There is a lot of interest in the influx of Snowy Owls to Boundary Bay. Snowy Owls are huge white owls from the Arctic, standing about 60 cm tall. While wintering here, they often sit prominently on logs within the saltmarsh of the Fraser Delta. ”Flight years” with large numbers of owls occur every 4 to 6 years. The last winter with high numbers was 2005 -06, with smaller numbers of Snowies the following winter. Then we saw very few until this November when numbers rapidly built up on Boundary Bay and at Brunswick Point. High counts were about 30 to 35 for the bay and about 6 to 11 at Brunswick Point on Roberts Bank. Some of these owls have now dispersed over a wider area, but about 20 are still around the saltmarsh between 72 St and 64th Street, visible (in the distance) from the dyke on Boundary Bay. You will need binoculars, a scope or a telephoto lens for a good view.
Snowy Owls eat lemmings while in the Arctic and these are animals which go through oscillating cycles of abundance, with high numbers building up then “crashing” every four or five years. During abundant lemming years, lots of owls are born then when food gets scarce it is time for younger birds, particularly, to head further afield in search of prey. This is when flights further south all across North America occur and when owls appear in the Fraser valley. The situation is probably more complex than this, with weather and other factors playing a role. Generally, it is believed that adult females are more likely to stay up north and juveniles more likely to wander further away. Owls have been seen some years in California and even as far as Texas.
While in the Fraser River estuary, Snowy Owls will feed on waterfowl, other birds and even other owls (one reputedly took a short-eared owl on Boundary Bay) as well as voles or other rodents. During the day the owls are often awake but seem to be just resting on logs on the salt marsh. They may hunt during the day but have been seen more actively hunting during the night. There is a lot to be learned about their behaviour during their winter visits here.
Living in the Arctic, most of these owls, especially the juveniles, are not used to people, so they appear unafraid and allow a close approach. However going up to owls all the time eventually makes them move further away, and probably disrupts their resting or hunting patterns. As with all wildlife viewing, it is best to stand still and wait for birds (or animals) to get used to your presence. Often birds will come closer to take a look, but they will not do this if a lot of people keep moving towards them, which has the effect of “herding” them. Ideally, if everyone stayed on the dyke, we would see the owls close up in the marsh. In 2005 -06, when fewer people came to see them, we had good views for several weeks of owls close to the dyke and in the adjacent golf course and fields. So please consider the owls and other people and try to stay at a distance, using binoculars, a scope or a telephoto lens if you have one.
Having said that, it is great that so many people want to see the Snowies while they are here and it is wonderful to see families and children enjoying this great nature spectacle.
At 72 Street dyke entrance you can also expect to see some other bird species. Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls patrol the fields and marshes both sides of the dyke and the hedgerows are full of Song Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows, Spotted Towhees, and Purple Finches. Great Blue Heron feed in the marsh; there is an active juvenile bird very near the dyke entrance. Western Meadowlarks and Northern Shrike have also been seen.