2014 has been one of the great years – if not the best – for spotting snowy owls in Toronto.
The irruption year that is producing sightings all over the eastern seaboard is also producing good quality snowy owl images for everyone and their mother.
Though we were lucky enough to find our first snowy on a far off dock at Toronto’s Leslie Spit, we certainly weren’t lucky photographing the beautiful bird – missing encounters by mere minutes countless times.
And as it has been one of the worst winters on record, spending any time outside without any results to show for it has been a sore spot for both of us.
As mid-March rolled around, it was clear that the window for photographing a snowy was closing. With Jill preparing to head off to Nicaragua for a week with her school, I was losing my searching partner (and, as I don’t drive, my mobility).
Desperation set in.
But in doing research online, I discovered Toronto’s Cornel Samuel Smith Park is conveniently located along the city’s street car line and in recent days had become a hot spot for photographing a female snowy owl.
On a very cold, sunny Monday morning, I took the hour long transit ride to Sam Smith Park and began my search.
As the hours dragged on, I was becoming increasingly despondent. I had no company. The conditions for walking alternated between deep snow pack to pure ice to slushy water. My boots were leaking and my feet were soaked. Off the lake, the wind gusted up to 60km/hour. It was minus 17.
Around 5pm, I was preparing to quit when the oddest thing happened. A rock that I had watched for hours from across the inlet moved.
Without realizing it, I had been watching a snowy owl for hours.
I packed up my gear and ran. All of a sudden the cold and the damp and the snowy obstacle course became irrelevant.
As I made my way around the three kilometre inlet, I just hoped the owl would still be in sight.
From some distance, I hid myself in a snow bank and started trying to find an angle through tree branches that would allow me a clear shot of the bird.
After some time, the owl took off and landed, to my amazement, in the tree beside me.
It wasn’t a great shot, but this was by far the closest I’ve ever been to a snowy. It was an awe-inspiring sight.
But a peaceful observation wasn’t in the cards.
Now, I realize I’m in an urban setting, but the last thing one expects is for a man to casually trudge along a snowy path and, without hesitation, start climbing a tree.
A tree with an owl in it.
To get an iPhone photo.
It took me a minute to process what was happening.
Was this guy seriously climbing the tree? Who does that?!
I think he didn’t know I was there and when I spoke up to request that he come down, he assured me that he was a professional.
A professional tree-climbing, owl-harasser?
No, he was a professional acrobat.
Of course he was.
Before I could mention I was more concerned about the owl’s safety, the snowy took off and so did I. It was a great sighting, only diminished by a small journey into the twilight zone.