Snowy owls in Digby

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Hungry arctic birds need food and space

By Jonathan Riley DIGBY COURIER NovaNewsNow.com

Snowy Owls are in Digby.

People have seen them on Brier Island, all along St. Mary’s Bay, even in backyards in Digby.

In fact the arctic birds are all over the province with sightings on Brule Point near Tatamagouche, in Halifax harbour on George’s Island, on Cape Sable Island and in the harbour in Yarmouth.

Cliff Sandeson of Truro managed to see one and photograph it up close up on the Marsh Road just outside Digby on Monday, Dec. 9.

The owl he saw was standing over the carcass of another snowy owl.

“I was within 50 metres of it,” he said. “It wasn’t letting go. It started dragging the carcass down the road.”

Sandeson thinks the owl was probably eating the other bird.

Birders believe the owls are coming south in search of food. One theory suggests that a large number of lemmings in the north last year led to large, well-fed and healthy broods of baby owls.

But now the large number of owls means the competition for food up north is greater this year, forcing many of the owls south in search of food.

Snowy Owls have been seen all over Atlantic Canada, the U.S. Northeast, around the Great Lakes and even as far south as North Carolina.

Many of the owls that come south are juveniles—the least experienced hunters and the more likely to be hungry.

Sanderson is an avid birder and bird photographer. He has 200 birds on his life list – meaning he has seen 200 species of birds in his lifetime.

He even saw Snowy Owls before, on a trip to Churchill, Manitoba years ago.

He heard about this owl invasion, as birders are calling it, via the Nova Scotia Rare Bird Alert mailing list.

He visits family in Digby every week and he knew the shores of St. Mary’s Bay would offer a great chance to see one.

“Coastal barrens are the place people are seeing them now,” he said. “My first choice was to drive across the Marsh Road. I felt this would be a perfect area because you have the rock dyke on one side and open community pastures and hayfields on your right. Snowy Owls like to sit on large rocks or open hummocks and the pastures would be good hunting grounds for them.”

He came across the owl in the photos as he was walking back to his car after an hour walk through the area.

 “This was the first time in Nova Scotia and to get so close was very special,” he said. “Birds of prey are normally very elusive and not at all approachable but this was one was very approachable.”

Still when Sandeson realized he was stressing the owl he backed off and detoured around it to get back to his car.

“It’s important to admire them from a distance,” he said. “I had a long lens and I didn’t need to get any closer. Whenever you’re taking pictures of animals you’ve got to think of the bird – especially around nests and young, you have to be very careful.”

These owls in particular could be stressed already due to lack of food and should be given as much room as possible.

Sandeson expects the owls will be around now into March.

“Like the Bald Eagles whose populations build from now to the middle of next month, the owls will probably be here for the winter,” he said. “Their number will start to drop off again around mid-February and into March.”

jriley@digbycourier.ca

LINK: A beautiful and informative video by Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology about the occasional Snowy Owl migration.

Organizations: Nova Scotia Rare Bird Alert, Lab of Ornithology

Geographic location: Digby, Marsh Road, Brier Island Brule Point Tatamagouche Halifax Cape Sable Island Yarmouth Atlantic Canada U.S. Northeast Great Lakes North Carolina Churchill Manitoba Nova Scotia

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