A snowy owl flies over a field near Chesley.
© Rob Gowan
A snowy owl flies over a field near Chesley.
The snowy owls have landed in Bruce County.

As many as 40 of the birds have been spotted in an area north of Chesley over the past couple of weeks, attracting birders, photographers and others to the area.

"It is quite remarkable," said local birder Peter Middleton, who has been down to count and document the owls on a couple of occasions.

The flat open farmland in the area has traditionally been an area hot spot for the large, majestic birds whose traditional territory is the Arctic. But locals are reporting larger numbers of owls over the past couple of weeks than traditionally have made their way to the area, with some reports of over 40 owls in the area near Chesley and 65 across southern Bruce County.

Middleton said the reason why the birds have made their way to Bruce County recently is open to conjecture, but he believes it is related to a massive irruption of the birds on the Arctic tundra about three years ago.

"This is an irruptive species, which means it will move either according to weather or more normally in response to the presence of prey," said Middleton. "If prey is thin-spread they will move south in search of it."

When the last irruption of the species occurred in the winter of 2014, Middleton said the lemming population on the tundra exploded that year. The owls were left with more than enough food, with each pair raising as many as a dozen young.

"But of course when these birds become mature, then they start to look for their own feeding areas and it becomes much more problematic," said Middleton. "This huge southern flight took place a few years ago, structured mainly of young birds, and it was widespread."

The birds that survived that irruption are nomadic and don't form territories until they are mature, so they are now coming to that point, Middleton said.

"It seems maybe some of those young birds from a few years ago are now ready to set up territories and are being bumped off wintering territories by birds in the north and are coming south," said Middleton.

The area where the birds have been congregating has always been popular for the birds as it traditionally was the heart of Bruce County cattle country, a prime environment for the rodents the owls feed on.

"There seems to be this memory where they return to an area where they have been in the past," said Middleton.
But the area that was pasture in the past has more recently been dominated by cornfields and Middleton said that could make it hard for many of the birds to survive as they won't have as much prey to feed on.

"Certainly it does not appear to be ideal territory," said Middleton. "I think we may see some of these birds that are already likely in early or advanced stages of starvation. I expect some of these birds will not be well."

Middleton said the owls in the Chesley area are made up of both the predominantly white males and females, which have more black spots.

"Certainly the numbers are huge and the interesting thing is the composition of the birds in that group seems to be changing between the sexual ratio and mature and immature birds," said Middleton. "It gives an idea of a dynamic movement of birds in and out of that, so I am just not sure what it all represents."

Middleton said there is some concern that the birds will attract too much attention. He said in the past owls have been baited in order to take pictures of them, which can lead them to being hit by vehicles.

"If they are starving they are going to be stressed already," said Middleton. "With the numbers there are and as close as they are, there obviously is stress within the population."

Middleton said he has seen snowy owls across their range, from Grey-Bruce to the sea ice on Baffin Bay and on the nest in the Arctic tundra, and each time it is special for him.

"These are birds that live on the wind, they live lives that are beyond our ken and despite what we are doing to the planet they are still travelling these age-old pathways," said Middleton.

"With the snowies it is a story. It is a chapter in a book that is remarkable."