It's a special year for snowy-owl sightings in Washington and British Columbia, and many fans of the big white birds are making tracks to Boundary Bay, B.C.
BOUNDARY BAY, B.C. — In future years we’ll likely look back on the winter of ’11-’12 as the season of the snowy owl. Seems they’ve been showing up all over — the Nisqually Delta, Port Susan near Stanwood, a truck plant in Renton, residential rooftops in rural Whatcom County, and elsewhere.
But perhaps nowhere is this Owlapalooza more owlt-of-the-ordinary than just north of the U.S.-Canada border at Boundary Bay Regional Park, in Tsawwassen, B.C. Specifically, the dike-top trail at the south tip of 72nd Street.
A few weeks ago, along this border-hugging tidewater marsh that opens to straight-on views of Orcas Island looking like a giant humpback whale passing by on its way through the Strait of Georgia, I spotted 30 snowy owls (30!). Clumps of shorty snowmen — three here, five there, two over there — just chilling out, it would seem, perched on washed-up logs, turned-over stumps and various beach debris. Not hiding at all, just out in the open in their fluffy-taloned, yellow-eyed, and of course, all-around otherworldly white (and sort-of brown-speckled) glory.
From time to time, one would unfold its impressive 5-foot wingspan and flap silently to a perch where the owl company, or rodent-hunting, was preferable.
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That 30, by the way, beat by eight my previous snowy-spotting best, also set at Boundary Bay during a similar irruption in the late ’90s. (Because of periodic shortages in the Arctic lemming population, every four to seven years increased numbers of snowy owls travel farther south looking for food; it’s called an irruption.)
Voles are the goal
So, what is it about Boundary Bay that every so often turns it into a veritable Owlstock?
“They’re going after Townsend’s voles; they’re similar to lemmings and are prevalent at Boundary Bay,” says Marcus Merkens, a biologist with Metro Vancouver, which manages Boundary Bay Regional Park.
“Snowy owls are a tundra species drawn to the open area; they don’t live in the forest. And so the washed-up beach debris at Boundary Bay offers perfect opportunities to roost.”
Boundary Bay Regional Park is a mix of fields, marshes and tidewater beaches. It’s an Important Bird Area — an official Audubon Society designation — on the Pacific Flyway, and is a haven for all manner of migratory birds including raptors and waterfowl, not just irruptive Hedwigs (yes, Harry Potter’s owl was a snowy). It’s estimated that upward of a quarter million birds pass through Boundary Bay each year, including about 30,000 brant geese.
The park also features a dike-top trail (the aptly named Dike Trail) that stretches for 10 miles (one-way) from the main park in Tsawwassen, near the Point Roberts peninsula, to Mud Bay Park, roughly tracing the shoreline the entire way. Open to walkers, cyclists and equestrians, the wide gravel trail is dead-flat and mostly firm packed; along with terrific water and island views, it also offers peeks of nearby Semiahmoo Spit as well as faraway Mount Baker and the North Cascades.
If it’s the snowy owls you’re looking for — and Merkens and other experts seem to think they’ll likely stick around until sometime in March — it’s the Dike Trail you’ll want to visit. Specifically, at the south end of 72nd Street. (Once you cross the border, it takes only about a half-hour to get there.) At points along the trail there’s interpretive signage about the owls and at varying times, park interpreters have set up information tables to offer information and answer questions.
Treat them right
Not surprisingly, in recent months thousands of bird- and owl-obsessed folks from all over have been flocking to Boundary Bay to see the snowys. And for the most part, they’ve been doing their conscientious best not to harass the birds. That is, staying on the Dike Trail, which offers the perfect vantage point from which to observe these marvelous birds (as well as short-eared owls, great blue herons and eagles, seemingly by the dozens). But there are those in every crowd who don’t quite know how to behave.
“Some people want their National Geographic-class photo so they approach the owls to try to get them to fly,” Merkens says.
Whenever I’ve been to Boundary Bay, there were many snowy owls within 50 feet of the trail, so the idea of trying to get even closer is a head-scratcher. Merkens says that while dogs are allowed on the Dike Trail, it’s imperative that they stay on leash.
“It’s really important not to stress these birds; they need to rest to conserve their energy for hunting and surviving, really. Let’s not make them do more than they need to.”
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “75 Classic Rides: Washington” (Mountaineers Books) due out in April. He can be reached at email@example.com. His blog is mcqview.blogspot.com.