In late May, some folks strolling along a public trail near the Steffie Woima school in Sylvan Lake noticed a group of newly fledged Northern Saw-Whet Owls perched together on a low branch.
They sent a cellphone picture to a local photographer, who immediately went to the location and got some excellent images. Her Facebook post resulted in a surge of interest in these adorable little owlets.
As a passionate nature observer and wildlife photographer, I am acutely aware of how people – innocently or otherwise – can cause stress to wild animals, especially during this important nesting time.
Owls are particularly vulnerable because we humans have an inexplicable fascination with them. I was thus worried for the owlets because their roosting area was adjacent to the trail and their distinctive juvenile plumage (two-tone brown with a white patch between their eyes) made them highly visible.
On my first visit, two young local families soon showed up, the parents excitedly showing their children the owlets, who squealed with delight at seeing some “real live baby owls.”
I watched the owls carefully to see if they were disturbed. One of them opened one eye and then fell back asleep. The others didn’t even stir.
And so it was during the times I was there: contented little adorable sleeping owls with groups of human admirers staring up at them.
I was often joined by trail users, including runners, cyclists, seniors and young families. Some took a quick peek while others lingered to wait for a yawn, scratch or wing stretch.
Photographers from across the province made the pilgrimage to get dramatic photographs (despite the challenges of lighting and the owlets’ habit of hiding behind leaves).
I was pleased to get a few decent images, including of them head bobbing (a classic owl behaviour of twisting their heads to compensate for their fixed eyeballs).
Conversations, teachable moments, photography tips, and even new friendships were formed between those sharing this unique wildlife watching opportunity.
While a maximum of five owlets were usually counted, another photographer and I on two occasions counted six young.
They would sometimes be asleep with a dead mouse or vole dangling from their tiny talons, their vigilant parents having delivered these last morsels at dawn, before they set off for their own daytime slumber.
The young ones would thus have a “midday snack” available should they have become peckish before nightfall.
Adult Saw-Whets are notoriously hard to find since their adult plumage provides excellent camouflage and they usually tuck themselves close to a tree trunk to roost.
I was fortunate to have spotted one adult on one occasion, dozing behind a cluster of leaves.
While these now-famous owlets may have experienced some interrupted sleep during their Sylvan stay, there is little doubt that they have been wonderful owl ambassadors — bringing immeasurable joy and opening the hearts of hundreds to the beauty of nature.
Myrna Pearman is the biologist and site services manager at Ellis Bird Farm.