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The Search For Snowy Owls In Alberta

The Search for Snowy Owls in Alberta

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.

The piercing eyes of a snowy owl
The piercing eyes of a snowy owl

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.

Looking for snowy owls in Alberta on farm structures
Looking for snowy owls in Alberta on farm structures
A snowy owl all fluffed up
A snowy owl all fluffed up

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.

"Very sharp talons"
Very sharp talons

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.

A snowy owl on a hydroline
A snowy owl on a perch
"A snowy owl leaving its perch"
A snowy owl leaving its perch
Hard to spot the snowy owls in flight
Hard to spot the snowy owls in flight
Looking for snowy owls in Alberta and finding an immature snowy owl
An immature snowy owl

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. 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.

Fields glowing in the morning light
Fields glowing in the morning light at the beginning of the search for snowy owls in Alberta
Looking for snowy owls in Alberta on the backroads of Alberta's prairies
The backroads of Alberta’s prairies
Abandoned home on the prairies
Abandoned home on the prairies
Looking for snowy owls in Alberta on the desolate but beautiful back roads on the prairies
The desolate but beautiful back roads on the prairies
Looking for snowy owls in Alberta in winter
A very pretty but wintry scene
Now a snowy owl but at least it was wildlife
Now a snowy owl but at least it was wildlife
Beautiful winter prairie sky
Beautiful winter prairie sky
The sky is getting too dark to look for owls
The sky is getting too dark to look for snowy owls in Alberta

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 metres (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.

For more information about birding in Calgary and Alberta visit the Bird Nerds website.

Further reading on things to do in Alberta

 

 

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 43 Comments
  1. Leigh, once again your photos are absolutely stunning!! I am back near the ocean again but these prairie shots remind me how much I loved living on the flat land.

    1. Thanks for your great comment Gillian. It was drop dead gorgeous on the prairie yesterday. But I think unless you’re a farmer or a worker in the oil patch you probably don’t go out to explore it and when the lighting is right it’s magical.

  2. Gorgeous creatures, snowy owls. I’ve only seen them in captivity. Also, the prairie shots looks fantastic – desolate and beautiful, like you say. Reminds me of the beginning of the film Fargo, miles and miles of snowy, straight roads.

    1. @Mette My guess – though I’m no snowy owl expert at ALL – is that it must have been a different sort of owl or it was off course and should have been in the Arctic in Finland or Norway.

  3. As usual, your photos are stunning, Leigh. Looks like you have less snow there than normal for this time of the year and you mentioned that it looked colder than it is. Wonder what impact that has on the snowy owl.

    1. @Marcia I have just come inside from shoveling heavy snow for an hour and I am only half way done. We’d had A LOT up until XMAS and then two weeks with none. I think it’s actually a heavier year this year despite appearances.

  4. Such beautiful, snowy photos! I am bookmarking this page to show my 6 year old today when she gets home from school. She recently read a book about the snowy owl and is obsessed with them!

  5. Leigh,
    The images are beautiful, but as a birder I have an issue with baiting. Baiting can be very detrimental to birds for a variety of reasons–exposing them to predators, spreading disease, etc. Here are two excellent posts on the topic of baiting: http://featheredphotography.com/blog/2011/08/16/baiting-a-matter-of-definition-and-ethics/
    and
    http://www.onthewingphotography.com/wings/2012/12/16/what-is-wrong-with-this-coyote-picture/
    Please consider passing this on to your photographer friend.
    Best, Rachel

    1. @Rachel My photographer friend is fully against baiting too!!! We found our owls by driving by and taking photographs from either inside the car or beside the car. I think my description needed improvement and I’ve done that. It’s just a thrill to see a snowy owl and I was still pleased with the less than perfect photos I got.

  6. Being a huge Rush fan, I have always been a huge fan of snowy owls ever since their seminal “Fly by Night” album and song, which has a huge flying snowy owl adorning the album cover. This post has got me in the mood to hear the album again.

    Incredible shots of a beautiful bird. We actually had a lot of snowy owls come down all the way to Illinois and Wisconsin last year. Problem is I am too busy skiing whenever there is snow on the ground. I need to come up to Canada to ski and take a day off and search for snowy owls.

    1. @Ted I love how the snowy owl is intertwined with a band for you. I put aside a full day just for the owls – and since there are never any guarantees you’ll see one I was pretty darned happy that we got four. It’s hard to do it all Ted. You could head to the Arctic too in the summer. I’ll be hiking on Baffin Island in the Arctic so hoping to see them again there.

  7. Birds are not easy to photography, especially when you’re looking for pretty much white on white 🙂 You did great. Love the shot of the abandoned house.

  8. Seriously you are too hard on yourself …..”I didn’t get the amazing National Geographic kind of snowy owl photos I wanted” …..they are stunning photos as usual.

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