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Snowy Owls back in Boundary Bay

Three Snowy Owls hang out in the salt marshes at the base of 72nd Street in Boundary Bay in this photo taken Nov. 28. - Terry Carr, Delta Naturalists Casual Birding Club
Three Snowy Owls hang out in the salt marshes at the base of 72nd Street in Boundary Bay in this photo taken Nov. 28.
— image credit: Terry Carr, Delta Naturalists Casual Birding Club

South Delta is abuzz with bird watchers excited to see the white and black Snowy owls have returned to Boundary Bay for a second year.

The uncommon appearance has resulted in people visiting the southern tip of 64th and 72nd streets, where the birds have been spotted along the dikes.

"These winters where the owls move south are called irruption years," explains George Clulow, president of the B.C. Field Ornithologists.

"They happen irregularly and the mechanism as to why they leave is not well understood but it's assumed to have something to do with lack of food where they normally winter, which is way further north."

Irruption events are eagerly wished for by avid bird watchers who are well aware of the normal ranges and migration patterns of bird species.

The owls usually breed in the high Arctic tundra in the northernmost stretches of North America and Eurasia. They will winter in parts of southern Canada and the northern United States, though they aren't commonly seen in British Columbia.

Snowy Owls rely primarily on lemmings and small rodents in the Arctic, but in Tsawwassen where the food is plentiful they will eat ducks and other water fowl, said Clulow.

"Although that mainly goes on under cover of darkness. During the day they're, for the most part, resting, not actively hunting."

Much to the delight of bird watchers, however, the owls do fly around during the day, owing to their acclimatization of the Arctic summer where daylight hours run around the clock.

Anne Murray, local author of the book A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay, recently wrote on her blog about the return of the birds to Delta.

She cautioned that several Snowy Owls died last year from hunger.

"In order to rest and hunt, these owls need to sit quietly for long periods of time, familiarizing themselves with the terrain, listening to their surroundings, and conserving their energy," she writes.

"When people approach them too closely and surround them so that they have no obvious escape route, the owls can become stressed. This is true of most wildlife."

Although the owls won't get too close to people, they're not frightened either. Clulow explains that's because they're not generally used to seeing us.

"They're not used to interacting with humans, they don't see them as enemies. And for the most part, we're not."

But, Clulow cautioned, photographers are posing a serious issue for some owls which are already under stress.

"What happens, unfortunately, with the less contentious photographers is they approach to get that close shot, or they try and flush the owls so they can get flight shots."

Clulow said everybody appreciates the birds but they need space and respect from people.

He encouraged people to go with binoculars and stay on the marked trails and walkways in order to observe the owls from a safe distance.

"There are often bird watchers down there who will have scopes set up and they will usually be happy to let you have a look."

Because the Boundary Bay dike is south-facing, Murray advises people who want to photograph the owls to visit on overcast or cloudy days where the sun won't interfere with good shots. The location is not only good for seeing the Snowy Owl, but also Short-eared owls, Peregrine Falcons, Great Blue Herons, and other birds.

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