Happy New Year to All! I hope everyone had a chance to relax and do something that they love over the holiday season. This month I wanted to talk about some of my favourite (mostly) winter sightings – owls!
Since moving to Saskatoon about 8 years ago, I have had the pleasure of sighting multiple owl species (some of which I described in the November 2019 newsletter). The vast majority of these experiences have been on Saskatoon Nature Society field trips or as a result of something I have learned from fellow members. I must give much credit to Marten Stoffel and Stan Shadick, among others, for greatly increasing my knowledge of owls including where to look, what to watch for, and how to identify by call.
Winter is a great time for sighting owls as the bare trees and white background remove some of the camouflage of summer, and some only venture here in colder months. Around and close to Saskatoon I have seen several species and had exciting experiences sighting Great Horned, Saw-Whet, Long-eared, Short-eared, and Snowy. Great Horned owls (GHOW) seem to be the most commonly sighted owl near Saskatoon as they are larger and more abundant. We had the pleasure of seeing numerous GHOW on the last Snowy Owl trip while scanning acreage (and the cemetery) windbreaks and old barns. There also seems to be a possible resident GHOW on the Pike Lake nature trail that I’ve seen on an SNS field trip and clearly heard on a personal trip to feed Chickadees in December. The interesting thing about the GHOWs in our areas, specifically the one sighted at Pike Lake, is that they are a lighter morph which is quite beneficial to the creature among aspen and in the winter.
Saw-Whet Owls are, in my opinion, the cutest! I’ve only sighted them in conifer trees and while banding one with Marten. While banding we got to stroke their heads (with Marten’s approval) and they seem to like it! In winter 2020, there were even sightings in the city.
Two less commonly seen species are the Long-eared and Short-eared Owls, both aptly named by the size of their ear feather tufts. It is a treat to see the Long-eared with its “ears” sticking out of the nest. We had the pleasure of seeing one, guided by Marten Stoffel, nesting in a large aspen bluff NW of the city. Short-eared can be distinguished by their round light face, with on point heavy “mascara” that flatters their bright yellow eyes, and light under wings with a notable dark patch towards the tips. They gracefully fly low over grasslands while hunting. I have had the great pleasure of seeing this enchanting owl when I accidently flushed one out (twice – whoops!) during a bioblitz at the NE Swale, and then on the Snowy Owl trip, Erin Lang and I had one flying beside the vehicle at window height! On that same trip the group also sighted 5 of these owls together in an acreage windbreak, which Marten commented was unusual.
The Snowy Owl field trips are always a hoot to join! Marten leads us along his research trek, down grid roads where he somehow has the ability to see about 5 km ahead of everyone else. We scan power poles in hopes of seeing these white beauties. On the last trip, we even got to meet up with someone out banding them and witnessed the process of a large female being banded, which was amazing!
To the North of our city, you can find more Saw-Whets, as well as Great Gray, Northern Hawk, and Barred Owls. These owls can often be spotted in conifer trees and atop snags. Great Grays remind me of home (Thompson, MB) and being in the presence of one is an awe-inspiring experience for me with their haunting call, amazing size and colouring. I have heard these owls more than seen them, but we have seen them on the northern owl trip near Montreal Lake. There are several sightings this year of Great Gray Owls on the Sask Birders Facebook page.
Northern Hawk Owls are smaller feisty owls that can be difficult to spot. I have only seen these owls on SNS trips with the assistance of Marten, Stan, and John Patterson. We also had the benefit (on one of these trips) to watch Marten and Jan Shadick band a Northern Hawk owl!
The only time I have seen a Barred Owl is on one of these trips to Waskesiu. There seemed to be one residing in the campground at Waskesiu that came quite close to our group. The chest of this owl is pale with heavy light to dark brown barring that blends well in the mix of lightly barked deciduous trees and conifers.
Finally, I will briefly mention the South, where our coveted species at risk, the Burrowing Owl, can be found. I have yet to make the trip to Grasslands National Park, but I have had the pleasure of seeing an educational Burrowing Owl at an event while volunteering at the SNS booth. So the Saskatoon Nature Society definitely provides opportunities to see many of our owls of Saskatchewan!
For more information on owls, members are welcome to join the upcoming driving field trips and you can check out the most common species of owls in Saskatchewan on the EcoFriendly Sask site at:
I must give praise to two of our dedicated long-term members, Hilda Voth and Michael Williams who have both stepped down from their SNS volunteer positions. The lovely Hilda Voth has been organizing and providing refreshments, including baking, coffee, tea, and juice, at our in-person meetings for numerous years. The dear Michael Williams has been coordinating our memberships for many years. They have also contributed to bird counts, and various field trips.
Saskatoon Nature Society
Connecting People and Nature
Saskatoon Nature Society
Box 27013 Grosvenor Park
Saskatoon, SK S7H 5N9