More Snowstorm Snowy Owls

Posted:  Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - 5:15pm

The recent spate of snow storms, including the one on Christmas Day that gave many of us a gift of burning off some turkey and pie calories as we shoveled and scooped the driveway, seemed like a good opportunity to write about another snowstorm. Some of you may recall a previous column in which we discussed the wonderfully intriguing research project led in part by our friend and colleague Scott Wiedensaul called Project SNOWstorm. For the last five years, the project has been placing solar-powered satellite tags on snowy owls in the winter from Maine south to Maryland and west to North Dakota. 

For many of these birds, becoming part of the project may have saved them from death. Snowy owls are birds that prefer big, open spaces like the Arctic and Subarctic regions where they nest. When they come south, many snowy owls are attracted to the similarly big, open spaces of airports where airport safety personnel see them as a potential danger to aircraft. In the past, such owls were often killed. Today, these birds are more likely to be trapped and moved to a distant location, now sometimes wearing a satellite tag that will show, in some cases, where the birds are every few minutes. 

Project SNOWstorm uses a particularly interesting technology in which the location information obtained from the satellite tags is automatically sent to the research team through the nearest cell tower to each bird’s location. This also means that if one of these tagged birds flies into an area where there are no cell towers, then its location and movements are unknown to the researchers. That is, until the bird eventually (hopefully) flies into range of another cell tower at which time it can download the entire track of where it was since the last time it was near a cell tower.

We were excited to learn, through one of Scott Wiedensaul’s recent blog posts that a snowy owl that the researchers named “Wells” has just made one of these miraculous reappearances. Of course we can’t help but be fans of a bird that shares our last name even though it was really named for the town in southern Maine where it was released. Snowy owl “Wells” was trapped at the Portland Jetport in January 2017 and after her release at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, she stayed in the southern Maine coastal area for another month. In late February she moved north across the state until she reached the Quebec City area. Apparently finding abundant food along the St. Lawrence River and in the surrounding fields, she stayed in and around Quebec City until April. Then on April 20, about 125 miles north of Quebec City, owl Wells disappeared as she moved north into the Boreal Forest wilderness where there are no cell towers.

So when Scott and the other Project SNOWstorm team members got a sudden data download from Wells’ transmitter in late November, they were understandably pleased. She had crossed the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gaspe Peninsula and come into range of a cell tower again! The huge data download showed that she had spent the summer apparently nesting and raising her young in the northern part of the Ungava Peninsula of Quebec in an area now known as Nunavik. The Project SNOWstorm researchers will be poring over the data in the coming months but already know that they have one of the most detailed records of movements of a snowy owl in the summer breeding season ever recorded.

We can’t wait to hear where Wells travels to up next!

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and the just-released “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao” from Cornell University Press.