Every winter, migrating Snowy Owls inhabit the open grassland prairies of southern Alberta. They start arriving in November and leave in early April. Last winter, local birders and I saw a large number of Snowies in the open fields just 30 minutes east of the city of Calgary. As many as 10 to 14 birds could be seen on a good day; the norm is from three to six owls. Four or five adult males stayed in the area for almost four months. Gyrfalcons, Snow Buntings, and Short-eared Owls also are found in the fields.
Why we get so many Snowies here every year is a mystery. We locals figure the fields must have a huge mouse or vole population, or it might have something to do with the crops that are grown here. In any event, you just don’t see similar owl numbers north, south, or east of the fields.
Calgary is only an hour’s drive east of the Rockies, and the weather can change dramatically and without warning, so I advise you to be prepared, especially in the peak snowy months of January and February. The rewards for venturing out? Vast skies, the Rockies in the distance, and the chance to see beautiful white owls from the far north. — Rob McKay
Rob McKay is a photographer based in Calgary who specializes in photographing birds of prey. He credits his grandfather with sparking his interest in birds.
Snowy and Short-eared Owls, Gyrfalcon, Snow Bunting.
When to go
November to early April. The largest numbers of Snowy Owls are seen in January and February.
None. Gas, food, and restrooms are located in Strathmore and Calgary.
Public roads. No fees. Use caution when pulling over to watch birds. Driving the gravel side roads is easy in good weather, but heavy snowfalls can make it difficult.
The weather can change in minutes, so be prepared and bring plenty of clothes. Strong winds, snow squalls, and wind chills of 40 below zero are possible. In such conditions, look for Snowy Owls hunkered down in the fields sheltering themselves from the strong northern winds. For the best views of the birds, bring a spotting scope.