Want to see snowy owls? Head north to Canada’s nearby Boundary Bay

  • Fri Feb 17th, 2012 4:06pm
  • Life

By Jackson Holtz Herald Writer

Parliament is in session.

The ministers have large eyes, are dressed in white, their coats speckled in black. Their heads swivel nearly 280 degrees. They sit quietly, save for the occasional “hoo.”

They are snowy owls, visiting this winter in large numbers from the Arctic tundra. Parliament, a term usually reserved for governments, is the word used to describe a congregation of owls.

Few places offer as easy an opportunity to observe these striking, white-plumed owls as Boundary Bay, just across the border in British Columbia.

It’s an easy day trip from Snohomish County.

Don’t delay. The snowy owls are likely to take flight later this month or sometime in March. You can call a Vancouver birding hotline, 604-737-3074, to check if the owls have left.

Boundary Bay, one of the premier birding locations in North America, is home to many birds that migrate south, experts say.

What’s different about the snowy owl is that they only travel this far south when populations in the Arctic boom, said Paul Bannick, a Seattle photographer, bird expert and the author of “The Owl and the Woodpecker.”

“They are here trying to find food,” he said. While wintering locally, they prey on mice, voles, rats and seabirds.

The infrequent visits make snowy owls a rare treat for local birders to observe. Adding mystique, owls typically are nocturnal, making them tough to observe. They mostly are solitary creatures.

At Boundary Bay, birders can see snowy owl parliaments in broad daylight.

“To witness an owl during the day on its own terms is a gift,” Bannick said. “It’s quite rare.”

As a curious young birder, Bannick first spotted a snowy owl one winter in his Seattle back yard. Bannick, who’s 48, didn’t see another snowy owl again for three decades.

Snowy owls in the Arctic primarily feed on lemmings, small field rodents. When lemmings are abundant, the snowy owl females can produce more offspring, rearing up to seven chicks, Bannick said.

The result is a snowy owl irruption, a huge spike in the bird population that forces them to fly farther to find winter feeding grounds. First, the owls fly to the Midwestern prairies. When these feeding grounds fill, the owls fly on eventually landing in coastal estuaries in the Pacific Northwest.

This year’s irruption has resulted in snowy owl observations across North America from Everett, Wash., to Everett, Mass.

While snowy owls have been spied along the Washington coast, even here in downtown Everett, few locations offer the ability to observe the birds like Boundary Bay.

The viewing location is easy to access. As many as three dozen snowy owls set up their winter home there. Most of the birds are juveniles.

“It’s one of the biggest returns that I’ve seen in close to 30 years,” said Jill Deuling, a park interpretation specialist with Metro Vancouver.

Nearly 500 people crowded the dike trail to see the owls on a recent sunny weekend, she said.

“This is not an Arctic circumstance,” she said. “I’m sure that it can be distracting on the owl’s ability to focus on prey.”

The snowy owls need to rest, feed and save their strength for the return trip to the Arctic. Prowling photographers and off-leash dogs interfere, Deuling said. Visitors should stay on trails and keep their own animals tethered.

While scientists know the owls fly south from the Arctic, little is known about exactly how far they’ve traveled.

“We have no idea where these owls come from,” Bannick said.

The populations could be from anywhere on the planet’s northern dome, including Russia, Finland, Alaska or northern Canada.

What is certain, Bannick said, is that the importance of providing habitat locally affects fragile ecosystems far away.

The snowy owl visits are a bright reminder of the interwoven relationship the Pacific Northwest has with its northern neighbors.

“It reminds us how connected North America is,” Bannick said.

This year is a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for many people to see the snowy owls, Bannick said.

Just when the owls decide to pack their feathers and fly off is unknown. Experts believe the owls should stick around until March, and possibly a bit longer.

“As animals are, they can get up and move whenever they feel like it,” Deuling said. “We don’t know exactly when it’s going to be.”

Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447; jholtz@heraldnet.com.

Resources

Getting to Boundary Bay: Drive on I-5 north across the border into Canada (remember to bring a passport or enhanced driver’s license). I-5 turns into Highway 99. Take the Ladner Trunk Road exit and head west. Turn left on 72nd Street and drive until the end of the road. Park and head to your right onto a dike. For more information on Boundary Bay, go to tinyurl.com/cz2ejv8.

Nature Vancouver’s Rare Bird Alert: A recorded message is expected to provide updates when the snowy owls leave Boundary Bay. Call 604-737-3074 to check before heading north or go to the group’s website at tinyurl.com/78tmejp.

White Rock: The Canadian coastal town of White Rock, just off Highway 99 north of the U.S. border, is a great place to stop for a meal with a view and some shopping after birding. The town is chock-full of souvenir shops and fish-and-chip places.