I don't really recommend Vancouver as a winter destination. As a matter of fact, most people I know try to escape our colourless, rainy, cold winters and migrate towards the warmer climates of Mexico or Hawaii. However this year is different. Special visitors from the North flew thousands of miles to spend the winter with us. In November, snowy owls left their arctic home to travel all the way to Boundary Bay, to the delight of all photographers and birdwatchers from the Lower Mainland and beyond.

 

Owls feed mainly on lemmings in the arctic tundra, and the population ups and downs of these rodents dictate the movements of the owls. In most years, when lemmings are abundant, owls stay in the north. However, every four to six years, there are no lemmings in the Arctic, so the owls head south in search of food, and that is how the snowies landed in our backyard this year.

 

I have never been to the Arctic, and I had never seen a snowy owl in the wild before. So to me, seeing these magnificent creatures has truly been a magical experience. Since January, I have visited the owls several times – after all, they were only a bus ride away from where I live -- and I spent many hours observing them and looking into their beautiful golden eyes. I learned that only mature males can be entirely white. Adult females have more markings, and immature owls are more heavily barred than adults. I found out that snowies hunt day and night, unlike many owls species that are only active at night time. And I read in Frances Backhouse's excellent book, Owls of North America, that in the Arctic, snow geese often choose to nest close to snowy owls for protection against predators.

 

I have counted over 20 owls on every outing, and I have also counted hundreds of people flocking to Boundary Bay to catch a glimpse of the owls. When watching and photographing owls, it is very important to remember that the birds' well-being always comes first. A sign on the dike trail reminds visitors that owls should not be disturbed, approached, or harassed, and that their space should be respected. Local naturalist Anne Murray provides great recommendations for successful and respectful wildlife viewing

 

The snowy owls have taken me on a beautiful journey this winter, and it has been a privilege to be part of their world. Boundary Bay's marsh is a hot spot for birds. In addition to the snowies, one may see shorebirds, northern harriers, peregrine falcons, great blue herons, bald eagles, short-eared owls, and much more. It is an important and sensitive habitat, and a reminder that British Columbia has incredible biodiversity, and that we should do everything we can to protect the province's wild spaces.