A Bird’s Tale

Snowy owls are still here

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014 - 5:00pm
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Snowy owl. Courtesy of Scott Weidensaul

We read in Editor-at-Large Joe Gelarden’s column last week about the unfortunate demise of a snowy owl that had been delighting people with its presence at Ocean Point and thought we should write a bit more about the snowy owl invasion.

We wrote a few columns ago about the unusually large numbers of these striking birds that were appearing across the eastern United States and Canada including Maine. After we wrote the last column about some Newfoundland birders counting 138 snowy owls in one day, the following weekend they counted 206 in the same area. And sightings continue to mount at new locations and further south. Individual snowy owls have now been sighted in Arkansas, Missouri, Georgia and even Florida. Unfortunately the bird that had made it to Bermuda, like the Ocean Point bird, succumbed though of unknown causes. But there are many more stories of snowy owls that seem to be finding food and doing fine.

In fact, this multitude of snowy owls has become a great ambassador for increasing awareness and interest in birds in nature among the general public. A Google search of “snowy owl” reveals that there have been hundreds of newspaper articles and blogs written about snowy owls across the U.S. and Canada, even in the most well-known outlets, and on TV.

A snowy owl that recently spent a day on or near the Washington Post offices in downtown D.C. ensured it would be noticed by the media and hordes of people walking by. One research consortium called Project SNOWstorm is taking advantage of the fact that there are so many snowy owls here this year to catch and tag some of the birds with a cutting-edge new type of tracking device that texts the coordinates of the birds locations via cell phone networks. This way they can follow an individual bird’s movements even within a single day.

A Massachusetts Audubon researcher has been putting satellite tags on snowy owls trapped at Logan Airport in Boston for many years and his work has documented the seasonal movements of these owls some of which have spent time in Maine on their way north in the spring — even as late as April in some years! His tagging efforts have revealed that many of the owls trapped and tagged at Logan travel north to spend summer in northern Quebec and Labrador though some have gone even further north. An interesting note is that a birder in Newfoundland reported that from his inquiries with northern researchers about lemming abundance in the north last summer, he had found that lemmings were at a peak abundance in northern Quebec and Labrador, but not in Greenland or locations further north. He even showed a photo of a snowy owl nest from Quebec piled high with 70 lemmings even before the eggs had hatched. He surmised that perhaps many of the birds in this year’s invasion had come from northern Quebec and Labrador.

Project SNOWStorm has banded birds in a number of eastern states and early maps are already showing some interesting results. A number of the birds have been tracked flying across expanses of open ocean and moving back and forth between sites 100 or more miles apart over a period of days. One track mystified the researchers because it showed a bird moving slowly across Lake Erie until they realized it was sitting on a floating ice floe.