A winter wonderland for birdwatchers

Snowy owls periodically disperse southwards, forced from the tundra by diminishing food supplies every five or six years.

  • Dec. 31, 2011 5:00 p.m.

Winter is here, bring with it some new visitors from the north.

Three interesting species of “snow birds” demonstrate how important the habitats of the Fraser River delta are at this time of year.

White, sparrow-size birds, called snow buntings, spend the winter in small numbers locally, frequenting jetties, causeways, and roadsides near the coast.

They can be very inconspicuous, the white patches on their plumage blending well with their surroundings.

Accustomed to the wide open spaces of the tundra, these little birds are not at all shy and can be approached quite closely as they search around for seeds on the ground.

Snowy owls share a similar Arctic white and grey colour scheme. They roost in the open so are easily seen in coastal grasslands.

Always popular with birders and photographers, these spectacular, large owls periodically disperse southwards, forced from the tundra by diminishing food supplies every five or six years.

A southward irruption is here. In 2005, eighteen of these birds could be seen through the winter months, resting on logs outside the Boundary Bay dyke, and in 2006 a handful of birds visited. This year, dozens have already been spotted.

Photo: David Blevins

Tens of thousands of snow geese have arrived for the winter at the mouth of the Fraser River, where they feed on sedge rhizomes and the remains of the potato harvest.

The geese are pure white with black wing tips, but when they have been grubbing in the mud, their head and necks often become stained rusty-brown.

They will feed for a couple of months around Westham Island before heading to the Skagit Valley, WA for the midwinter period. Long skeins of snow geese then return through the Fraser estuary on their springtime migration to their breeding grounds on Wrangel Island, Russia.

All these winter visitors are here to escape the harsh winter weather up north. Great care should be taken not to disturb them, particularly when taking photographs.

In the past, owls have been harassed by photographers keen to get the perfect “shot” and this upsets both the birds and other people who are hoping to see them.

Please keep your dogs on leash near birds and respect the rights of farmers and landowners; wintering birds are often found on private farm fields, so please do not trespass to observe them.

Enjoy these beautiful creatures before spring comes and they flock elsewhere.

Anne Murray is the author of two books on nature and our local environment: A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay, available at local bookstores. Visit www.natureguidesbc.com for details.

 

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