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Lecturer Enlightens Audience of 130-plus about the Hidden Lives of Snowy Owls

View from the Milford City Hall balcony during The Hidden Lives of the Snowy Owl. Connecticut Audubon Society photo.

View from the Milford City Hall balcony during The Hidden Lives of the Snowy Owl. Connecticut Audubon Society photo.

Before last winter, the common wisdom was that the Snowy Owls that occasionally left their Arctic breeding grounds to winter further south did so because they were desperate for food and arrived in our area exhausted and starving.

But according to Don Crockett, who develops the interactive Snowy Owl maps for Project SNOWStorm, that common wisdom might not be true. Addressing an audience of more than 130 people during a presentation Sunday organized by Connecticut Audubon Society, Crockett said that data collected last winter from birds fitted with tracking devices show that wintering Snowy Owls are probably neither exhausted nor hungry.

In his talk, titled “The Hidden Lives of the Snowy Owl,” Crockett said that an unprecedented number of Snowies spent the winter of 2013-14 in New England and across the midwest.

Nationwide, Christmas Bird Count observers recorded 602 Snowies; over the previous 100-plus years, the most ever seen was 256, Crockett said. In Connecticut, the CBC found a dozen Snowy Owls; the previous record was four.

As Crockett noted, many of last year’s Snowy Owls attempted to make their winter home at the region’s airports because the flat, open expanses resemble the tundra. But the birds had to be trapped and relocated to keep them from interfering with airplanes – more than 120 were relocated from Logan Airport in Boston alone.

This historic influx caught the attention of Connecticut Audubon Society members and the general public. Several owls wintered at the Milford Point Coastal Center – including one that roosted regularly on the Osprey nesting platform – and dozens of people a day visited the Coastal Center to view the Snowies. When Crockett asked how many people in the audience had seen a Snowy Owl in the wild, almost everyone raised a hand.

This irruption of Snowy Owls created an unprecedented opportunity to study the birds, and so came Project SNOWstorm, a research project started in 2014 with the goal of better understanding the habits of Snowy owls through GPS tracking

As part of the project, 22 owls that were trapped to be relocated, from Minnesota to Massachusetts, were fitted with solar-power cellular transmitters, Crockett said. The transmitters sent and recorded GPS positions every 30 minutes. Previous technology would provide data for two GPS positions per day.

Crockett plotted the data on the maps he created for Project SNOWStorm. They showed that the owls are active at night and that the coastal owls were particularly active over the water – hunting waterfowl, Crockett said.

Photo of Snowy Owl at Milford Point taken in early 2014 by Kin Cheng.

Photo of Snowy Owl at Milford Point taken in early 2014 by Kin Cheng.

“Although the Snowy Owls are active in the day, they are also nocturnal, water-loving waterfowl eaters,” he said. “If they are able to go out and catch sitting ducks at night, are they starving? That should make you think they are not suffering, if they can go out and find food.”

The findings corroborate those of Norman Smith of Mass Audubon, who coordinated the trapping of the 120-plus owls at Logan Airport. According to Crockett, Smith found that the trapped owls were generally healthy and of normal weight.

Connecticut Audubon Society arranged Crockett’s presentation to help keep members and the public up to date on the latest research and information from Project SNOWStorm. Because of the great demand, the presentation was held at Milford City Hall rather than at Connecticut Audubon Society’s Milford Point Coastal Center, where it had been originally scheduled.

You can see an album of photos on our Facebook page.

The 40-minute presentation ended with a lively question and answer session, and was followed by a late-afternoon bird walk at the Milford Point Coastal Center – although unfortunately no Snowy Owls were to be found.

Connecticut Audubon Society is currently working to offer the presentation again, in another part of the state.

 

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