Just because it’s cold outside and the ground is covered in snow doesn’t mean you…
One weekday in January I spent the better part of the day searching for snowy owls in Alberta. I’d been invited to join a photography friend who has an abiding love of nature and all things related to photography. The plan was to meet in northern Calgary and head east into the prairies towards Rosebud and Drumheller. While it wasn’t any more detailed than that, I ended up learning a lot about snowy owls in Alberta.
The best time to look for snowy owls in Alberta is between November and April.
How do you find snowy owls in Alberta?
The snowy owl loves the prairies – and in particular man-made structures like telephone poles, irrigation structures, fence posts… you get the idea.
And because they blend into the snow and fields and can only be identified as a lump – and that’s if you’re lucky, the easiest way to find them is to drive the back roads checking out telephone poles for unusual forms.
That’s how we spotted three of them. The other was on an irrigation structure and I wouldn’t have noticed it unless I’d had snowy owl spotting experience.
Snowy owls are superb hunters
The snowy owl is blessed with excellent eyesight and great hearing so they are superb hunters. They have the patience of Job and can even find prey under snow cover. So with their sharp talons the lemmings and mice don’t have a chance.
Lemmings are a mainstay
An adult snowy owl can eat 1,600 lemmings in a year – that’s over four per day. They’re also happy to dine on mice, other small rodents, rabbits, birds and fish.
When are snowy owls active?
Snowy owls are active during the day. This makes them easier to find than you’d think. But still it takes a lot of patience and a lot of driving.
We didn’t see our first owl for at least an hour. The next three were seen within 15 minutes of each other – about four hours later. They’re skittish so it’s hard to get great shots.
Some of those amazing snowy owl shots you see – not the ones on this blog but the truly outstanding shots you might see – are helped along by the release of mice on the photographer’s part. Of course we did not do that!
All of my shots were taken either inside or beside the car. I don’t own a long lens but my friend Barry was able to lend me his 400 mm one or I wouldn’t have got the shots I did.
Although I didn’t get the amazing National Geographic kind of snowy owl photos I wanted, I did enjoy the scenery throughout the day. Driving the backroads of Alberta is hardly a hardship in the winter especially on a sunny, blue sky kind of day.
Here’s a look at the kind of countryside where we were searching for snowy owls.
Facts about the snowy owl
- Snowy owls breed on the Arctic tundra. Females lay between 3 and 11 eggs.
- The average life span in the wild is 9.5 years.
- They have a wingspan of 1.3 to 1.5 m (4.2 to 4.8 feet).
- Snowy owls weigh 1.6 to 3 kilograms (3.6 – 6.5 pounds).
- Snowy owls hunt during the day and night.
Of note is the fact we also saw snow buntings, redpolls and a shrike while driving the backroads.
Specifics on where to look for snowy owls
If you don’t want to drive all over eastern Alberta and want to focus your efforts near Calgary follow these directions.
Head east on McKnight Boulevard. Continue as it becomes Township Rd. 250. Drive for approximately 24 km and turn left onto Range Rd. 263. Then the fun begins. Drive the north-south roads between Hwy. 564 and the Trans-Canada Highway, scanning fields, fenceposts and man-made structures for snowy owls.
For more information about birding in Calgary and Alberta visit the Bird Nerds website.
Further reading on things to do in Alberta
- 10 of the Best Outdoor Winter Activities in Alberta
- 25 of the best things to do in Alberta
- 8 Things to do in Kananaskis Country in Winter