Snowy Owls: Searching for Ookpik

Editor’s note: I’m tickled as all-git-out to have my friend and fellow bird nerd David Gray write a guest post on snowy owls, featuring all his own photography. David is an adventurer, journalist, and Fellow with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. After 30+ years as a CBC radio host and travelling correspondent, he’s now starting up a podcast about whatever he finds interesting. You can follow him on Twitter or Instagram @Graydio1.

Snowy owls…

…like most owls, don’t want to be found. Let’s start with that.

frozen prairie highway

Driving east of Calgary on a frigid morning into the frozen expanse of the Alberta prairies, it would be hard to imagine a more quixotic pursuit. I’m looking for an all white bird in an all white landscape the size of the lunar mare. The occasional pump jack breaks the horizontal line, marked only by grid roads bisecting the TransCanada like ironed lines on a linen table cloth. For even the most optimistic bird spotter, the odds are against you.

Visitors from the north

On the plus side, you know they’re out there. Every winter snowy owls drift south from the arctic in search of food. In irruption years (probably tied to lemming cycles in the north) a surplus of Snowy Owls make their ghostly journey as far south as the US border, crossing into the New England states in the east, Colorado, Idaho and Washington in the west.

In extreme years, snowy owls have even been spotted as far south as Texas and Florida. This year birders have spotted snowys all across the maritimes, in Ontario and Quebec (where it’s the provincial bird), and all across the southern prairies and B.C. Instagram is alight with snowy owl images. But I haven’t seen one. At least, not yet.

It’s not for lack of trying.

Each winter for the last several years I’ve gone searching, and I’ve been blanked. The trick is to convince an unsuspecting friend or family member it’s fun to head out toward the Alberta badlands in -25C degree weather, or cruise south on icy secondary roads past CFB Suffield to the welcoming micro-breweries of Medicine Hat.

On the plus side it’s a chance to have long conversations or warble car karaoke as you look for a lump in a field or shape on a post, hoping your passenger hasn’t grown bored of staring out the window or worse, been lulled to sleep by the monotony of the view. At the end of the day you’re usually left with an empty gas tank and a bellyful of highway diner indigestion… but no owls.

But not this time.

This time, I’m operating on actionable intelligence. A birder friend has sent me a note tipping me off to a particular grid pattern he swears is rich in owls. Just the day before, he’d spotted twenty different snowy owls in one particular area. He shares his map, and once again I’m sold.

I convince my 24 year old daughter it would be a great way to spend time together. She’s dubious but I work on her longtime love of Hedwig from Harry Potter. She humours her father, packs a good book and, just in case, some newly obtained binoculars. We’re on our way.

photography on prairie road with long lens


An hour or so later we arrive at the designated coordinates, and for whatever mystical reason, it’s suddenly owl-palooza. We spot our first, predictably, on a power line. I almost can’t believe it’s there, a female, her haughty yellow gaze staring down as we creep closer.

I open the sunroof and pop out like a periscope as my daughter drives, snapping pictures from a respectful distance with a 600mm lens. I am, admittedly, a little giddy. The owl, of course, doesn’t seem to care. In the car, we’ve caught owl fever. They are unbelievably beautiful.

snowy owl female

Snowy owls: arctic specialists

Snowy owls have rings of feathers around their eyes that deflect sound to their ears. Their cere (the fleshy area above the beak where a birds nostrils, or nares are located)  is also surrounded by feathers, and so are the feet—perfect for arctic conditions.

closeup snowy owl face

The result is instantly endearing, and the reason Inuit artists mimicked their shape in the sixties and marketed them Canada-wide as Ookpik, a handcrafted seal skin toy for children. Most Canadian kids of the era remember wanting one.

The 3.5 cm razor sharp talons on the real thing are, however, a little less endearing.

The second owl we spot perching on an abandoned windmill (take that, Don Quixote). She’s chased off by yet another, more aggressive owl. The females are territorial, and surprisingly large—half a meter tall, with a metre and half wingspan. The males are somewhat smaller, and often pure white.  

We spot one on a light standard, as bright as fresh snow. He takes off before I can bring my lens fully to bear, and floats away in almost complete silence. The leading edge of an owl’s primary feathers are serrated like a comb, breaking down turbulence and all but eliminating noise. The result? They take off like a whisper. An owl’s prey gets no warning. It’s awesome to witness.

snowy owls flying up to prairie windmill

The rest of the day goes like this.

We spot distant white lumps betrayed only by their swivelling heads, patiently surveying their domain with their 270 degree fields of view. We see snowy owls on fence posts. Owls on pump jacks, irrigators, weathered barns, snowbanks, you name it. 

For whatever reason this 40-km-square nondescript area of tundra-like frozen fields is prime owl country. There must be a reason—something that makes this particular section somehow special—but to be honest it escapes me. I swear it’s indistinguishable from the empty swaths of prairie that surround it in every direction. But the owls have found something. Hours later we leave, fully satisfied and full of stories, memories, and a loaded SD card. It was a great day.

snowy owl in distance on snowy field

One week later…

I share my map with a couple I know have long wanted to spot a snowy owl in the wild. They head to the exact same area, driving the exact same route. They spend a full day searching the same roads and fields. But the countryside is empty; they find nothing. The owls have vanished, as silently as they arrived. The ghosts of winter are gone.

snowy owl flying away from camera

11 thoughts on “Snowy Owls: Searching for Ookpik”

  1. That was a fun read. Everything always seems so easy until you actually try. Seems like you are quite committed to finding those impressive creatures. What beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing.

  2. What a treat to read your words! Your voice, well remembered from many years on the radio, spoke those descriptions with such joy. Thanks for sharing your experience. I look forward to seeing/hearing more of your adventures.

  3. Wonderful storytelling, makes me — a non-birder — want to venture out and find one of these spectacular birds! – Valerie Fortney

  4. I have heard it said that “There are two kinds of people: 1) Birdwatchers, and 2), those who will become Birdwatchers.” Your story will no doubt encourage more to discover the joy of being out there. Well done David.

  5. What a wonderful piece of storytelling so well articulated. The photos are beautiful…we have not seen many snowy owls in our area of Retlaw this year. Miss seeing them on the snow covered prairie grasses. Hopefully they will be back next year.


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