If you’re looking for a new winter activity this year, owling is a great reason to venture out into the cold.
Seeing an owl in the wild is an experience you will never forget—and it’s a great motivation to get outside during the chilly months. Plus, winter is the perfect time to spot owls. Since many trees are without leaves, roosting owls can be easier to spot. Plus, you have a greater chance of seeing species that have wandered south of their Arctic territories in search of prey. Here are some tips for owling in the winter so you can improve your chances of seeing one for yourself.
Northern Saw-whet Owl by Paul Prior
When to Look for Owls
Most owls are nocturnal, so the best time to see them in action is at dawn or dusk. During the day you’re more likely to find an owl roosting (asleep) in its favourite tree. Some species, however, are diurnal (active during the day)—especially in the winter. Short answer: there’s no bad time to go owling!
Where to Look for Owls
Owls are usually found where there is an abundance of prey. This is often an “edge” habitat—a place where different habitats converge, like where a forest meets a field. Since different owls hunt different prey—and different prey are found in different habitats—the best place to look depends on the species you’re after. The more you learn about where owls live and what they eat, the better your chances are of finding them.
Armed with knowledge and the right gear, you will greatly improve your chances of finding owls.
Check for Owl Sightings
When it comes to finding owls, local knowledge is key. Stay updated about local owl sightings by signing up for an email list or joining a birding club or Facebook group—which is also a great way to connect with peers and swap stories, tips and photos. You can also check e-Bird—a free app that lets you search for bird sightings, either by species or location. You can also log your own sightings, keep bird lists and upload photos or recordings.
Snowy Owl by Dave Luck
Do your Homework
The more you learn about owls, the more you’ll appreciate these fascinating creatures—and want to see them for yourself. Plus, understanding the behaviour and preferred habitat of different species will help you be a better sleuth. Here are some of the best books on owls:
There are also some great websites, which offer lots of information on the life history, behaviour, habitat, and distribution of owls. Here are some great websites to check out:
Since the best time to go owling is often around dawn or dusk—when temperatures plummet—you need to dress warmly. Gear up like you would for any other winter sport, with layers and well-insulated outerwear.
Get Good Gloves
Finding the right gloves for winter birding can make you feel like Goldilocks. Too bulky, and you can’t operate your binoculars or camera. Too thin, and and your fingers go numb. Look for gloves that are made for dexterity and have non-slip finger pads. Some favourites are motorcycle gloves, equestrian gloves, winter golf gloves and even heated gloves.
Great Grey Owl by Dave Luck
Usually when you see an owl, it’s from a distance—so if you want to take in every gorgeous detail, good binoculars are critical. If you don’t already have a pair of binoculars, here are some things to look for:
Waterproof: At some point, it may snow or rain while you’re out looking for owls or other birds, so find binoculars that can withstand the elements.
Fog-proof: Binoculars can fog up when you go from the cold outdoors to the warmth of your home. Not only is this annoying but it can ruin the optics over time.
Full-size: Because compact and mid-size binoculars can be difficult to operate with gloves, opt for full-sized binoculars that have an objective lens size of at least 42mm.
Generous eye relief: Eye relief is how far back from the eyepiece your eye can be and still see the whole field of view. If the distance to your eyes is greater than the eye relief, you will only see the centre of the image. Since glasses and sunglasses hold your eyes back from the eyepiece, eye relief makes all the difference in how much you can see.
Grip: Even if you have non-slip gloves, it helps if your binoculars have a tacky rubber coating to help you hold on tight.
Open bridge design: An open bridge makes binoculars lighter and easier to hold grasp, especially with one hand.
While You’re Out
Since many owls are roosting, stationary and well camouflaged, you won’t have as much luck by simply scanning trees. Luckily, there are some telltale signs to look for.
Northern Saw-whet Owl by Paul Prior
Look for Clues
Owls like to hang out in the same tree day after day, and they aren’t great at cleaning up after themselves. Keep an eye out for “whitewash” (bird poop) on a tree trunk, a telltale sign that an owl or raptor is spending time there. And don’t forget to look down—you may just spot owl pellets. Owls swallow their prey whole and later regurgitate the parts they can’t digest, such as bones, fur and feathers. They usually produce one or two pellets a day, and the pellets are often scattered on the ground under the owl’s favourite perch.
Follow the Mob
Crows and other birds love to mob large owls. They’ll swoop at them, call loudly and sometimes even strike owls. If you notice a flock of birds making a raucous, stop and investigate. Chances are they are harassing an owl or other raptor.
Snowy Owl by Paul Prior
Give Owls Distance
By now we’re all accustomed to giving other humans distance—so do owls the same favour. In the winter, owls are primarily concerned with energy: finding it and conserving it. Some species may have traveled a great distance in search of food and may already be on the brink of starvation—you don’t want to distract an owl from hunting or sleeping, because it needs every ounce of energy to survive.
As for how far to stand back, there are no set guidelines—so take your cue from the individual. If an owl seems unnerved, tensed up, or is fixated on you, you’re too close. If you wake an owl from its slumber and it doesn’t go back to sleep, you’re too close. Some species, like Northern Saw-whet Owls, will “let” you get very close before they fly away, but don’t be fooled—you aren’t as welcome as you may think. Pay attention to body language and give them space.
Common Owl Species Across Canada
There are 16 owl species in Canada, but these seven are the ones you’re most likely to see.
Barred Owl (Strix varia)
Barred Owl by Dave Luck
This large owl is named for the brown “barring” on its buffy chest. Its dark brown eyes make it easy to tell apart from the other species listed here. This is one of the few species that hunts during the day. Even if you’ve never seen one, you may have heard its iconic call, often described as: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” Barred Owls are common across Canada in mature forests near water.
Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)
Eastern Screech Owl by by Linda Gauthier
This pint-sized owl has short ear tufts and yellow eyes, with intricately patterned plumage that varies from gray to reddish-brown. It’s active at night, when it preys on small birds and mammals. During the day it roosts in the nooks and crannies of trees, perfectly camouflaged against tree bark. Its eerie call consists of soft trills and a shrill, descending whinny. The Eastern Screech Owl is common east of the Rockies in woods, suburbs and parks, often near water.
Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa)
Great Grey Owl by Dave Luck
There’s something so majestic about the Great Grey Owl. While it’s not the biggest in terms of weight, it is the longest. The Great Grey Owl has a huge facial disk, which directs sound to its asymmetrical ears and enables it to locate prey up to two feet deep under the snow. Although Great Greys breed in the boreal forest and the western mountains, you can see them during irruptions, when they come south in search of food.
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
Great Horned Owl by May Finch via Unsplash
Named for its prominent ear tufts, the Great Horned Owl has a tawny face, black beak, large yellow eyes and a white throat. Its plumage is mottled gray-brown, ranging from pale grey to almost black. The most widespread owl in Canada, the Great Horned Owl will hunt just about anything it can get its talons into—including skunks. You’d likely recognize its hoot, often used in television and movies as the quintessential owl sound: “Are you awake? Me too."
Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)
Long-eared Owl by Dave Luck
With its tawny face and long ear tufts, the Long-eared Owl is sometimes mistaken for a Great Horned Owl. You can tell it apart by its much smaller size and the dark vertical stripes through the eyes. These owls are purely nocturnal and roost in conifers, sometimes in groups.
Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)
Northern Saw-whet Owl by Dave Luck
The smallest of our Northern owls, the Northern Saw-whet is often mistaken for a baby owl. It has a pale brown facial disk with a white V on the forehead, yellow eyes and thick brown streaks on the chest. Saw-whets are strictly nocturnal and tend to roost in dense conifers where they can’t be seen by aerial predators like hawks and other owls. The Northern Saw-whet Owl is found throughout Canada.
Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)
Snowy Owl by Linda Gauthier
Made famous by the Harry Potter movies, the Snowy Owl is unmistakable, with white plumage that helps it camouflage with its snowy breeding grounds in the arctic tundra. During the winter, snowies often wander south to many parts of Canada in search of more available prey. During the winter they are quite active during the day. They winter in open fields or marshes, where they hunt birds and small rodents from a perch.