Snowy Owl

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Snowy Owl Pictures 14 through 28 courtesy of Marc Latremouille of Wingstretch Owl Photography


Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

The regal Snowy Owl is one of the few birds that can get even non-birders to come out for a look. This large diurnal North American owl shows up irregularly in winter to hunt in windswept fields or dunes.  They spend summers far north of the Arctic Circle hunting lemmings, ptarmigan, and other prey in 24-hour daylight so for photographers who wish to get snowy owl pictures our Canadian winter offers a perfect window of opportunity.  In years of lemming population booms they can raise double or triple the usual number of young.  The name “scandiacus” is a Latinised word referring to Scandinavia, as the Owl was first observed in the northern parts of Europe. Some other names for the Snowy Owl are Snow Owl, Arctic Owl, Great White Owl, Ghost Owl, Ermine Owl, Tundra Ghost, Ookpik, Scandinavian Nightbird, White Terror of the North, and Highland Tundra Owl.  And give yourself extra points if you knew that the snowy owl is the official bird of Quebec, Canada.

Male Snowy Owls are barred with dark brown when they’re young and get whiter as they get older. Females keep some dark markings throughout their lives. Although the darkest males and the palest females are nearly alike in color, the whitest birds are always males and the most heavily barred ones are always females. Females are larger and heavier than the males.

They have a body length of 20-28 inches, wingspan of  50-57  inches and a body weight of 56-104 ounces.  As one of the largest owl species they are easily recognized by their distinct white plumage and catlike yellow eyes making snowy owl images pop on screen and in print.

Snowy Owls inhabit some of the harshest climatic regions on the planet. The Snowy Owl is a bird of Arctic tundra or open grasslands and fields. They rarely venture into forested areas. During southward movements they appear along lakeshores, marine coastlines, marshes, and even roost on buildings in cities and towns. In the Arctic, they normally roost on rises in the tundra and breed from low valley floors up to mountain slopes and plateaus over 1000m in elevation. When wintering in the Arctic, they frequent wind-swept tundra with little snow or ice accumulation.  At more southern latitudes they typically frequent agricultural areas where prey is more abundant.

Snowy Owls are diurnal hunters but will also hunt at night.  Their preferred hunting strategy is sit and wait so you will often see them sitting on the ground or on posts, building or fences for long periods of time waiting to see or hear any sign of prey. Depending on where their prey is found it can be pounced upon on the ground or snatched out of the air or even taken out of water.  The mid-air catch is a snowy owl picture that most wildlife photographers have on their bucket lists however it is rare to capture such a moment so treasure the moment if you’re ever lucky enough to observe it.

Snowy Owls are mainly dependent on lemmings and voles throughout most of their Arctic and wintering range. When these prey are scarce they are an opportunistic feeder and will take a wide range of small mammals and birds. Some mammal prey include mice, hares, muskrats, marmots, squirrels, rabbits, prairie dogs, rats, moles, and entrapped fur bearers. Birds include ptarmigan, ducks, geese, shorebirds, ring-necked pheasants, grouse, American coots, grebes, gulls, songbirds, and short-eared Owls.  Snowy Owls will also add fish and carrion to their diets when other prey is not abundant.

Snowy Owls do not hunt near their nests, so other birds, such as Snow Geese, often nest nearby to take advantage of the Owls driving off predators such as foxes.

Nesting begins in March/April and is usually always on the ground. They make their nest on the top of a rise, so they can see predators coming at a distance. The female will scrape out a small area with her talons and line it with vegetation and/or owl feathers. Breeding comes about in May and on average lay five to eight eggs although this number can be as high as 14 during years when the lemming population is high. Eggs hatch in 32-34 days at two day intervals, leading to large age differences in nests with large clutch sizes. Young are covered in white down. Young begin to leave the nest after about 25 days, well before they can fly. They are fledged at 50 to 60 days. Both parents feed and tend the young, and are fiercely protective and may attack intruders up to 1 kilometre (0.6 miles) from the nest.  Nestling Snowy Owls require about 2 lemmings/day and a family of Snowy Owls may eat as many as 1,500 lemmings before the young disperse. They are single brooded and unlikely to lay replacement clutches if their first clutch is lost. Almost 100% nesting success can be achieved during good vole years.

Snowy Owl numbers fluctuate wildly, usually in concert with lemming and vole numbers. For example, Banks Island may have 15,000 to 20,000 Snowy Owls during good lemming years and only 2,000 during low lemming years with densities ranging from one owl per 2.6 square kilometre (1 Owl per square mile) in good lemming years to one owl per 26 square kilometres (1 Owl per 10 square miles) in low lemming years.

We hope you enjoy the Snowy Owl photography presented in our galleries and will have the opportunity to join Mark Latremouille on one of his Snowy Owl photography Workshops.

References: Cornell Labs of Ornithology, The Owl Pages, Wikipedia