Valentine’s Day was a hoot – literally

On Valentine’s Day, my husband, Larry, and I went on a “date.” Sort of.

Our pursuit of the magnificent snowy owl made a perfect Valentine’s Day outing.

Our pursuit of the magnificent snowy owl made a perfect Valentine’s Day outing.

On Valentine’s Day, my husband, Larry, and I went on a “date.”

Sort of.

Well, in a manner of speaking, you could say. We went up to Edmonton and met up with the Edmonton Nature Club to go on their annual Snowy Owl Prowl. Not quite your idea of a date, you say. Larry would probably agree with you. But it was sure the way to win my heart.

I phoned earlier in the week to let the leader of the trip know that we were coming. Poor Peter. He’d been out for a week driving 100 km daily around the area north of Edmonton and hadn’t been able to find any snowy owls.

Of course, the exact same thing happened last year and he found us five snowies.

We keep telling him that we know there are no guarantees as far as birds are concerned. They do have wings and can’t be depended on to be in the same spot twice.

But Peter found us four snowies this year.

The first one was a bit of a disappointment because it was a long ways in the distance.

I, for one, was really impressed that they noticed it sitting on a fence post, far, far, away.

So we stopped and watched him for awhile. And it was a “him.” Adult males are almost pure white while the females and immature birds have flecks of black throughout their plumage.

I find that I can’t tell the difference between a young female or a young male snowy owl. I suppose there are people out there who can make that distinction, but I’ve never met one.

The second snowy we found was on a telephone pole and sat obligingly, much closer than the first one we saw. But it was the third one that really caused a stir.

She was all decked out for Valentine’s Day. She had pink on the top of her head.

(I’m anthropomorphizing her because as I just said, I can’t tell the difference between females and immatures but I figure no self respecting teenage male bird would wear pink on his head!)

So you are probably wondering just what were we smoking, to see a snowy with a pink crown? Was this a new colour morph? A new species? Nope!

There is actually a very logical reason for the pink head.

The bird banders up there will catch the birds to put the leg bands on them. They don’t really want to catch them more than once so they put some pink on the feathers on their heads.

I suppose it’s some kind of paint. It doesn’t hurt the birds and once they molt their feathers, they go back to their pristine colouration.

And it saves them being caught repeatedly. We had seen one with a pink head last year, as well, so this year we weren’t as surprised to see one. It still caused a lot of talk amongst the birders.

Snowy owls, with or without pink on their heads, are really neat birds. They are one of our biggest owls. The great grey is bigger in length (68.5 cm compared to the snowy’s 58.5 cm) but the snowy weighs more (1.8 kg to the Great Gray’s one kg).

Both species, though, have the same wing span (1.32 metres). Snowies like open country.

They will often sit on the ground in an open field or they might perch on a tree, telephone pole, or fence post that are out in the open. Apparently in December there was a snowy owl hanging out by the runway at the Red Deer Airport.

One of the pilots was a bit disconcerted when what he thought was a lump of snow, all of a sudden, turned its head and looked at him.

I will admit, when they are on the ground, they are hard to spot. When they pose on a pole, they are much easier.

Soon, though, the snowies will be gone. They will go up north to their nesting grounds in the tundra and all the summer birds will start to come back from the south.

A friend mentioned the other day that in another three to four weeks the bluebirds will be back. Where did winter go?

Judy Boyd is a naturalist with the Red Deer River Naturalists.