Rare owls highlight sparse birding winter season 

Local birds had a difficult winter

click to enlarge Steller Jay
  • Steller Jay

Our winter was tough on local birds.

Once the lingering autumn migrants were cleared out by the freeze-up in early January, most of those remaining to be seen about town were at Mike Sparks' feeders at Toad Hollow. "Sparky" has huge feed expenditures, and it keeps not only the birds well nourished, but also we birders very happy as well.

After a hike on our very quiet Valley Trail transect, and seeing only a few species which might include a flock of a hundred or so pine siskins or their brethren, common redpolls, a trip to Sparks' yard provides a very satisfying conclusion to what had been a sparse day of birding.

Over the winter, which concluded on Feb. 28, in the ornithological calendar for Canada, 70 species were positively identified out of the 127 on the local season checklist.

A non-verified report of a California quail is a hypothetical addition, seen, of all places, on Blackcomb's Ridge Runner. Quail are interior and coastal edge species usually inhabiting sage brush and orchard-covered terrain as well as dense blackberry brambles!

Two days of follow-up skiing on the Crystal Chair failed to provide a second confirmed sighting of the bird, so, the real news for the winter season belongs to the owls.

The international news focused on the snowy owl's unusual movements, southward out of the tundra, taiga and boreal forests into the prairies and coastal regions.

The periodic collapse in the lemming cycle had struck, and the owls had to seek other sources of food by moving out. Farmers' fields at Ladner were a choice alternative, although several coastal estuaries also had the owls, including Squamish. When this happens, their diet refocuses on small ducks which are very plentiful in south-western B.C. and north-western Washington.

Whistler happened to be a handy stop-over for one owl on its way south, seen several times at several spots on the valley floor. The snowy owls have been in the Ladner area throughout the winter, and as of early March, several are still being seen around Boundary Bay.

The other prize owl species, seen locally in Whistler Mountain's alpine bowls, and photographed by several skiers, is the northern hawk owl, recognized by an unusually long tail and strongly barred chest. This species normally resides in the boreal forest on the uplands of the Interior and adjacent Yukon Plateau to the north. It wanders erratically at the conclusion of nesting season and appearances in the coastal region during winter might be related to food shortages brought about by excessive snow depths in the boreal forest. The number of years of hawk owl sightings at Whistler can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Other winter owls are local resident species of which the northern pygmy owl is the most often seen, and great horned and barred owls, most often heard, but rarely seen. The pygmy is about the size of a large sparrow, seen at all valley elevations where there are tree-top perching viewpoints. Four were spotted over the winter, and many more could have been found if daily searches of tree-tops had been carried out.

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