Update on the great snowy owl irruption of 2014

Sharon StitelerThe snowy owl irruption just won’t stop, and some exciting things are happening.

Normally when an influx of an arctic species comes into the United States in winter, we mostly enjoy the phenomena and spend the next year or two trying to figure out what caused it and where exactly the birds came from.

Now, thanks to the Internet, we can study it as it happens. An abundance of prey will cause the owls to go into a breeding frenzy and produce as many chicks as possible. When they grow, they travel where they need to during the following winter to find food. When the irruption of snowy owls first appeared on the East Coast, birders and researchers were wondering where the irruption came from. We soon had a very good idea when this extraordinary photo of a snowy owl nest in northern Quebec taken the summer of 2013 http://projectsnowstorm.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/lemmings-at-nest.jpg appeared from Christine Blais-Soucy.

When I first saw people linking to the image on Facebook, I thought it was an owl nest surrounded by rocks. By the third time I saw it, I realized, “Wait, snowy owls do not pile rocks around their nest.”

I took a closer look and realized 70 dead lemmings and eight dead voles were surrounding a nest with one newly hatched chick and three yet to hatch eggs. The parents for this nest had quite a stockpile of food ready to go for their chicks. Before long Project SNOWstorm was formed. This is a collaborative research effort by Project Owlnet, the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, independent researcher, agency and organizational partners. The goal was to try and raise at least $20,000 to fund satellite transmitters to track where they owls foraged and where they would go come spring.

So far, seven snowy owls have transmitters on them, including one recently trapped by Frank Nicoletti and David Alexander in Ramsey, Minnesota. Researchers are learning some surprising things. For example, it’s assumed most of the owls that come down are starving to death. All of the owls trapped and tagged are weighed. So far, the birds caught are fat and sassy, meaning they are finding plenty of food. Some of the food items the birds are eating are a surprise. One of the tagged owls has been hunting over open water off the New Jersey shore to hunt waterfowl at night. Some of the owls drift on ice flows on the Great Lakes.

To learn more about the fascinating research, visit ProjectSNOWstrom.org. If you have some spare cash, consider donating so more transmitters can be fitted on snowy owls. If you haven’t seen a snowy owl yet this winter, visit eBird.org. Go under the “View and Explore Data” tab. Enter in where you live, the time of year and snowy owl to see list of sightings. If you live in the eastern half of the United States, chances are good there’s a snowy owl near you. 

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