Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Royal visitors, Snowy Owls

Visitor from the Arctic (photo by Lynne Pharis)
He turned his head 180 degrees and looked me directly in the eye. We stood 30 feet away, a cluster of eager bird watchers in dripping rainsuits, peering through fogged up binoculars.  He held his yellow stare for many seconds, then he swiveled his head back around, turning his gaze out towards the washed up logs, windswept brush and shoreline.  I was thrilled to see this Snowy Owl, a sight that may not occur for another 10 years so close to home.  Snowy owls  "irrupted" into lower British Columbia and Washington state this winter, in numbers large enough to draw us from our cozy abodes, across the US-Canadian border, and out to this gravelly berm on a cold and rainy April day. 

In front of us stretched the marine shoreline that borders Boundary Bay in British Colombia.  About every 50 feet, a white form dominated the setting, standing sentinel from a log that barely lifted it above the lowland that it watched.  We first saw a group of three Snowy Owls in the distance, then, by walking down the path, came to a series of regularly spaced solitary owls, each staking out its own territory. 

Three Snowy owls stand sentinel (photo by Lynne Pharis)

I rarely see owls; if anything, I hear them.  In Kentucky, at dusk and at dawn, we would hear Screech Owls and stop in our tracks to listen to their syrupy calling.  Once from a high forest trail near our house in Washington, I looked down to see an owl swoop out of a tree that was below me and fly up Whatcom Creek   Today I started telling my writing friends about seeing the Snowy Owls, and the room burst forth with so many enthusiastic owl spotting stories that I never got to finish telling my own.  To see an owl...a treasure to many, not just me. 

I stared.  The owl stayed put, moving only his head.  He peered intently in one direction at a time, to the west, to the southwest, to the east, and back to the west, to the northeast, and occasionally, to my delight, towards me, where I stood with a clutch of birders. He had that "teacher's eye" that made us be still and try to not disturb him.  He looked surprsingly soft and well fed, plumper than any bird I've ever seen that flies.  I found it hard to gauge from a distance how tall he was, sitting on a log that was once a gigantic northwest tree. The reference books gives their average height at 24 inches.  His plumage was royally white with dark wing tips. He looked like he could be flying off momentarily to an aristocratic avian ball. He had the self confidence to hold court.

A juvenile Snowy Owl (photo by Lynne Pharis)

Did you miss seeing them this year?  Most are already gone, the rest will be returning north any day now.  The cold wet spring has delayed the departure of some.  I like to think of their voyage and their summer destination, north of the Arctic Circle.  I probably will never see Snowy owls hunt for lemmings on the tundra, but somehow I feel more connected to that part of the planet because of my encounter here.

George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary vista (photo by Sky Hedman)
Snowy owls were just one of the birds that we spent the day with yesterday.  At Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in the Fraser River delta, we hung out with fashion designed wood ducks, staccoto voiced sandhill cranes, and overly friendly Canada geese. For the first time, we met Lessser Scaups and Pintail ducks.  Pleasant company, all.


  1. This was lovely. Thank you for the lovely photographs. I've never seen one of these snowy owls. And it made me wonder, why so many owls in one location? Three together? I've only encountered owls one at a time.
    Their stare at us, like no other bird's. For a moment I the owl makes me feel as if I've really been seen and judged. By its natural prejudice, as neither foe nor food, I'm to be of little consequence. You perfectly described it, the "teacher's eye," all knowing, all seeing, all wise.

  2. Not only did we see about nine within a few minutes walk, these are just the remnants of a much larger presence earlier in the winter. Plus it was broad daylight, and out in the open. THanks for your comments.

  3. Hi Lynne,
    Don't be a truck!
    You and Cindy turned me on to "The Pushcart War" in 1968(?)

    May she rest in peace: