Nature news, social media and photography websites have been abuzz about the incredible Snowy Owl invasion happening in eastern North America the past few weeks. While the fallout has seen unprecedented numbers of owls reported across much of southern Canada and the northeastern states (with a few owls turning up much further south than usual), nothing compares to the explosion of these majestic arctic birds as Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. Some keen observers have seen well over a hundred in the Cape Race area alone, while Bruce Mactavish tallied a mind-boggling 206 this past weekend.
Between work and family commitments, I haven’t had time to get out and enjoy this amazing spectacle myself. With that in mind, I decided to sneak away for just two hours on Saturday morning and head to Cape Spear in hopes of seeing and maybe photographing an owl or two. Cape Spear is the easternmost point in North America and just 15 minutes from St. John’s. A handful had been reported there daily for almost two weeks. I arrived and shortly discovered two owls hanging out near the point. A couple photographers were milling around, occasionally flushing the owls as they stood on the trail above them trying for photos (but, I’m happy to say, not harassing them – although I’m certain this has happened).
Taking my own approach, I watched the owls for a few minutes and made note of their habits. After they had flown around the corner and the other guys followed them along the trail, I climbed down and positioned myself strategically between a couple perches I thought they’d like. And waited. After about fifteen minutes of enjoying the wave action and sounds of the ocean below me, one of the owls flew back around the corner and (just as I had hoped!) landed about 10-12m away. I didn’t have to move a muscle or disturb the owl in any way … it stayed for 20 minutes or so, posing and changing perches a couple times. What a wonderful experience!
In the end, I saw a total of 7-8 owls in the area – most of those distantly as I scanned south along the cliffs and barrens leading away from the cape.
The majority of the owls being seen appear to be hatch-year birds, indicating an excellent breeding season for the species this past spring. While I haven’t heard any confirmations, it is assumed that the populations of at least some small arctic mammals (e.g. lemmings) that Snowy Owls depend on for survival must have experienced an abysmal crash, sending the owls south in search of food. No doubt many of the owls being seen in eastern Canada and the United States originated in our own arctic, however there has been some question as to whether or not some or all of those being seen here on the Avalon might have come from breeding populations in (relatively) nearby Greenland. It’s an interesting idea. Either way, there is genuine concern that the barrens of eastern Newfoundland may not host a large enough rodent population to support the onslaught of these beautiful creatures, and their fate may not be so bright and rosy as we would like. At least one found dead this weekend looked emaciated and likely starved. A sad state of events, but also a somewhat natural part of the Snowy Owl’s population cycle (albeit often on a smaller scale than we might be witnessing at the moment).
In the end, there is not much we can do but enjoy the beauty of these animals, appreciate what nature has given us, and let her take her course (even if that means trying not to think too much about it!).