Sighting the Tundra Ghost

The solitary owl sat on a fence post, its white feathers ruffling in the strong wind, its head swiveling as it looked and listened for food. The owl was flecked with black spots and bars, and would occasionally turn its head so its intense yellow eyes would stare directly at me. Luck was with me, this was my first sighting of a snowy owl (or SNOW, the code used by taggers and birders to refer to this breed of bird), and what a treat it was! To make the situation even more thrilling, I was in a good position, conditions were just right – and with a click of the shutter, I captured some first-rate images.

Sighting a snowy owl (Bubo Scandiacus) in the Finger Lakes Region is a rare delight. It really is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Birders on the Northeast Coast might see one snowy owl every other year, and birders further south could wait decades. It is always a thrill to see one. They are regal looking, with beautiful yellow eyes and feathered feet.

Out of Nowhere
No one saw it coming. During the winter of 2013-2014, a large number of snowy owls migrated to the United States. It was considered the greatest influx in 50 years. Almost overnight, snowy owls appeared like magic, in numbers that were hard to believe.

A dramatic increase in the population of a certain breed of bird, in areas where that breed is not usually recorded, is known as an irruption. The 2013-2014 irruption of snowy owls was concentrated along the Atlantic Coast and the eastern Great Lakes. Since snowy owls often travel south during the Arctic winter in search of food, this distribution of owls was probably the result of an abundance of prey in Northern Quebec during the breeding season. Biologists reported a boom in the lemming population (lemmings are the preferred food of snowy owls), which resulted in a higher than average number of eggs laid and owls fledged.

No matter where they came from, the Eastern United States and Atlantic Canada enjoyed the spectacle. Newfoundland alone reported record numbers, with one observer counting 297 owls in a single weekend. These nomads from the north were reported as far south as Florida and Bermuda.

Sighting the snowy owl
Accounts of snowy owl sightings can be found on Cornell’s ebird.org web page. The site was created in 2002 by Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, to provide birding communities with a forum to report and access information about birds. This data is then shared with the local birding community, as well as researchers around the world.

Maps on eBird of owl sightings from January to March clearly show the high density of snowy owls along the Great Lakes, Central New York and the Eastern Seaboard. When you compare these maps to the map for May 2014, the difference is striking. The majority of owls have headed back to the Arctic, and there are almost no snowy owl sightings listed on the map for May.

Keeping Track
The scientific community took notice of the sudden irruption of snowy owls. Biologist David F. Brinker of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Scott Weidensaul, research director for the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Millersburg, Pennsylvania, and Steve Huy of Frederick, Maryland, banded together and created Project SNOWstorm.

Together, and with the support of other owl fanatics, they managed to raise enough money to start outfitting captured snowy owls with GSM transmitters. Eventually, the nationwide team was able to raise more than $36,000, allowing them to outfit 22 owls. These solar-powered transmitters record latitude, longitude and altitude at intervals, providing unparalleled detail on the movements of these birds, 24 hours a day.

GSM transmitters use cellular phone towers to transmit data. When the owl is out of range of a cell tower, the transmitters can store up to 100,000 locations, and then transmit that information when the bird flies back within range of a tower. The transmitters weigh approximately 40 grams, and they are attached with a backpack harness made of Teflon ribbon. The project’s website allows readers to view information on each captured owl and see its tracked locations.

It is not clear how long the owls stayed in Central New York. However, the birds equipped with transmitters were still heading back to the Arctic as late as mid-May. One in particular, named Oswegatchie, was still in Fitzroy Harbor, Ontario, on May 14, 2014. New York State birders were also reporting snowy owls in the area around this time, with one sighting near Montezuma Wildlife Refuge and another on an island in Oneida Lake, near Syracuse.

This coming winter will be a non-irruption year in our region, so project SNOWstorm expects to see far fewer owls. They will, however, be continuing their goal of tagging and tracking those owls that do spend the winter in the Finger Lakes Region. They hope to tag 20-25 new birds this year. These new owls, as well as owls from this past winter, like Oswegatchie, will continue to be viewable on the SNOWstorm website, so be sure to check in and learn more about these majestic winged creatures at projectsnowstorm.org.

Description
The snowy owl is a large owl, active chiefly in the daytime, with lemon-yellow eyes and deep black pupils that contrast beautifully with their snow-white faces. They have a distinctive white body, with plumage that is variably barred or speckled with thin, black, horizontal bars or spots.

Females and juveniles are more heavily marked than males on average – adult males may be almost pure white. Most adult females are distinctly barred throughout their plumage.

Immature birds are very heavily barred throughout, and dark spotting may dominate the overall plumage. Intensity of dark spotting varies with the sex of immature birds, females being darker than males. However, biologists have noted exceptions to even the most common patterning of these owls.

Diet
Snowy owls breed on the tundra in the summer months, where they prey on small rodents, mainly lemmings, and the occasional hare or ptarmigan. When these nomads head south, they hunt in wide-open fields, airports or beaches – searching for anything with fur or feathers.

Snowy owls are patient hunters with keen eyesight and great hearing, which can help them find prey that is hidden under thick snow cover. The owls deftly snatch their quarry with their sharp talons and, if small enough, will eat it whole. They are fast fliers, and have been known to catch ducks and geese.

Nesting
The female will scrape out a shallow hole on a slight rise or pingaluk (a mound created on the ground by frost heaves) with her body, and line it with lichens, moss and feathers. Females lay a clutch of three to 14 eggs at a time, depending upon the availability of food. In particularly lean times, a pair of owls may not breed at all. Only females incubate the eggs. The male provides the female and young with food.

The young are blind and featherless when first hatched, but within hours they are covered in fluffy down. Young owls begin to leave the nest approximately 25-26 days after hatching. They do not learn to fly well until at least 50 days of age. Their parents continue to feed them for another four to five weeks after they leave the nest.

Feeding Time
The owl’s preferred meal is lemmings. An adult may eat more than 1,600 lemmings a year, or three to five every day. Owls swallow small prey whole, and their strong stomach juices dissolve the soft tissue. Indigestible bones, fur and teeth are compressed, and then regurgitated as pellets.

Reproduction
Nest: hollow in a pingaluk (rise in the tundra)
Female: stays on nest
Male: hunts for food
Clutch Size: 3-14 eggs
Incubation Period: 32 days
Nestling Period: 18-25 days

Measurements
Height: Up to 27 inches
Length: 20-27 inches
Wingspan: 4.5-5.5 feet
Weight: 2.5-5 lbs
(Males are typically smaller than females.)

Habitat
Snowy owls are birds of the arctic tundra – a treeless plain with simple vegetation and an extremely cold climate. There is limited vegetation on the tundra, mostly low shrubs, sedges, mosses, lichens and grasses.


by Phillip Bonn