How to find a snowy owl in Toronto

A deep dive into Ontario’s urban wildlife

By: Junaid Khan and Andrés Jiménez

Note to reader: Birds are the best vehicle to discover nature and improve your health and wellbeing > join the community by following the simple and enjoyable Beginner’s Guide to Birdwatching. USE THE PROMO CODE “GRATEFUL” to get 80% off!

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It is -15 degrees Celsius on March 13, 2018, in the city of Toronto, and we are sitting atop a building across from this beauty.

A corrugated metal rooftop, silver in color, with a snowy owl female sitting on top of it. The owl is white with black bars and it is looking to the right.

On an ordinary Toronto rooftop, a female snowy owl overlooks her migratory home

There sits an animal as synonymous with the Arctic as the Polar Bear; Bubo scandiacus, the Snowy Owl.  When I began looking for birds in Toronto, I never thought I would get to see a rarity such as this.  And, let me tell you; she wasn’t easy to find.  This search required research, tips from other enthusiasts in the field, and most importantly, getting out there – in very, very cold weather.

Two man are depicted in the photo. In the background a dry grassland with blue skies. The man have facial hair, are wearing winter clothes and are looking happy.

It is easier, healthier and a lot more fun birding with a friend

We both had very different journeys to this point; Andrés had always wanted to find a Snowy Owl and had never seen one, and this was my first year looking for them in the first place.  So, why look now?  Why this year?  Well, it’s because it was a good year to look for Snowy Owls.  We came across media releases on a rare and cyclical event known as an “irruption,” whereby hundreds of owls of particular species descend on a region due to exceptional weather or prey conditions.  This year was supposed to be the year of the Snowys in Toronto! So, off we went.

A hawk flies in the middle of the city, billboards and electricity lines are seen on the background

A Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius) displaying hunting behaviour in eyeshot of North York billboards

My first journey trying to find a Snowy brought me to the centre of the northern part of Toronto; Downsview Park.  It was there, in the relative isolation of a mostly industrial region, that I saw a Northern Harrier flying really low, close to the tops of tall grasses.  It would dive and turn and hover and stop; all the while keeping its eye on small birds within the grasses it hoped to scare out to grab as a meal.  What a sight!

It's the journey that counts

It’s the journey that counts

Round two took me to another spectacular location; Presquile Provincial Park.  -28 this day, and not even the birds were really active.  But the view of a frozen lake on a sunny winter’s day and the calm of a chickadee and a cardinal in such cold was plenty to reflect on.

Grear Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

Well, hello there.

It is now that Andrés and I joined forces to find that snowy.  We arrived at spot number three in February.  It is a location we are well familiar with by now; Tommy Thompson Park.  This was a long one; five and a half hours of walking in -21 degrees Celsius, and it went by pretty quick.  We packed lunches, coffee, water, and added in a good helping of jesting and joking, along with conversations with other birders at the park to keep us going.  At the end of that journey, we once again did not find the Snowy Owl, but we did one better.  Bubo virginianus, the Great Horned Owl; this is an owl far larger and much more rare in Toronto than the Snowy. Considering finding Snowy Owls was this hard during an irruption year, we were extremely fortunate to see this guy.  There was probably only one in the entirety of the park, whereas there were at least three Snowy Owls reported in the park that day (none of which we saw…).

Deer out of focus

A doe perfectly framed by snow and maple leaves

There were other trips involved in trying to locate a Snowy Owl, and we saw something unique on all of them; from frozen landscapes to creatures great and small.  I even managed to find a Snowy Owl on two other occasions, but it was too far away for photos both times (Andres is still sore about me finding it on my own..).  And it was back in Downsview Park that we finally got to see a Snowy Owl up close and in her full majesty.  A lot happened in both of our lives between the beginning of this search in December and its end in March. I can honestly say that some of these hikes were truly liberating for our minds at times when they just wouldn’t quiet down.  That is the key here; getting out there, interacting with nature to help ground yourself, and see something #spectacular.

cropped-fx1_2860.jpg

A perfect predator of the North, right here in the city.  #WildIsAllAround

Tips to find a snowy owl:

  1. Look for information reporting if an irruption is expected.
  2. Join citizen science initiatives and track those bird-nerd reports on recently spotted owls.
  3. Find the right place: snowy owls like lemmings, voles and love to hunt migratory waterfowl like mergansers and goldeneyes. Look for areas such as the rich waterfront in Toronto.
  4. Look for the signs: do you see carcasses of owl prey? Are there any pellets (undigested parts of a bird’s food that it throws up; they often look like hairballs with bones in them)? If you find this evidence, return to this location regularly.
  5. Find a birdwatching friend, there are plenty of people and groups out there who would be happy take you under their wing! (Pun intended) Bird watching is about flourishing together as a community; both birds and people alike.

Want to learn more? Join my online course “The Beginners guide to birdwatching: finding birds and happiness” – As gratitude for following my blog, use the promo code “GRATEFUL” and get an 80% discount  www.udemy.com/birdwatching

 

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