Two Owls: A Photo Essay

With the approach of winter, the owls have returned to Toronto. Every year at this time, they come down from the boreal forest and northern tundra looking for food. They like to hang out in forested areas near the Toronto lakeshore, where they find a plentiful supply of rabbits, squirrels, meadow voles, field mice, and song birds to prey on.

Rabbit photo for "Two Owls" post.
Food: the ravines and parks of Toronto sustain a healthy population of Cottontail Rabbits, and the rabbits in turn sustain the owls and hawks and coyotes and foxes that feed on them.

Some of these owls just stop off for a day or two on their way further south, while others dig in for the whole winter.

On a recent walk, I ran across examples of the largest and smallest of the regularly occurring owls in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Largest is the Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus, which is the size and general shape of a beer keg. Often this owl is quite shy and will flush as soon as it sees you approach. For a reason known only to itself, this one stayed in place and allowed me to take several photos.

Great Horned Owl photo for "Two Owls" post.
A Great Horned Owl at rest but alert.

Smallest is the Northern Saw-whet Owl, Aegolius acadicus, which is so tiny it could easily fit into a half-litre beer stein. Saw-whet Owls are notoriously tame and almost never flush, no matter how close you get or how long you look at them. (“Rockefeller,” the owl that was recently discovered in the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City, is a Saw-whet Owl.) Saw-whets love all types of evergreen trees, but they seem to have a peculiar affinity for cedars.

Close-up shot of a Saw-whet Owl for the "Two Owls" post.
Saw-whet Owls have luminous yellow eyes and a penetrating gaze.

The season is still young. Over the next several weeks, and even into March, I stand a fair chance of seeing several other species of owls, including Snowy, Long-eared, Short-eared, and Barred Owls. With owls, as with so many other birds, there’s always a good reason to go out and look, if only because you never know beforehand what you will see.

A Snowy Owl by the shore of Lake Ontario. Most of the Snowy Owls that spend the winter in the GTA are heavily barred juveniles like this. Only rarely do we see a pure white adult male.
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