Invasion of the snowy owls

Bruce Mactavish
Published on November 30, 2013

It started without warning when Gerard Hickey reported three snowy owls on the Cape Race road on Nov. 15.

Cape Race road is traditionally one of the best places to see snowy owls on the Avalon Peninsula. The sudden appearance of three was just an indication of what was about to unfold.

Two days later, Ed Hayden and Alison Mews drove the Cape Race road in search of those three snowy owls and came up with eight! On Nov. 22, Richard Thomas and Tony Power counted 18 snowy owls on just half of the road. It was official. A big snowy owl invasion was upon us.

It was Saturday morning, a little before sunrise, when Ken Knowles, John Wells and I hit the start of the Cape Race road. Our goal was to do a complete snowy owl survey of the road.

The conditions were near perfect. The barrens were brown. The sky was overcast. The white owls were going to stick out like beef buckets. The only imperfection was that the wind was a little high. Snowy owls tend to hide on the lee side of knobs and rocks to shelter from the winds.

We found our first white blob in the barrens just after coming out of The Drook. Behind it was another. In the distance three more were flying inland. We drove a couple hundred metres farther down the road and stopped for another scan. Three more were spotted sitting on the ground.

Little knobs on the tips of low hills were the choice locations. The flat barrens just before Long Beach is the best location for snowy owls. In one scan, there were three more on the left side of the car, five on the right.

By the time we reached Long Beach, we were at 27 snowy owls. Between Long Beach and the Cape Race lighthouse we added 15 more for a grand total of 42 snowy owls! This was a staggering total of snowy owls for anywhere in North America.

Snowy owls nest in the Arctic. Many of them stay there during the winter while others move into Southern Canada.

Snowy owls are opportunistic feeders. They have to be to survive in the Arctic. Lemmings are their prey of choice. The populations of these large mice-like creatures go in cycles. During years of lemming abundance, snowy owls capitalize by raising more young. Snowy owls lay from three to 10 eggs. During exceptional good lemming years, all 10 young may reach fledgling age. In poor years no young are produced.

The Cape Race snowy owls were all heavily barred with black, meaning they are young birds of the year. Perhaps the snowy owls in the eastern Arctic had an excellent summer producing large numbers of new young owls. Now that the Arctic winter is setting in, large numbers of the young owls are flying south in search of feeding grounds. We can only speculate.

During the weekend, a few snowy owls started appearing in other locations. Up to four were at Cape Spear. Lots of people got their looks here. Some got chased around a little too much by photographers. This is bound to happen where snowy owls and people interact.

A snowy owl is an irresistible photo target. I always consider it a successful photo shoot if I did not make the owl move from its perch. There is a fine line between getting too close and staying far enough away.

In past years, when eastern Newfoundland has experienced large flights of snowy owls, some ended up in the offshore region being reported from boats and oil installations. It has happened again, with two reported on the Terra Nova FPSO on the Grand Banks. The birds appear so tranquil sitting unperturbed on a metal structure 350 kilometres offshore. They may be able to hunt seabirds around the floating platform, but otherwise their outlook is not great.

The fate of many of these snowy owls is questionable. There is not much food for them on the island of Newfoundland. We lack the large areas of open fields where meadow voles can thrive in large numbers.

Generally speaking, the island of Newfoundland is rodent-challenged compared to mainland areas. Here the snowy owls are forced to turn to the sea. They are able to capture small seabirds like dovekies and guillemots. I have witnessed a snowy owl flying low and fast over the water in predawn light and with claws extended, just missing a guillemot as it dove in the nick of time. The owl flew along looking for another victim.

Some snowy owls will discover St. John’s. By day they rest in the hills by Pippy Park golf course but at night move into the city. Maybe they catch pigeons roosting on office building windows. In past years they have been seen sitting on light poles on the east end of Water Street under cover of darkness, perhaps waiting for a rat to walk out into the open.

Snowy owls are versatile birds. Before the modernization of the Robin Hood Bay Landfill there was an excellent source of rat protein here. The smartest owls will get through this winter somehow.

We do not know how big this snowy owl influx will get. Keep your eyes open. Sometimes they end up sleeping off the day on a building in downtown St. John’s or the rooftop of a house in the suburbs. Crows despise owls and display their displeasure by cawing loudly and dive bombing the owl, trying to dislodge it from a perch. The persistent loud activity of crows could be your clue there is a snowy owl near you.

Remember: be kind to the owl. Get your looks and take pictures from a distance. Let it sit there in peace. Please avoid trying to get as close as you can until it flies off. These owls may appear relaxed but they are under stress being in a new land without many options for food.

In the meantime, this is an event you do not want to miss. Snowy owl invasions of this magnitude occur only every decade or two.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at,

or by phone at 722-0088.