Snowy Owl With Kill On The Ice At Frenchman’s Bay
The winter of 2014 went down as the year of the Snowy Owl judging by the number of sightings here in Southern and Central Ontario, in Canada. It seems that every Tom, Dick and Mary has spotted one be it on a fence post, a light standard, the roof of a building, along a hedgerow, in a treetop and even lots of them in flight. Bob and I caught sight of this Snowy Owl out on the ice at Frenchman’s Bay, on edge of Lake Ontario.
The numbers of Snowy Owls being seen set records in Ontario as well as further south throughout the northeastern States; one was even observed in Florida.
In one rare report, an observer in northeastern Newfoundland spotted more than 75 from one observation point and also counted 206 on a drive down a single road. That is shocking to me and a spectacle I would love to have beheld.
This type of owl is a winter visitor to the settled southern parts of Canada. They are driven by a search for food. In the Arctic, these owls depend on lemmings and other rodents, and to a lesser extent, on birds and fish. The lemming population fluctuates violently and cyclically, ranging from a great abundance every 4 years or so, to almost nil. In the barren years, the Snowy Owls wander south to find adequate food, and this one obviously is feasting on a recent catch.
When Bob and I first stood on the shore of Frenchman’s Bay, all we could see was a spreading mass of frozen water. We had no idea if a Snowy was anywhere about. We stood scanning with the binoculars for a good long time, but it was hard to pick out something like a Snowy Owl when there were considerable numbers of other birds in the area. Lots of birds winter in Frenchman’s Bay because some sections around the periphery remain unfrozen, and it is this abundance of potential prey that no doubt had attracted this owl to this location, too.
A young Herring Gull has made good use of the open water, too. It is dealing with a freshly-caught fish. I’m thinking that the fish are doubly threatened; they had better watch out for the Snowy Owl. John James Audubon once saw a Snowy Owl lying at the edge of an ice hole, where it waited for fish to come near the surface and then caught the fish using its feet. Clever and resourceful!
Once located, Bob walked carefully out on the frozen bay for a closer look but kept a respectful distance from the owl. The Snowy’s watchful eye followed his every move.
Because these owls do a lot of sitting, remaining in one spot for hours while only occasionally swiveling their head, leaning forward or blinking their cat-like yellow eyes, there wasn’t much chance that the Owl would fly away unless it felt that its quarry was at risk of being snatched.
Snowy Owls are well adapted to deal with the cold having a thick, luxurious coat of feathers for insulation, which makes these owls the heaviest in North America, surprisingly about a pound heavier than a Great Horned Owl and about twice the weight of a Great Grey Owl. Also, to help them deal with the Arctic temperatures, they have densely feathered feet right out to the tips of the talons, the colour of their plumage makes detection very difficult, and the warm feathers on the face protect the bill.
It was a bleak, cold day that would have the Owl feeling right at home.
These owls spurn the protection of heavy forest and frequent instead more open expanses where winter’s bitterest blasts blow unimpeded. Unlike many other owls, they are active during the daylight hours owing to their familiarity with continuous daylight hours during an Arctic summer.
Despite our attempts earlier this winter to find a Snowy Owl at Colonel Samuel Smith Park, Burlington, and even close to home near Markham, Ontario, we had come up empty-handed. They are not that easy to spot as one birdwatcher at Frenchman’s Bay attested. He had visited the bay numerous times and still had not been able to spot its shadowed form on the wide expanse of ice.
Bob and I left the Snowy Owl secure with its prey as the fading rays of the setting sun fell softly on the frozen bay. It would be sometime yet before the ice melts away, and I’m sure the Owl will be content to hang around for a little while longer.