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I had the distinct feeling that I was not alone.

The wind chilled my face and ice crunched under my feet. I scanned the trees looking for anything that seemed just a little out of place, but I could see nothing on the leafless branches.

I’d been out in the cold for over two hours. I was not lost, nor was I in trouble. I was on a mission. Earlier I had seen a large bird flying in absolute silence amid the trees. But I had been far away and hadn’t been able to identify it. I was trying to find it again.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw something: a dark silhouette in a bare tree just at the edge of my vision. That was no ordinary clump of leaves!

Winter Owls

CAN YOU SEE IT? PHOTO: DEBBIE BUEHLER

My binoculars flew up and suddenly I was looking straight into the amber eyes of a Great Horned Owl!

EYE TO EYE WITH A GREAT HORNED OWL. PHOTO: DAVE BRENNER

EYE TO EYE WITH A GREAT HORNED OWL. PHOTO: DAVE BRENNER

Great Horned Owls are stunning creatures with big yellow eyes like those of a cat. They are big birds, with a wingspan of four to five feet from tip to tip — and they are phenomenal hunters. They are even fierce enough to take other raptors ie: hunting birds like Ospreys, Peregrine Falcons as prey. In fact, this is one bird that could turn the tables on a cat! But they will also eat much smaller animals such as rodents and frogs. I had the feeling this bird might be sizing up the Tree Sparrows and Chickadees sitting nearby, or maybe the squirrels.

I was certain that this was the large bird I’d seen flying so silently through the trees earlier. Owls have broad wings that allow them to glide more than they flap and their wing feathers are comb-like with a soft fringe, which reduces the sound of air rushing through them. In other words, you don’t hear them fly — and neither do their prey when they swoop down to grab a meal.

Winter is a great time to look for owls because the bare trees make it easier to spot their silhouettes. If you and your kids dress for the weather, it can even become a family outing. But I won’t pretend that I took a three-year-old and a six-year-old out onto a very cold and windy Leslie Street Spit and kept them warm and quiet enough to see owls. Nope. I was out there on my own taking a mental health break after battling with Toronto Parks and Rec registration with limited success. But happily, being up at the crack of dawn meant that I was out on the Spit before anyone else was around – perfect for owling.

In November I’d had the good fortune of seeing an owl as tiny as the Great Horned Owl is large – the Northern Saw-whet Owl. And I do mean tiny. These owls can fit into your hand and measure only 18 to 22 cm from head to tail tip!

They are also cute – extremely cute.

winter owl

THAT’S ONE CUTE OWL! PHOTO: TIANNA BURKE

But to mice and other small mammals, these little owls aren’t cute — they’re fierce predators. Saw-whets are highly nocturnal and are seldom seen. But they are here, hiding in the wild spaces of our city and if you are silent and stealthy (like an owl) you might just see one.

Another winter treat if you are lucky is the Snowy Owl – yes, you read correctly – Snowy Owls in Toronto.

winter owl

SNOWY OWL IN TORONTO! PHOTO: CHARLOTTE ENGLAND

These ghostly owls will occasionally grace us with their presence in winter, and in the past few years, this year in particular; there has been a Snowy Owl Invasion all over the Northeast. Snowy Owls spend summers far north of the Arctic Circle hunting lemmings, Ptarmigan, and other prey in 24-hour daylight. I have been fortunate enough to find a Snowy Owl nest while on a field trip to the Arctic studying birds. So I have seen these birds, up close and personal.

Now I just need to see one in Toronto…

But seeing a Snowy Owl in the city is a mission for another day. The morning of my Great Horned Owl sighting I headed home, triumphant. I had a great story to tell my kids, as a jumping off point for teaching them about these marvellous owls. We would look up owls on the internet together and get the boys excited about trying to see their own owl in the wild. I knew just the rhyme to convince them to be quiet.

A Wise Old Owl

A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more it saw the less it spoke
The less it spoke the more it heard.
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?

Deborah M. Buehler is an ecologist, an editor and a writer in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter and catch up on all her Wild City posts here.

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