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Snowy Owls of the Canadian Prairies
2023 Trip Report

Much of the vast Canadian prairies have been “tamed” by agriculture. And starting in the 1950’s, the province of Alberta underwent a massive oil boom from which the petroleum industry further helped transform parts of the prairies into some of Canada’s biggest cities and help Alberta become the nation’s richest province.

It is from Calgary, in Alberta, where our February 2023 snowy owl photo safari commenced.

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Residing in one convenient hotel, our group made daily forays into the surrounding countryside, concentrating on the wheat stubble-fields that had been previously harvested in early September. The extensive grid of dirt farm roads had been scouted a week earlier to look for likely areas where some of these nomadic birds had decided to spend the frigid prairie winter. To my untrained eye, the overall “habitat” looked bleak and uniform—but apparently not to the owls and the experienced eyes of our local guide who was able to locate 35 individual owls for us over our three days in the field.

The fields were snow covered. As much as I tried to spot a white bird sitting in white snow, if we were relying on me to find these cryptic predators, we would have only photographed those easy-to-find birds that perched atop the rows of telephone poles that stretched from distant farmhouse to distant farmhouse. Easier to spot were the occasional coyotes scavenging the fields, the massive flocks of snow buntings that were easy to see while in flight and the ravens that stood out in virtually every situation.

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Rarely breeding at the same location or with the same mate, snowy owls leave their High Arctic nesting areas and wander just south of those expanses to spend the winter. But these owls are an irruptive species, sometimes unpredictably moving southward in substantial numbers where they may roam deep into the United States—especially along both coasts and into the prairies and farm country of the Great Plains states.

As for our group travels, in addition to hunting for owls we spent a short time photographing the nearby badlands landscapes, a few deserted farmsteads, and frosty vegetation along the roadside.

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This trip would seem to be a big gamble trying to locate predictably unpredictable owls. But the area we worked in has been a magnet for these birds for years, possibly due to the numbers of mice and voles that thrive on the grain that is spilled during the harvest. At the end of a great trip, we were told that there are often as many as 60 snowy owls overwintering in this area, but numbers were possibly lower this year due to avian flu. Apparently wandering snowy owls utilize a lot of ducks as prey (who knew?) before settling into their winter territory. And waterfowl are notorious superspreaders of avian flu.

It is certainly a great experience seeing so many snowy owls in one short trip. In fact, this trip might account for about half of all the snowy owls I have seen in more than 50 years in the field.

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