Arctic Weather, Arctic Birds

A banner year on the Arctic tundra has had repercussions in this part of the country – an extremely rare “mega-irruption” of snowy owls.

Smaller irruptions – a dramatic, irregular migration of large numbers of birds to areas where they aren’t typically found, possibly at a great distance from their normal ranges – happen every few years. But once or twice in a lifetime a mega-irruption occurs, when snowy owls show up much farther south, and in vastly greater numbers, than usual.

Project SNOWstorm is a research program that will gather information about these mysterious raptors using telemetry, banding, toxicology screening, DNA analysis, and much more, according to a press release from the organization.

This year, the owls have been reported as far south as Florida and Arkansas, and even in Bermuda.

“It’s unprecedented,” said John Fedak, president of the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology. “It was a very, very good year for lemmings.” An area in Newfoundland that would normally see 30 owls is seeing 300 this year, he said.

Because of the preponderance of food last summer, owls laid larger clutches of eggs, and enjoyed larger than normal survival rates.

“It use to be thought that the owls coming south did so because they were starving, but all the owls caught and banded so far are extremely healthy,” he added. Additionally, most of them are male, although a female named “Freedom” was banded near Appleton, Wisc.

He spoke of trying to lure an owl for banding, but the owl was so busy catching other prey in the area it wasn’t interested in the bait.

The owls have no fear of humans, and they continue to hunt while people are around. They can be spotted in farmers’ fields, ocean and lakeshore beaches and open spaces, and even in residential areas.

Fedak, who also teaches at the Warren County School District’s Learning Enrichment Center, said nine owls were banded in Pennsylvania with cellular transmitters. The solar-powered transmitters are providing information, and changing minds about the birds and their habits, although there is still much to be learned.

The banding and research is being done by Project SNOWstorm researchers and volunteers throughout the owls’ southern winter range.

Data from the transmitters is downloaded to cell phones, giving researchers valuable information about locations and travelling habits.

For instance, one banded owl is flying out to sea and feeding on sea ducks, and snowy owls that were on the lakeshores of the Great Lakes have moved on, perhaps onto the ice for ducks.

But banding the birds with cellular transmitters isn’t cheap, at around $3,000 apiece.

Fedak’s LEC students, in grades from kindergarten through eighth grade, are raising money through Feb. 10 for more transmitters, and are accepting donations. Their original goal was $20,000, but they’ve managed to raise $24,000, according to Fedak.

For more information or to donate, contact Fedak at fedakj@wcsdpa.org.

Information about Project SNOwstorm, including the tracking of birds can be found at www.projectsnowstorm.org/.