An Indie-grace period
We’ve been counting down the final hours of our campaign, which we launched Jan. 2, and planned to close March 1. But the good folks at Indiegogo (which featured Project SNOWstorm earlier this week in its newsletter) have pointed out that our "60-day campaign" is actually only 58 days long — and they have generously extended our run two days, now ending on March 3.
That means we have a few extra days to spread the word about what we’re doing. As we have mentioned in the past, although our transmitters are fully funded, all the additional money we raise will allow us to begin to analyze the feather, blood and tissue samples we’ve archived this winter, looking into genetics, environmental toxins and a lot more — and doubtless revealing still more surprises about these amazing birds.
Help us spread the word in these final four days!
Project Update - 2/24/14We're in the final days of the campaign, and we remain stunned and humbled by the incredible support that the Indiegogo community has shown. You've made it possible for us to do groundbreaking research on snowy owls with a speed most scientists can only dream about -- and you've contributed in a direct, critical way to understanding and conserving this majestic raptor.
We are nearing our goal of tagging more than 20 snowy owls with GPS transmitters, and the results already have been astounding. One owl has meandered for weeks around the frozen surface of Lake Erie, hunting for ducks and gulls on cracks of open water. Others have flown hundreds of miles along the Atlantic coast, while still others have proven to be homebodies, rarely budging from their corner of farmland or suburbs. Be sure to visit projectsnowstorm.org to see regular updates and tracking maps on all our tagged birds.
But our work is far from over. We have been archiving blood, feather, DNA and tissue samples from snowy owls, which will allow us to peer deep into their genetics, confirm their gender, explore what chemicals and toxins they are exposed to here and in the far North, and perhaps determine just where in the Arctic they came from. So in these final days, every contribution above and beyond our original goal will allow us to take this study to the next level, by funding the lab work and analyses that are just as important as the transmitters. Thanks from all of us participating in Project SNOWstorm.
Snowy owls are one of the most beautiful and mysterious birds on Earth -- and the winter of 2013-14 has seen the biggest invasion in decades of these Arctic-breeding raptors into the Northeast and Great Lakes regions. Help our collaborative group of scientists, bird-banders and wildlife health professionals to quickly mobilize an unprecedented research program during this once-in-a-lifetime event through telemetry, banding, toxicology screening, DNA analysis and much more. By supporting us you will be participating in some of the most cutting edge research on wildlife to date!
By the first week of December, 2013, birders realized something extraordinary was underway. Thousands -- perhaps tens of thousands -- of snowy owls were flooding south from Newfoundland to Minnesota. In some cases, birders found dozens -- even hundreds -- gathered in a single location.
Such invasions, known as irruptions, occur sporadically and unpredictably, and the irruption of 2013-14 is the biggest in the East in the last four or five decades.
The irruption appears to have been the result of a remarkably bountiful breeding season in northern Quebec, where the populations of lemmings and other rodents on which the owls feed were unusually high. All those lemmings translated into highly productive female owls, lots of eggs and many, many babies. Most of the irrupting snowies this winter are young owls. Conventional wisdom aside, most of them are plump and healthy, not driven south by starvation.
As the magnitude of the irruption became clear, a number of veteran owl researchers started mobilizing a response. Almost nothing is known about the ecology, behavior and life history of snowy owls in the south, and the irruption presents an incredible opportunity to learn more about this magnificent bird, including what threats it faces while it's down here with us.
Thus was born Project SNOWstorm (SNOW is the four-letter code that banders and birders use for SNowy OWl). It was the brainchild of David F. Brinker, a wildlife biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources; naturalist and author Scott Weidensaul, who directs the owl migration research program for the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Pennsylvania; Steve Huy, a bander and researcher from Maryland; and Norman Smith of Massachusetts Audubon, who has been studying snowy owls for more than 30 years at Boston's Logan Airport.
Dozens of collaborating scientists, wildlife health professionals, agencies and organizations throughout the Great Lakes and Northeast are volunteering their time and skills to study every facet of this phenomenon, most of them through Project Owlnet, a partnership of more than 120 independent owl migration research sites.
There's a lot more information about this project and our goals at projectsnowstorm.org.
What we don't have is funding. No one saw this irruption coming, and there's no time to pursue the slow, conventional means of funding scientific research, like foundation grants. That's where you can help.
We need transmittersThe most important tools at our disposal are new, cutting-edge GPS-GSM transmitters, which allow us to track the movements of these owls on an almost minute-to-minute basis, and in three dimensions (latitude, longitude and altitude). This allows us see where these owls are traveling, what habitats they're using, where they're hunting at night and what threats they may be facing.
The transmitters are solar-powered and last for years, and they weigh just 40 grams, only 1.5-3 percent of the owl's weight. They take regular location fixes using the GPS satellite system, accurate to a fraction of a meter, and once a day they basically phone home, dialing through the cell phone network to transmit their data.
Unfortunately, they're expensive. The manufacturer, Cellular Tracking Technologies, is one of our partners, and is giving us a big discount on the units, but with data charges it still costs about $3,000 per transmitter.
We secured emergency funding through a private foundation that allowed us to purchase a few transmitters in mid-December. These initial results give us an idea of the incredible information we can get from this new technology.
These are Assateague's movements Dec. 20-28, 2013, near Reed's Beach, New Jersey, which give a sense of the landscape-level movements of a snowy owl, including many nocturnal hunting flights offshore that have never been documented with telemetry before.
The first owl fitted with these new transmitters, nicknamed "Assateague," was tagged Dec. 17 on Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland. Since then, he has wandered more than 150 miles, up the Delmarva Peninsula, around Delaware Bay, across southern New Jersey and up the coast. At one point, he took in the nocturnal sights from the end of Atlantic City's famous Steel Pier; at other times he was hunting vast, empty salt marshes, or perching on isolated islands in the back bay wildernesses.
The second owl of Project SNOWstorm, nicknamed Buena Vista because it was tagged on Dec. 23 on the Buena Vista Grasslands in Portage County, Wisconsin, has taken a different approach to winter living. He has remained within a mile of where he was tagged, hunting the wind-swept marshes and snow-covered prairies that look a lot like his Arctic home.
These are Buena Vista's movements from Dec 23-28 '13. Data here are presented to better visualize daily movements. As you can see, his behavior is much different from Assateague in that he has stayed (and continues to do so through Jan 1, '14) in the same square mile area. Having seen him hunt successfully prior to tagging, we think he might have himself a nice productive population of voles and other critters in this area.
Thanks to early donors, we have half a dozen transmitters, which are already being deployed in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Wisconsin. The owls we're tracking are in habitats that include Atlantic coastal beaches, urban areas, farmland and prairie, and Great Lakes shoreline.
We're hoping that the Indiegogo community will help us purchase at least six more transmitters, for a total of $20,000. This will allow us to follow several owls in each region, giving us a much better idea of how wintering behavior varies among individuals and locales.
Your contribution will be fully tax-deductible through the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Pennsylvania, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is the institutional home for Project SNOWstorm.
What your contribution pays forEveryone involved with Project SNOWstorm is volunteering their time and expertise, so 100 percent of your tax-deductible contribution goes directly into the research. Every $3,000 we raise funds another transmitter and the associated data fees. Whether you give a little or a lot, you will be helping in a huge way.
Frequently Asked Questions, Answered!
Does this hurt the owls?
The last thing we want to do is put snowy owls at risk. The capture process is quick and harmless, and backpack harnesses and lightweight transmitters similar to what we're using have been shown to have no effect on either the survival rate or breeding success of these owls. (see reference 1)
A lot of people worry that snowy owls in these irruptions are forced down here by hunger, are must be slowly starving to death. So this must stress them, right? In fact, researchers have found that most of the irrupting snowy owls are healthy, with normal weight and fat reserves. If we catch an owl that's underweight or shows signs of illness, we obviously won't tag it.
Some of the thousands of snowy owls in this irruption will certainly perish, but most of those will succumb to vehicle collisions (including with planes, since many hang out at airports), rodenticide poisoning, electrocution on power lines and other unnatural hazards. In fact, our project will help us better understand what threatens snowy owls on the wintering grounds, because we're working with wildlife health specialists to test them for toxins, and to perform necropsies on those that are found dead.
1. Therrien, J-F., G. Gauthier and J. Bêty. 2012. Survival and reproduction of adult snowy owls tracked by satellite. Journal of Wildlife Management 76(8):1562-1567.
Since these are GPS-GSM transmitters, what happens when the bird is out of cellular coverage?
The transmitters use signals from the orbiting GPS satellite system to regularly collect precise information about the bird's location, at preset intervals around the clock, then transmits it once or twice a day via the cellular network. If the bird is outside cell range, the transmitters can store up to 100,000 locations - potentially years' worth, since we can reprogram the units remotely once the owls are ready to head back to the Arctic. They will continue to transmit as they head through southern Canada - and if they come anywhere within cell range in future winters, in places like Newfoundland, southern Labrador or the Canadian prairies, we'll get an enormous trove of data, collected via GPS during their time in the Arctic.
What does the “high resolution” data look like?
The degree of accuracy of this data is beyond anything available with older satellite transmitters. When the transmitter is triangulating its position from several GPS satellites, it can provide a location accurate to a fraction of a meter. Viewing the data through Google Earth, we've been able to tell (and confirm with ground observers) that an owl was perched on a particular piling in a dock, or the south side (rather than the north side) of the roof of a beachfront house.
How can this data tell us anything about foraging behavior?
As we test the capabilities of these transmitters, and especially the overnight life of the solar-charged battery, we're steadily reducing the interval at which we program the units to take GPS locations. This ever-finer-grained data is giving us our first look at the nocturnal life of snowy owls, especially where and when they're hunting. One of the surprises already has been how much time coastal birds spend hunting offshore, presumably preying on sleeping ducks. Similarly, we've been able to see how inland birds are using irrigation ditches, roadsides and other habitat for their hunting. Because these transmitters communicate by cell phone, we can reprogram them on the fly - literally - with instructions to increase or decrease the number of fixes we want them to take.
How will this translate into real conservation activities?
Up to now, no one has really known much at all about the winter behavior of snowy owls, especially after dark. Questions we hope to answer include where these irruptive birds are coming from; how far and how fast they move across the landscape during the winter; what kinds of habitats they're using, and how that differs from daytime to darkness; and what threats they face while here in the south, including what their fate may be following a big irruption. These transmitters provide the first look at the behavior of individual wintering snowy owls in a way that will shed light on many aspects of their ecology, which will ultimately better inform conservation efforts. And this tracking program is just part of a larger study to look at multiple aspects of their ecology and physiology.
How are these transmitters mounted to the birds, and would they impair their wing movements?
The transmitters are held in place with a kind of backpack harness, made of low-friction Teflon® tape, that is a design that's been used for decades on many birds of prey, including large owls. Similar harnesses have been used with satellite transmitters on snowy owls, with no effect on the owls' survival or breeding success. They certainly do not restrict their flight - the first owl we tagged flew nearly 200 miles in a couple of weeks.
Will you be banding any of the southern birds that have shown up in Florida, the Carolinas and Georgia?
The farthest-south snowies present a couple of issues. One is simply that these birds are enormous birding celebrities, attracting a tremendous amount of attention from the birding community, media and general public. But more significantly, there seems to be evidence that the snowies that move far, far out of range are also going to be the most physiologically stretched, and may be at greater risk from ailments like aspergillosis that are less of a hazard in more northerly climes, and in birds that haven't been pushed as far.
We are actually torn about what to do about these owls. There's the assumption that their survival rate isn't good, but then, that used to be the assumption about snowies in places like the Northeast, where (thanks to banding and telemetry by Norman Smith and Tom McDonald) we now know they have a very high survival and return rate. Tagging one of the southern birds might help answer that question. But if we tagged one of those birds and something happened to it - even if it wasn't associated with the tagging - it's likely there would be a lot of recrimination and anger from people who would reflexively blame the research. At the moment the point is moot, because we don't have any collaborating researchers or agencies in those southern locations interested in tagging snowies.
Who are we?
- Project Owlnet
- Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art
- Cellular Tracking Technologies
- Pennsylvania Game Commission
- Maryland Department of Natural Resources
- Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
- Massachusetts Audubon
- The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore
- RJM Foundation
- Delmarva Ornithological Society
- Wisconsin Society for Ornithology
- Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology
- American Birding Association
- Bird Watcher’s Digest
- Hummer/Bird Study Group
- Paul Riss, PRBY Apparel, Ontario, Canada
- Jen Brumfield, Cleveland Metro Parks, OH
- Tom Johnson, Hummelstown, PA
Team members include:
- David F. Brinker, Maryland Department of Natural Resources
- Scott Weidensaul, Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, Millersburg, PA
- Michael Lanzone and Andrew McGann, Cellular Tracking Technologies, Somerset, PA
- Norman Smith, Massachusetts Audubon
- Jean-François Therrien, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Kempton, PA
- Drew Weber, Nemesis Bird, Liverpool, NY
- Steve Huy, Project Owlnet, Frederick, MD
- Dan Brauning and Doug Gross, Pennsylvania Game Commission
- Cindy Driscoll, DVM, Fish and Wildlife Health Program, MD DNR
- Glenn Proudfoot, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY
- Gene Jacobs, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
- David LaPuma, Leica Sport Optics, WI
- Tom McDonald, Rochester, NY
- Frank Nicoletti, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Duluth, MN
- Tom Johnson, Hummelstown, PA
- Alexis Dow Campbell, Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art