February 2013: Snow Buntings and Snowy Owls
Like the Bohemian Waxwings from my last post, Snow Buntings are usually seen in large flocks. Their territory differs in that the waxwings are mostly seen in trees in urban areas and the buntings are mostly in rural settings, scattered throughout the prairies and foothills of Southern Alberta. In large swarms, they are hard to miss. I’ll often see some movement in the distance in large fields – they fly in unison, their black tipped white wings creating unique patterns when spread in flight.
They are fairly common in the winter, but this past February, I saw the largest flock of Snow Buntings I have ever seen. I was driving to Lethbridge for my sister’s birthday party and saw the familiar fluttering on the horizon ahead. As I crept closer, I realized this was no ordinary flock. There must have been 10s of thousands in all directions.
There are often large numbers right on the road, and they disperse when you drive by, but fly back to the same spot after you pass. When attempting to photograph them, they generally only do this once or twice before flying off out of range – at least in my experience. They are not easy photography subjects!
This flock of thousands, however, was so immense and so attracted to whatever they were feeding on, they did not appear to be overly concerned by my presence. I only spent a few minutes with them because I needed to get to Lethbridge, but it was enough to snap a few pics that illustrate the sheer magnitude of the flock.
Shorty after observing the swarm of Buntings, I found a patient female Snowy Owl on top of a pole – a very typical position for these solitary birds. Snowy Owls are highly sought subjects for wildlife photographers. Owls in general are great subjects, but these majestic white ghosts of the prairies seem to have a particularly strong pull. We are so lucky to have them here in Alberta in the winter.
Their numbers vary depending on their food supply in the North. The past couple of winters have been good years for Snowies around Calgary, at least that’s what I have heard. Being relatively new to birding, I have no history to compare them too.
As with all large birds, Snowy Owls are hard to miss when perched on the top of a pole or fence post. Most owl species are more active at night, so there is a better chance of seeing them closer to sunrise or sunset. Snowies, however, are active throughout the day as well. On a sunny day, their white feathers capture the sun, allowing you to see them from a long distance away. In general, female snowies have black feathers creating a ‘barred’ pattern and males are pure white, but this can vary depending on their age.
Birding tips: Snowy owls are usually only seen East of Calgary, rarely west. When out for a drive, watch the tips of poles – from a distance they sort of look like a malformed box balanced precariously on top of a pole. If you see that in the winter East of Calgary, there is a very good chance it is a snowy. They can also be seen on the ground, so it never hurts to pull out the binoculars to check on what appear to be clumps of snow in the field.
While they thrive in harsh, cold conditions, they have to migrate long distances from the north to get to Southern Alberta. Given the enormous expenditure of energy this takes, it is important to be respectful of how they are impacted by our presence when viewing/photographing. They will often fly to a different spot when a car approaches, and if that happens, I think it’s best to just leave them be and wait until you find a more patient bird to observe more closely. It is tempting to follow them around, purposely make them fly to get a flight shot, but it can be hard on them to have to fly for no reason.
See more images in my Snowy Owl Gallery.
Watch for my next post – March 2013: The Great Great Gray Owl