Rare owl in Ottawa lures birders from afar

A winter snowstorm didn't discourage a pair of bird enthusiasts from journeying from Toronto to Ottawa in the hopes of glimpsing a rare northern hawk owl in Ottawa's west end.

A winter snowstorm didn't discourage a pair of bird enthusiasts from journeying from Toronto to Ottawa in the hopes of glimpsing a rare northern hawk owl in Ottawa's west end.

After Sean Hollis and Marty Lake heard about the owl sighting on the internet, they followed their GPS for five hours, to Crystal Bay Park.

"We couldn't believe it when we came off the road 100 metres and this tree is where the hawk owl is," Lake said Wednesday, after tromping through the fresh snow to set up his tripod in the park near Carling Avenue and Grandview Road.

The fluffy bird remained perched high in a tree, seemingly unbothered by the cold wind ruffling its feathers or the video cameras pointed at it from the ground.

Lake said the hawk owl, which is native to the boreal forest in Canada's North, is a special type of owl with pointed wings that can hover like a falcon.

"It's very fast and beautiful — slender, long."

The bird is occasionally seen as far south as the U.S. in the winter, when it may leave its northern home in search of food.

Lake and Hollis brought their cameras to film footage for a proposed television show.

Hollis said he has been interested in birds since age four and has been serious about studying them since age 12.

He met fellow bird enthusiast Lake more than a decade ago while working in the film industry. Both men specialize in constructing and painting backdrops.

Hollis said that over the past 25 years, songbird populations have dropped 30 to 40 per cent.

"We're starting to lose those and it's worth it to photograph and document and raise the awareness of what we're losing."

He likened birds to a canary in a coal mine, saying they're signalling the effects of climate change, pollution and urban sprawl.

But this year, he has been heartened by the sight of the hawk owl and an apparent surge in owl sightings of all kinds in both Ontario and Quebec, although he's not really sure why there are so many.

"It's just a really great year for owls."

Hollis said it's very exciting to watch a bird that one rarely gets a chance to see so far south, and to be able to get so close to it, as the birds have little experience with humans and therefore little fear of them.

"We just can't get enough of it," he said. "It's just something that gives us so much energy."