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Unlocking the secret world of the snowy owl

Feb 5, 2015

Snowy owls spend their summers in the Arctic. Sometimes, they fly south in the winter in big migrations called irruptions.  In a typical year, we might end up with a few dozen snowy owls in the Great Lakes region.

Last year was a mega-irruption, a really rare event. Snowy owls came south by the thousands. Some birds got all the way down to Florida and Bermuda.

"Snowy owls are just blanketing Michigan this winter. They're in open farm country, in the Lower Peninsula, they're along the edges of the lakes, they're up in the UP." — Scott Weidensaul, founder of Project SNOWstorm

Scott Weidensaul is one of the founders of Project SNOWstorm. It’s a group of owl experts who are raising money to track the owls

“This winter, we’re seeing a secondary irruption. It’s an order of magnitude lower than it was last year but it’s still a really impressive irruption,” says Weidensaul. He adds that this year, there are hundreds of owls hanging out in the western Great Lakes region.

“Snowy owls are just blanketing Michigan this winter. They’re in open farm country, in the Lower Peninsula, they’re along the edges of the lakes, they’re up in the UP.”

He says snowy owls breed in one of the most remote parts of the planet - the arctic. And while many people believe hunger drives the birds south, experts say it has more to do with an abundance of food in the arctic.

From the "irruption myths" section on Project SNOWstorm:

It appears it’s not hunger that produces these mega-flights, but an absurd abundance of food during the summer breeding season. High populations of lemmings, voles, ptarmigan and other prey lead to large clutches of owl eggs …

That happened during the summer of 2013 in northern Quebec, where lemming populations were booming and snowy owls enjoyed a banner nesting season. That autumn, thousands of those young owls moved south.

This summer, 2014, snowy owls had a banner breeding season on Bylot Island in the Canadian Arctic. That may be responsible for the unusually large number of irrupting snowy owls again moving in the Northeast and Great Lakes.

But scientists know more about what they do way up in the Arctic than when they’re visiting us here, and this is where Project SNOWstorm's tracking effort comes in.

Alma's journey

“The owls are not as mellow as other birds. They tend to bite a lot," says Aaron Bowden, a wildlife biologist with USDA’s Wildlife Services. He’s wearing thick gloves and holding onto a fluffy white male owl.

Bowden caught him the day before at the Gerald R. Ford airport in Grand Rapids.

They’re calling this guy Alma, because Alma College bought the transmitter. Alma is the first owl in Michigan to be fitted with a satellite tag.

“Did you grab the band number? It’s 1088.”

Bowden’s helping biologist Brian Washburn weigh and measure the owl. And then Washburn holds up a couple of thin brown ribbons.

“We build harnesses out of Teflon-infused ribbons," says Bowden. "It’s very strong; it can stay on the bird for several years and will eventually come off.”

He fits the harness snugly around Alma’s body and sews it together with braided fishing line. Alma chomps down hard on Washburn’s gloved hand as he does this.

“All right buddy, I know you’re really tired of this, aren’t you?”

They attach the satellite transmitter to Alma’s back, and Aaron Bowden puts Alma into a special cage in his truck. In a little while, he’ll release him.

“From here on out, at least with this one, we can see where he goes. If he goes back to the same airport, we’ll know that. They have an affinity for the airport, and that’s because it’s a similar type of habitat as they’re familiar with in the tundra. They’re wide open spaces.”

Map courtesy:  Project SNOWStorm

Texting while flying

Last year, Project SNOWstorm tagged 22 owls.

Scott Weidensaul says the GPS part of the transmitter can log the owl’s location every half an hour. And then, when the owl is within range of a cell phone network, it sends all that data to the researchers.

“It was like a fire hose of data.”

Essentially, the owl is sending them text messages. And anybody can go to the Project SNOWstorm website and see what the owls are up to.

“Some birds that we tagged last winter that then went into the sub-Arctic for the summer and have come back down south again — you can actually follow them up into Hudson Bay or the Davis Strait and see how they were riding on icebergs or ice floes that were being curlicued around by the tides and the wind.”

Weidensaul says they especially want to know what the owls are up to when they’re here in the U.S.

And this brings us back to Alma the owl. He got a ride to Waterloo Recreation Area where he’s going to be released. The biologists check him out and make sure his transmitter is working.

Then we walk up a hill to a wide open clearing.

“Ready? All right, we’ll let him go now!”

Alma rockets away from us and glides over the trees. Since he was released, Alma’s been sticking to open country and sitting on barn roofs.

Project SNOWstorm protects the tagged owls by posting their locations with a few days’ delay. That’s so people won’t harass the owls.