For a couple weeks I've been reading with envy the reports coming out of Boundary Bay, British Columbia where there have been between 20 and 30 snowy owls hanging out. After seeing photos from a couple of friends who went up there, I couldn't take it anymore, and knew I had to find a way to go. This Saturday presented the perfect opportunity, right before the snowy winter storm was projected to hit the west coast.
A ferry that filled up unexpectedly early first thing Saturday morning almost threw the plans into jeopardy, but some calculations involving available daylight hours and travel time indicated that the trip would still be possible so I had to go for it. Throughout the day, you could practically watch the snow level falling towards sea level, starting with the ferry ride and the partially snow-covered Turtleback Mountain on Orcas Island:
The drive north up I5 was beautiful. The ground and trees were dusted with snow, but the pavement was clear and dry. After a slight wait at the border, I arrived at Boundary Bay (near Delta, BC) around 3 in the afternoon. I was wondering if I would be able to find the place easily, but I needn't have worried - all the owl watchers were a spectacle themselves! I had to park about a quarter mile from the trailhead:
I didn't have to walk too far to see my first snowy owl (year bird 91) - then my second, third, and fourth. Many were perched right along the driftwood berm about 50 yards off the trail:
Many were in close, and others were scattered out across the marsh. The densest congregation was this group of eight on a single log:
It was amazing to me how unconcerned the owls were about all the human activity. As I said, some were only about 50 yards off the trail, and this was the activity on the trail - people, dogs, children, bikes, and even horses (on the left)!
It's pretty cool to see so many people so excited about birds, though it's not surprising, because these snowy owls are a pretty charismatic bunch. For the most part, people were very respectful, as well, although despite the signs asking everyone to respect the owls space, some people felt it necessary to tramp out into the sensitive wetlands in an attempt to get that perfect shot. Some patience is really all that was needed, however, because some of the owls were already right there!
For the most part, the owls were just sleeping or resting. They were mostly motionless, only occasionally turning a head, opening their eyes, or letting out a yawn:
I spent most of my time near one group of four. Two of them were preening and a little bit more active. This one, likely an immature due to the amount of dark barring, even took a short flight to go from the ground up to this perch:
One, probably an adult, stood up and was moving around, providing a nice look at the fully feathered legs and feet which help keep the owls warm in their Arctic home:
The weather was really perfect, though after an hour my fingers were freezing despite my gloves. Looking at the clouds to the west, I had to wait just a little bit longer for the late afternoon sun to peak out again before sunset. I'm glad I did, because that's when I got my favorite photos.
Lots of other photographers were waiting for this moment, too:
While the snowy owls were undoubtedly the highlight - I conservatively counted at least 21 - there were other impressive sights, too. I saw about a dozen bald eagles, five harriers, and a short-eared owl there along with some mixed species flocks of sparrows and a variety of duck species. The landscape in either direction was stunning, looking one direction over the bay and the other towards the city of Vancouver and the distant snow-capped mountains.
Walking back to my car, I had to pause to take this photo of two immature bald eagles against the clouds lit up by the sunset. Perched on the wires underneath them was my second year bird - a flock of Brewer's blackbirds (92).
It ended up being a very successful trip. I made it back across the border, down I5 before the weather hit, and in line for the last ferry home with plenty of time to spare. I'm sure glad I made the effort to go - the ferry rides and border crossings can be a bit of a deterrent when it comes to visiting places that really aren't that far away. What an awesome phenomenon, made all that more impressive because it occurs right in the outskirts of downtown Vancouver!