Calgary Owl Adventure
By Mick Griffin
The year was 2019, the first and only time I had been in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. My primary reason for being there was to see the Snowy Owl, a most beautiful creature, evolutionarily adapted and designed to survive in the Arctic climate. The only way for this particular San Francisco Bay area resident to see a Snowy Owl was to fly north to Calgary in the darkest depth of the Canadian winter. Was I crazy to do this at a time when Canadians were flying south to Mexico for a few months to escape the bitter cold and short days?
As any fellow birder will appreciate, birding or a desire to see a particular species is an inexplicable obsession where logic fails to apply.
So yes, I booked the shortest, most direct flight possible (United Airlines, San Francisco to Calgary, approx 2 hrs & 45 minutes), and I was on my way to Calgary.
I had very limited time to spend in Calgary, so before I left I found a local bird guide, environmental biologist Dan Arndt, who grew up in the area and compiled wildlife field studies for the Alberta Provincial government and companies applying for mineral, gas, oil exploration permits in Alberta. He knew the area, terrain, wildlife and in particular, the avian population like the back of his hand. He also turned out to be an incredibly amiable companion and enthusiast of outdoor life in general.
Dan met me at my hotel in minus 10 degrees celsius temperatures at 7am on our first day together, and, in a nutshell my trip initially was a success. It took a couple of hours but we found and photographed many Snowy Owls together. There are many, many miles of flat agricultural roads around Calgary that we scoured, but there they were, either sitting on the flat snowy Tundra or perched higher up on the ubiquitous telephone poles and wires. But hold on… where was the Great Grey Owl! We hadn’t seen a single one. The Great Grey Owl had not been my target species but I had assumed it would be a formality to see at least two or three individuals. I was only with Dan for two days, with half of arrival day and half of departure day on my own scouring the more local city parks, lakes and rivers for species such as Bohemian Waxwing, Black-capped, Boreal and Mountain Chickadees, Canada Jay, Bald Eagles and Rough-legged Hawks.
So that day of my departure from Calgary, the Great Grey Owl became my nemesis bird.…I had to go back.
Fast forward to 2023, bypassing Covid and various winter birding trips that I took to Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Panama and Mexico.
Following Dan on his various postings via Facebook birding pages and email, I knew that not only was the Great Grey Owl frequently being seen in December, but also the Northern Hawk Owl, an even more elusive Northern Owl species that seldom ventures as far south as Calgary.
Apparently a single Hawk Owl had established a winter territory in the agricultural outskirts of Calgary and was visibly accessible from the road. Equally important from my perspective was that this species is not known to return to the same territory the following year, so I had to take advantage and see both the Great Grey Owl and, more unlikely but possible, the Northern Hawk Owl.
Also, importantly my species list for the year at that moment was at 629. I needed 21 more species for the year to reach 650 so I was hoping to achieve two objectives within one trip. I was pretty sure that I would see an additional 21 species if I went up to Calgary.
I repeated my previous schedule to go to Calgary but added an extra day just in case. This unfortunately meant missing New Year’s Eve in Marin with my wife, but as any true birder will understand, the chance of seeing a rare lifer weighed against yet another New Year’s Eve was a no-brainer.
After arriving at my hotel in Calgary on December 27th, 2023 at around 12:30am, I was up by 5:30am to go looking for the following target species with Dan; #1 Great Grey Owl, #2 Snowy Owl, and slim but positive hopes of seeing target #3, Northern Hawk Owl. We drove through the gradually emerging daylight to the area best known for Great Grey Owl sightings where they perch on roadside fences and low branches listening and hunting for voles moving beneath the snow. However, we reached the known Hawk Owl territory before sighting a Great Grey and there, Eureka! In the distance, possibly 200 meters away perched high atop a Spruce tree was the Northern Hawk Owl! Our least likely sighting was the first bird of the day. Unfortunately, he proved to be too far away to get decent photos so we decided to continue the search for Snowy and Great Greys as this particular Northern Hawk Owl was known to move frequently throughout his territory and would most likely be closer to the road a bit later on in the day.
Immediately after we left the Hawk Owl territory and started winding our way slightly higher through the “foothills” area we were rewarded with the sight of two magnificent Golden Eagles circling above us in the morning sunlight, a sunlight that truly accentuated the golden hue of their plumage.
There had been much less snow in rural Calgary in December and consequently there were far fewer Snowy Owls. By the end of the morning we had only seen three individuals and only one had been close enough for decent looks and photographs.
We stopped for lunch, then returned to Hawk Owl territory and as expected the bird had moved closer to the road for far better looks and photos of this hawk-like diurnal Owl. So far, so good, two down, one to go of our owl target species.
We drove through the snow-covered foothill roads and suddenly up ahead, maybe 50 meters, Dan spotted a Great Grey that dove into the snow trying to catch its prey. Yes! We stopped and watched the truly magnificent, primeval creature from a reasonable distance. We stayed for about 30 minutes watching with binoculars and taking many photos as the owl seemed ok with us being just 30 feet away.
With our owl mission accomplished, we were free the next day to successfully search for other local species including the American three-toed Woodpecker, Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, Grey Partridge, Bald Eagles, and finally my 651st species of the year, a lone Trumpeter Swan on the Bow river on December 31st.
Mick Griffin is a birding enthusiast originally from Brighton, U.K. He is a Mill Valley resident and lover of the California lifestyle who travels frequently incorporating birding into his trips.