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Owls in southwestern British Columbia

Tue, 2018/02/13 - 11:11am

Barred Owl

The winter climate of southwestern British Columbia is generally mild, so many bird species can be found here at any time of the year. Owls are particularly exciting birds to spot. It is always fun, and not that uncommon, to come across wintering owls even in daylight, though they can sometimes be difficult to spot. Their beautiful brown, white and grey, mottled and striated plumage blends into the habitat, and they glide on silent wings.  The Barred Owl, above, was photographed in the southern Gulf Islands, one of four observed within a couple of square miles that winter day. Perching at the forest edge, adjacent to farmland, these owls would have no trouble finding deer mice and other rodents to prey on. None of the owls were nervous of humans. In fact, on a previous occasion, one showed great curiosity and flew closer to check me out!  Barred Owls have become much more numerous in southwestern B.C. in the last twenty years. They have almost totally displaced the smaller, shyer Western Screech-Owl, which is now extirpated in some previous breeding areas.

Great Horned Owl

This Great Horned Owl was photographed in a cottonwood tree at George Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, B.C.  in Fall 2017. The sanctuary is an excellent location to search for wintering owls and many other bird species; it is open to the public for a small charge from 9am to 4 pm daily, except Christmas Day. This owl was easily seen, sitting out on an open branch in broad daylight, though shielded from the sun by the canopy of leaves overhead. Often they prefer the denser shelter of Douglas-fir trees for their daytime roost. Great Horned Owls nest in the delta but must compete for space with the area’s increasingly numerous Bald Eagle population.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owls are smaller than the Great Horned Owl and can be a lot more difficult to observe. Fortunately this bird was sitting at the front of a hedgerow, basking in some winter sunshine. Long-eared and Short-eared Owls winter in the Fraser Delta and other areas of southwestern B.C., where they hunt for voles and other rodents. Long-eared Owls roost in dense hedgerows and tangles of vegetation, their plumage blending in colour exactly with their surroundings. Sometimes two or more may be located fairly close together.

Short-eared Owl

Dappled sandy brown and and cream plumage helps the Short-eared Owl blend with its grassland habitat. This species is another regular winter visitor to  southwestern B.C. including the Fraser delta, where it hunts in the late afternoon and early evening across the grassy foreshores and farmland. The Short-eared Owl was once more common in the delta, but as open fields and marshes were built over, its habitat was lost and owl numbers subsequently declined. Many were also killed around airports to protect planes from airstrikes. The Short-eared Owl is now seldom found as a breeding bird in this area, and roost numbers are much smaller. Like all owls, its superb eyesight and silent flight make it a deadly killer. Townsend’s voles, a large rodent occurring in the fields and marshes of Boundary Bay, are an important component of its diet.

Other owls that occur in the southwest of British Columbia include the Barn Owl (listed as Endangered in Canada), which nests in local barns and specially erected nest boxes; the Northern Sawhet Owl, a tiny forest owl that roosts in the daytime in dense fir trees; and Snowy Owl, which every 5 or 6 years experiences influxes of large numbers from the north. There are also very infrequent sightings of Great Grey Owl, Northern Hawk Owl and Burrowing Owl.

Great Grey Owl – a very rare nomadic visitor to southwestern B.C. from the Canadian northern boreal forests.  This owl is about 80 cm (30 in) tall.