Hold onto your hats, cross-country skiers: There’s a report of an owl hit-and-run in the Hills.
Chelsea, Quebec resident Shawn Garbutt said one of the nocturnal birds swooped down during a regular night time cross-country ski Feb. 12 and made off with his beanie and headlamp. Both are missing and the owl is still reported on the loose.
Garbutt, a 50-year-old avid skier, said he was making one of his regular ski runs from the P5 parking lot at Meech Road at around 7 p.m. He was about two kilometres into the outing when an owl silently swooped down and struck him on the back of the head.
“It actually knocked me over,” said Garbutt. “I thought I hit a branch.”
But when the ski enthusiast turned his headlamp-equipped head towards a tree, he saw an owl sitting about 20 feet away. He continued skiing, but then the bird struck again. This time, it made off with his hat and light and flew up to the treetops.
Garbutt said he could see the light dangling from the bird’s feet on his tree branch perch. He tried shaking the tree and shouting, hoping the loud commotion would startle the owl into dropping his ski gear, it didn’t work. The bird would not budge.
Luckily, Garbutt said, there was enough light reflecting from the fresh snow that he could make his way back, and a turtle light warned other skiers of his presence. An extra balaclava in his bag kept his head warm.
Garbutt said he suffered from a few scratches on the back of his head, but nothing major. He has since bought a new hat and headlamp.
Aside from its brown colour, Garbutt said he could not identify the bird species. This was also his first owl spotting in the park. Christie Spence, the Gatineau Park senior manager of natural resources and land management, said it was likely a Great Horned Owl protecting its nest.
“That’s probably territorial behaviour,” she said, explaining that while such owl encounters are rare in the park, she said it’s generally not unusual. “Basically they defend (their nests) from other owls,” she said.
Owls are not intimidated by people, she added.
Great Horned Owls are among the earliest breeders of the owl family. The males find nests for their mates and there the females lay their eggs. The males act as protectors for the 28-37-day incubation period.
Meanwhile, for those coming up on a nesting owl’s grounds in Gatineau Park, Spence recommends that you wave your hands and just leave the area. But this incident should not ruffle your feathers, as encounters are never usually more serious than a ripped-off cap and headlamp.