as well as our first two owl species. With the addition of these two owls, our Alberta Big Year tally is now at 40 species. Here is the full tally of our sightings for these two days.
St. Albert--Ray Gibbon (Riel East Pond), Edmonton, Alberta, CA Feb 17, 2019 4:48 PM - 5:33 PM Protocol: Stationary 1 species
Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) 1 Large individual sitting on top of a wooden power post with feathers fluffed and just chilling. Beautiful sunny day, -17C, slight breeze and -24C with the windchill.
Edmonton--Whitemud Park, Edmonton, Alberta, CA Feb 18, 2019 1:00 PM - 2:30 PM Protocol: Traveling 3.0 kilometer(s) Comments: Beautiful sunny winter day, -14C (-20C with windchill). 7 species