The morning of March 2nd I was waiting in the driveway with my spotting scope when Ben Schonewille’s car pulled in. After placing my scope in the backseat and jumping in we set off on our mission. Adam Skrutkowski had kindly agreed to act as a guide and take Ben to find the Snowy Owl that had been at Johnson’s Crossing since around Christmas, and Ben called me knowing that I would be interested in coming along. It had been seen often (80% of the time according to Adam) so we had a good chance at finding it. Ben had gone searching for the possible juvenile three times before with no luck, and I had gone looking for it once right after Christmas. The weather conditions were perfect; sunny, clear, and very warm. It was +1C average and snow was dripping off the rooves.
We arrived at Johnson’s Crossing 15 minutes late from the time Ben and Adam had set to meet but Adam was still on the river shore scoping. Ben and I put on our snowshoes, grabbed our scopes, and set off to follow Adam. Adam led us through the parking lot and then down the river bank on a trail someone had made to their water-hole. There I set up my scope and Ben and Adam brought out their binoculars. There were 20 Trumpeter Swans lined along the far bank downriver and 2 Common Goldeneye bobbed nearby. These swans had overwintered at Johnson’s Crossing, foraging in the freezing waters for food. Just thinking about it makes me cold! The swans were wonderful to see; it felt like spring. Two new swans were seen with the others during the week signaling the start of swan migration in the Yukon 2 weeks earlier than normal. However, as cool as they were, the Trumpter Swans were not what we were looking for. We all anxiously scanned the shore on both sides of the river and the tree tops but we did not see anything out of the ordinary. We packed up and started snowshoeing up the river towards Teslin Lake, keeping a sharp eye out on our surroundings. We stopped up the river and had another scan; we ticked off six more common Goldeneye, a Common Merganser, 3 Common Ravens, and a Gray Jay perched at the top of a Spruce. At first we thought the Gray Jay was a Northern Shrike but the scope proved otherwise. Things were not looking good. I had seen a Snowy Owl once before, six years ago when we first moved to Tagish. On a dark November night we drove past the Tagish Landfill on our way back from town to have a majestic, snowy-white, black-speckled owl glide in front of us and disappear into the dump. I can still picture it crystal clear as though it had just happened not a moment ago. Still, it was only a two-second look and this owl we were currently twitching would be my chance at a real look. For Ben, seeing this owl would mean seeing a completely new bird, one he had never seen before. A lifer. Snowy Owls are quite rare in the Yukon, so to have one stick around for this long provides birders with a unique opportunity to see one. Just as we were beginning to get discouraged, Adam pointed to a distant tree and asked “Is that it up there?”. Ben’s binoculars whipped up into position. “There it is!!” I couldn’t see it, so Adam focused my scope and positioned it for me. When I bent to the scope again, I found myself looking at a spectacular view of the Snowy Owl starting straight at us with huge yellow eyes. The scope didn’t need to be zoomed in at all. Looking up from my scope now that I knew where it was, I was shocked! It was sitting in a tree top only two trees away from where the Gray Jay had been, and to the naked eye it appeared utterly dirty grey. It blended in almost completely with the mountains in the background. It must have flown up into that tree top while we were walking, because Ben had scanned all of those trees only 5 minutes ago and found nothing. We quickly snapped a few documentation photos, and I soaked it up through the scope.
We approached little closer and took some more photos; still it sat there on the tree constantly scanning the river and us. After a while it took flight, dipped down to ground-level and skimmed the river surface right past us, heading down river. We captured a few photos of it in flight before it disappeared around the bend.
To say the least, we were thrilled. We talked excitedly about it for a while, sharing our photos with each other and recalling certain moments before we started heading back to the parking lot in the direction the owl disappeared.
Back at the water hole we noticed an odd ‘stump’ just over a crest on the bank which Ben identified as the Snowy Owl.
This time we were able to see it perched in a way that is more natural for that species. Just sitting in the snow with its feathers all fluffed around it, it rotated its head backwards to stare straight at us.
Ben and I approached it slowly and stopped close enough for nice photos but far enough back that it still felt no inclination to take flight.
After spending a few minutes taking photos and admiring it Ben told me we should head back and let it be. We reluctantly walked away from the owl, it still sitting there taking turns between scanning the river and watching us go. My last glimpse of it was a grayish, round-looking stump sitting in the snow with a white face still watching us.
Definitely one of the best owling days of my life! Thank you to Ben for inviting me along and thank you to Adam for finding the owl for us 🙂