Tofino's Christmas Spirit: the Snowy Owl on Chesterman
by George Bradd, Tofino
As I drove down Chesterman Beach Road, there was no doubt that I was headed in the right direction. Everyone else was walking quickly or biking in the same direction that I was driving. I stopped to pick up a friend who stuck out his thumb when he saw me passing by. He hopped in and asked, "You going to the owl?" I answered, Yeah, where is it?"
We turned the corner and I saw it immediately. A large white form sitting in a low spruce bough, just 4 meters from the roadside; my first Snowy Owl in Tofino. I parked a bit short of the small crowd of people gathered on the opposite side of the road from the owl. As we walked up slowly the owl sat motionless. Now a steady procession of visitors arrived in vehicles and by foot.
I watched the reactions of arriving people with fascination. Kids were transfixed; many young Tofitians experienced their first owl. Adults were respectful and it struck me as unusual that not one person did anything to scare or chase the owl. A little drop of appreciation for being in the community of Tofino, dropped on my brain.
The Snowy Owl is our largest owl, almost 2 feet high and weighing in at a hefty 4 pounds! They are very agile fliers and I have seen them take gulls and ducks in midair, which is unusual for owls. The also eat many rodents of all kinds.
An arctic breeder, they are driven south during years of food shortages. They hunt in open areas and many owls found in the south during winter months are starving and weak. I imagine that trying to hunt in a forest habitat after being born on the tundra would lead to great confusion and low success while hunting. Owls hunting in daylight hours are hungry and desperate. Many of these destitute birds are young birds. Young Snowy Owls have a plumage of heavy dark flecking in the feathers as opposed to the pure white plumage of adult birds.
Later that same evening as I was settling in with a good bird book and tea, I received a phone call from some concerned people who said the owl had been on their patio for 5 hours. He probably hadn't eaten for days now. It didn't sound good.
I phoned Adrian Dorst and we immediately launched a night owl rescue. The occupants of the house where the owl was told us that the crows had been harassing the owl and it had landed on the patio to escape the crows. Crows are probably another species that the Snowy Owl is not accustomed to in any great numbers. Crows are very aggressive towards ravens, eagles, hawks and owls and they will gather in great loud swooping flocks, dive bombing the poor victims. For weak lost owls, stress from crows can be the fatal factor while trying to deal with wet weather and no food.
The poor owl was huddled in the cold rain looking wet and bedraggled. It gave little resistance as Adrian threw his coat over it and picked it up by its talons. Its bright yellow eyes blazed with intensity as we faced each other eyeball to eyeball. Adrian remarked that the owl felt really skinny. After being popped into a cardboard box, the owl was whisked off to take indoor lodging in Tofino for the evening.
Shortly after arrival at Adrian and Helen's place, the owl was enjoying free-range bison, classical music and electric baseboard heaters to dry his feathers. The next day Adrian placed the owl in the capable hands of Rory Patterson, who operates a local rescue center for birds. The owl has since been sent to the recovery center in Errington for eventual release.
A second Snowy Owl was seen nearly a week later at Frank Island in Tofino and then again a few days later at Tofino airport. This one was strong enough to travel on its own and the airport is a good place for mouse and vole hunting raptors like the Marsh Hawk and Kestrel. Chances of finding food would be much better for the owl at the airport. One was reported from Ucluelet. Other Snowy Owls have been spotted on the east coast of the island this winter.
Next spring somewhere in the high arctic a Snowy Owl will be telling her young owlets of her long mystical journey to the vast southern rainforest. The baby owls will listen with wide eyes to tales of nights spent with a bearded owl rescuer who carves wooden Canada Goose bowls from red alder. They will huddle in their down nest and hear of a kind nurse who cares for sick and needy wayward birds far away in a tiny town with a big heart, on a long island with giant trees. The baby owls will ask their Mom to tell them the story over and over again until they fall asleep. In some way this owl may sense that all those weird looking animals that grabbed her and kept her captive were actually helping to return her home. A true story of Tofino Xmas spirit.
George Bradd operates Just Birding, a Tofino company specialising in birdwatching tours. For more info, visit www.justbirding.com