Despite the lack of winter weather so far, we are undergoing a “snowy” invasion of sorts here in the Okanagan. Pretty well every year at least one or two snowy owls are seen in southern B.C., but generally at the coast.
However, this fall, there have already been reports of at least four snowy owls in the central and southern Okanagan — one in Kelowna and three in Penticton. Local bird expert Dick Cannings believes the last time a snowy owl was seen in Penticton was in 1996, so to have three within a four-week period is extremely unusual. For local birders (including me) who are still seeking this “lifer”, we can be optimistic that this might be the year we are successful.
Unfortunately we know for certain that these birds were all different individuals rather than one or two moving about. The first two Penticton birds both died — the first from unknown causes after it was taken to SORCO because it appeared sick and unable to fly and the second bird was hit by an auto on Highway 97 just north of Penticton. The third Penticton snowy owl was seen on Dec. 1 — its current whereabouts are not known. And just as I was about to send this in, a report came that the Kelowna owl, which had been hanging about the Bennett Bridge, was also killed in traffic. It is a sad fact that snowy owls do not acquire traffic smarts in the Arctic.
Snowy owls are known to spread out from their normal Arctic tundra habitat every so often, especially if lemmings (their favourite food) are in short supply. These fantastic large white birds have been seen as far south as the state of Georgia, so like all flying birds, they are able to really get around. Another snowy owl was reported in Victoria in November as well as another in Vernon and yet another at Kamloops, so all of these birds may be a sign of things to come this winter.
Snowy owls are diurnal — they hunt in the day as well as at night, so if another does come this way there is a good chance of seeing it — certainly easier than spotting a nocturnal species.
Depending on which bird book you read, they may be described as the largest members of the owl family — being slightly larger than a great horned owl. Great horned owls weigh in at about 1.3 kg whereas snowy owls get up to 1.8 kg. They are pretty close in length but the wingspan of a snowy owl is typically somewhat longer than those of the great horned owl. However, great grey owls are larger than either of those two in body length but less in body weight (1.1 kg). Interestingly enough, almost half of the total weight of snowy owls is made up by their feathers — they need lots of feathers to keep warm in the long Arctic nights.
A reminder that there are numerous opportunities to give your friends and family eco-friendly gifts for Christmas with the choices ranging from shade-grown coffee (great for our birds that winter in the tropics) to sponsorship of habitat for endangered species. Check out The Nature Conservancy of Canada at www.natureconservancy.ca, Bird Studies Canada at www.bsc-eoc.org or Ducks Unlimited Canada at www.ducks.ca.
The next monthly meeting of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club will take place on Jan. 24. Eva Antonijevic, community programs director for the Friends of Summerland Ornamental Gardens, will give a brief historical overview of the gardens, followed by a presentation on the Pilot Water Conservation Project that was launched in July 2012. In a departure from our normal routine, the meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in the basement hall of the Penticton United Church on Main Street. Everyone is welcome.
Bob Handfield is vice-president of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club but the views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the club.