Project SNOWstorm Seizes the Moment to Take a Closer Look at Snowy Owls

By Pat Leonard
May 24, 2016
Snowy Owl in flight Snowy Owl by Diane McAllister/GBBC.
Follow the journey of Baltimore, a young male Snowy Owl, in the two years since Project SNOWstorm fitted the bird with a GPS transmitter.

The massive Snowy Owl irruption of 2013–2014 (the biggest in decades) captivated birders and nonbirders alike with unexpected glimpses of an avian superstar with hypnotic golden eyes. But that winter’s phenomenon was also an opportunity for science to learn about the lifestyle and biology of an arctic species we really know very little about.

UPDATE May 24, 2016: The GPS transmitters that Project SNOWstorm deployed in 2014 gathered precise locations for dozens of owls. A National Public Radio team used those coordinates to follow one of the owls, a male named Baltimore, from his 2014 winter location in Maryland to his 2015 winter location on Amherst Island, Canada. They put together a wonderful short documentary—both charming and amazing in its level of detail about the owl’s journey (at right).

The remainder of this post is the original article from January 2014. Read on for details about how the scientists of Project SNOWstorm laid the groundwork for this farsighted project.

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The first hint of the massive influx came from birders tracking the growing irruption through eBird, a story that was eventually picked up in the New York Times and elsewhere. Soon after, the irruption was so clearly exceptional that naturalist and Pulitzer-nominated author Scott Weidensaul and colleagues saw it as a chance to learn even more using the newest methods in tracking, and DNA and feather analysis. Weidensaul and approximately two dozen researchers and supporters have come together almost serendipitously to form Project SNOWstorm. The scientists are attaching GPS transmitters to some of the birds, giving all of us the equivalent of a high-tech “ride-along” with our arctic visitors.

“People are stepping up in a way I’ve never seen before,“ says Weidensaul, “We’re getting help from labs that do DNA blood work, from licensed banders, experts with GPS transmitters, state and federal wildlife vets and pathologists, rehabbers, and website developers, not to mention the vital observation information we get from citizen scientists using eBird.”

eBird sightings of Snowy Owls on 13 January 2014.

The main swath of eBird Snowy Owl sightings stretches from Wisconsin east to New England, through the Northeast, and down the Atlantic Coast. At least one bird has reportedly turned up in Florida—a long haul from its usual arctic stamping grounds.

A Snowy Owl, likely a male judging from its pale coloring,  in Syracuse, NY. Photo by Kevin McGowan.

When a likely candidate is located, licensed banders capture the bird to collect a blood sample, take measurements, note the condition of the bird, and take a tiny snippet of feather for analysis, in addition to banding it. DNA and feather tests can reveal a lot about the condition of the bird and even what toxins it was exposed to here and in the arctic. Then they give the owl its own little backpack.

“These are special solar-powered GPS transmitters made by Cellular Tracking Technologies,” Weidensaul explains. “They record the bird’s location and are programmed to send a data point every 30 minutes via cell phone towers. The packs weigh less than 40 grams [1.4 oz], which is fine for a bird as big as the Snowy Owl. It doesn’t interfere in any way with flight and we’re making sure to tag only healthy birds.” (Snowy Owls typically weigh 4–5 pounds and can top out at more than 6 pounds.)

The goal is to tag 20 to 25 owls with these transmitters. As of this writing two owls have been tagged with several more expected to be outfitted this week. Those first two have been up and running since the end of December. SNOWstorm is tracking an owl in Wisconsin dubbed “Buena Vista” and another called “Assateague” for the island of the same name off the coast of Maryland—although that bird has since traveled up the New Jersey coast. Animations of their tracking data make it clear the two birds have much different hunting strategies.

This video from Project SNOWstorm shows the level of detail that Buena Vista’s transmitter has been able to send to the researchers about where the owl spent its time:

“The Wisconsin bird is hanging around within a one-mile radius of where it was tagged, in prairie and marsh,” says Weidensaul. “The data are so precise that we can see the even spacing of dots where the owl has been perching and recognize them as specific telephone poles when we zoom in on Google Earth.”

Mike Lanzone of Cellular Tracking Technologies with “Assateague.” Photo by Scott Weidensaul.

Assateague is a rolling stone. He’s been zigzagging all over the place, resting by day and traveling or hunting by night. He’s apparently been snagging sleeping waterfowl offshore that are literally sitting ducks for this large raptor.

“We never, ever put up real-time data showing the birds’ locations,” Weidensaul says. “As much as we know people want to see these owls, we don’t want to be responsible for a deluge of onlookers that could disturb the birds or unintentionally cause harm.”

The technology has some limitations. Because the transmitter is powered by sunlight, the lack of it means no data is phoned in. The Wisconsin bird “went dark” after a long stretch of cloudy weather and the project is hoping for a sunny spell to get the pack powered up again. Now both Assateague and Buena Vista have moved into “dead zones” lacking sufficient cell coverage. But no data will be lost. Weidensaul says the units can acquire and store up to 100,000 GPS locations without cellular coverage. If and when the owl comes back into cellular range, each transmitter will phone in with all its accumulated data. However, cost is a limiting factor. Each transmitter pack costs about $3,000.

So what happens to all the information gathered by SNOWstorm? Weidensaul admits the project is still a “work in progress” but he’d like to see the website become a central portal for the scientific findings tied to this irruption. This winter’s Snowy Owls are already debunking some commonly held notions about why they came here.

“Everyone assumes that Snowy Owls come south because of a shortage of food in the Arctic,” Weidensaul said, “But the opposite is true. This summer there were plenty of lemmings, the birds gorged themselves, and had such a successful breeding season that we’re seeing the results of that bumper crop. We know from banding work by people like Norman Smith in Massachusetts, who has been studying Snowy Owls for the past 30 years at Logan Airport, that most of them are healthy, and that the majority of them do make it back to the Arctic.”

We may never see another Snowy Owl irruption this big again, but some owls always appear in southern Canada provinces and northern U.S. states. And if an owl with a functioning backpack comes back south in coming years, its transmitter will have some unbelievably good GPS data to send in.

“Think of what we could learn about where they’ve been, where they stopped, how long it took them to get there, and so on,” Weidensaul says. “This is big, this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”

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  • $3000 per transmitter …surely there are some wealthy people who love wildlife. There must be a celebrity out there who is awed by a Snowy Owl. Leonardo DiCaprio, a super human being who has done wonderful things for wildlife, can’t be the only celebrity who sees the beauty in awesome wildlife, can he? What about Warren Buffet and Bill Gates? What about a major corporation–they donate money all the time. C’mon, folks. Step up. A campaign needs to be done NOW to get some deep pockets aware of this incredible Snowy Owl irruption and fund some transmitters.

  • Kelly Clark

    I traipsed the boonies of Northern IN and just before Christmas was rewarded with sighting my first 2 snowies. They were in cornfields of Reynolds Bird Habitat (Porter/Laporte county line).
    I stayed far back enough to respect space. The photo I was able to get of one was with a zoom and not very clear. It was however a truly wonderful moment for me!
    I wish you success with this project.

  • Leave these birds the hell alone!!!! The research industry and their intrusive radio tracking devices need to go away. The snowy owls are obviously doing well on their own without being trapped, tagged and radio collared. I am tired of going to a national park and seeing radio collars on all of the animals.

  • Gwen Crandell

    My neighbor saw 2 snowy owls out her way Jan. 14, 2014. One was darker than the other. They were in the town of Conquest, N.Y. We are hoping they will stay awhile.

  • Lisa Day Eiland

    I photographed a Snowy Owl on December 27,2013 on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina. Very exciting! He or she is still there.
    I will share my photos of the owl in flight. I keep referring to “her”…I hope you can tell me if this is a male or female

    Thank you!

    How do I send photos??

  • Hugh

    Hi – Project SNOWstorm has a page on how to send photos right here: Thanks! – Hugh

  • Nancy Pillers

    Have been having fun watching them in Cape May county, New Jersey…Stone Harbor and Cape May.

  • Lisa Day Eiland

    Thank you. Pictures sent

  • Kim

    A neighbor’s dog was attacked by an owl last week – the vet identified it as an owl attack by the gashes caused by the claws as well as peck marks on the dog’s skull and blunt force trauma as the dog was apparently picked up and then dropped when it was too heavy. A few days later, another neighbor took photos of what looks like a large female snowy owl on a roof on our street. The vet originally thought it was a great horned owl that had hurt the dog, but the photos are definitely not a great horned. We live near Dulles Airport and a snowy was sighted there very recently. Would a snowy owl attack a 15 lb. dog? From what I’ve read that seems like very large prey for this type of owl.

  • Justin Dancing Hawk

    I find it interesting that people put the responsibility on OTHERS ! If YOU want to provide these devices, or want them to BE provided, why not put a fund raiser together & YOU do it!

  • Kim

    Owl attacks on Dogs, while rare, are not unheard of. I found this article which may be of interest(please note this Owl had an eye injury affecting its ability to hunt (as Owl’s hunt by sight)

    I would suspect any animal small enough to be carried away is fair game, especially in winter and with snow-covered ground. I would be distraught, glad your neighbor’s dog was okay.
    I was able to see a great-horned owl at night once, we must have startled it as we pulled into a parking lot next to ball fields, he was on the grass and when our headlights shown on him he flew up over our car with a wingspan that easily spanned our windshield then literally perched atop a tree, like you see in drawings it looked like he was sitting at the very top and could see his silhouette. It was amazing, and this began my love affair with owls (and all birds for that matter). I often hear the “who who who” (sound of great horned) just pre-dawn/early sunrise and at sunset/twilight but have yet to locate an owl again. I suspect the sound can travel far as it is often quite loud yet hard to discern the exact direction.

  • pmilliman

    I had a friend in Alaska who raised Great Pyrenees and had a Snowy Owl attack a litter of 8-week-old puppies that had been let outside for a romp. Some were so badly injured they had to be put down and one was taken away never to be seen again! Yes, Snowy Owls can attack just about anything…I don’t think they have any enemies.

  • Susi Matthews

    Those are both good ideas. I never want to discourage someone from good deeds. We’re all pretty much on the same side here; conservation and awareness. Many people have good ideas without the means to fund them themselves. Raising interest and awareness is a good start and can lead to raising funds.

  • Susi Matthews

    And of course, this is all done simply to annoy you, right? Science is a part of conservation and preservation and is far better than the way things used to be done. Remember that all of Audubon’s gorgeous and wonderful bird illustrations and diagrams were done from birds he’d shot. Tagging is far better than that and is done to help preserve the populations and part of that preservation is tracking them and discovering their habits. A raptor preservationist friend of mine told me once that nearly 75% of all large birds have nearly debilitating diseases, like West Nile or poisoning from eating rodents that have been killed with poison or even field chemicals.

    This is so much more important than your individual irritation with seeing tags on birds and animals. And IMO, part of the problem with this country; selfishness and greed and people only thinking of their individual enjoyment.

  • Keith

    There is way too much trapping and banding going on–it should only be used in matters of extreme importance. It is traumatizing and burdening to the animal and often shortens its life.

  • Cindy Beam

    How exciting! I never thought of Snowy Owls being on Ocracoke Island. I live in western NC and saw on the map that there have been sightings near me. I’m going be traveling and see what I can see.

  • Cindy Beam

    You are very good with words. I applaud both of your recent comments. I definitely could not have said it as well as you did. The science behind this project is simply amazing. I lived in Colorado for 23 years, and the tracking collars on the Canada Lynx are very similar.

  • Dale Peterson

    Spent a day looking for a Snowy last week in CO. Didn’t find the bird, but had a great day in the field finding many
    other species. Enjoy reading about your research – keep up the good work.

  • Kay Workley

    Very well said Susie, I applaude all that helps us understand our wildlife. It will help us understand patterns and like you said help if we need to know any information to keep them healthy and on this earth. In that way I am selfish, because without the wildlife it would be a sad and boring world. Thank you to the birders and scientists that dedicate their time and knowledge.

  • lorrie dockins

    In the 90’s late at nite driving over Douglas Pass in colorado in a blizzard, saw easily over a hundred snowy owls fluttering across the highway with one wing fully extended. It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen. I have never seen a snowy owl before that nite. I have been over Douglas Pass a hundred times and have seen many elk. It was magical.

  • wendy matthews

    I would like to know how to contact the owner of the photo of the snowy owl at the top of this. It shows the owl in flight with its wings extended. I am a acrylic painter and would like to get permission to use the photo. Thanks wendy matthews
    I did see one several years ago along side of route 81, between Syracuse and Watertwon. What an experience!

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Bruce Carmody

    I recently photographed a snowy owl bearing a leg tag. I can read most of the numbers. Should this sighting be reported to anyone who tracks these birds? The sighting was north of Toronto, Canada.

Project SNOWstorm Seizes the Moment to Take a Closer Look at Snowy Owls