Project SNOWstorm 2.0

We are harnessing technology to study snowy owls, to better understand this majestic Arctic raptor.
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Alexis Campbell
Environment
Millersburg, Pennsylvania
United States
6 Team Members

What is Project SNOWstorm

Created in the winter of 2013-14 to study the largest invasion of snowy owls in the East in nearly a century, Project SNOWstorm is a unique collaboration of more than 40 scientists, bird-banders and wildlife health professionals, all working as volunteers. This winter, with a second major irruption taking shape (especially in the Midwest), our team is expanding its research into this beautiful and mysterious raptor, using state-of-the-art telemetry, banding, DNA and isotope analysis, toxicology screening and more -- all funded by the public.

There's a lot more about this project and its goals at projectsnowstorm.org.

What We Do, and How You Can Help

Last winter, the Indiegogo community gave us the opportunity to launch SNOWstorm in record time -- and with breathtaking results. We tagged 22 snowy owls, from Minnesota to Massachusetts, using GPS/GSM transmitters. Through interactive, near-real-time maps, donors were able to track the wanderings of these birds along with us, in unprecedented, 3D detail -- as they hunted sea ducks at night over the open Atlantic Ocean, or traveled far out into the frozen expanses of the Great Lakes.

In spring, the tagged owls moved back to the Arctic -- and some of them are now returning south, downloading a treasure-trove of stored data detailing their travels through the remote Canadian North.

Because irruptions are usually sporadic, we expected a quite winter this year. Instead, thousands of snowy owls have again invaded the Great Lakes, northern prairies and Northeast -- and we need your help to continue this ground-breaking study. We hope to tag an additional 15-20 snowy owls this winter, and expand the other research we've begun.


What Your Contribution Does

Every penny of your contribution goes straight into the research -- no one associated with SNOWstorm is taking any kind of stipend or salary.

The transmitters are the most expensive element. Even with an extremely generous discount from the manufacturer, Cellular Tracking Technologies, they still cost $3,000 each. But unlike satellite transmitters, which rack up thousands of dollars annually in additional satellite fees, these transmitters work through the cell phone network for basically nothing. And being solar-powered, they last for years.

We must also pay for lab work and testing fees. We're exploring the genetics of snowy owls by examining their DNA, and analyzing the stable chemical isotopes in their feathers, blood and tissues, which tell us about their place of origin and diet over time.

Our team of wildlife pathologists and veterinarians conduct necropsies on owls that are killed in accidents or found dead, and while they're donating their time, there are also lab costs for toxicology, parasitology and histology tests. Your donation helps cover all of this.

What Do You Get for Helping

Besides knowing you're participating directly in ground-breaking research, we have some cool perks, from bumper stickers, to original photographs, to signed copies of a new (not-yet-released!) book on owls.

And if you can't contribute directly, we'd still love to have your support and enthusiasm. Tell your friends about Project SNOWstorm, and use the Indiegogo share tools to help spread to word.


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, our research has 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.

Read more about the transmitters we are using.


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 owls in Florida, the Carolinas and Georgia (if they show up that far south)?

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?

Partners

Major donors

  • RJM Foundation
  • Wendy McLean
  • Kathy Lambrow, Michael Reilly
  • Several anonymous donors

Sponsors

Team members include:

  • David F. Brinker, Maryland Department of Natural Resources
  • Scott Weidensaul, Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, Millersburg, PA
  • Steve Huy, Project Owlnet, Frederick, MD
  • Michael Lanzone and Andrew McGann, Cellular Tracking Technologies, Somerset, PA
  • Don Crockett, Great Blue Media Works, New Britain, CT
  • Trish Miller, West Virginia University
  • Norman Smith, Massachusetts Audubon
  • Jean-François Therrien, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Kempton, PA
  • Drew Weber, BirdsEye Project and Nemesis Bird, Syracuse, NY
  • Dan Brauning and Doug Gross, Pennsylvania Game Commission
  • Cindy Driscoll, DVM, Fish and Wildlife Health Program, MD DNR
  • Erica Miller, DVM, Tri-State Bird Rescue, Wilmington, DE
  • Sherrill Davison, University of Pennsylvania New Bolton Center, Kennett Square, PA
  • Glenn Proudfoot, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY
  • Gene Jacobs, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
  • David LaPuma, NJ Audubon and Cape May Bird Observatory, WI
  • Tom McDonald, Rochester, NY
  • Frank Nicoletti, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Duluth, MN
  • Eugene Potapov, Bryn Aythn College, PA
  • Mark Shieldcastle, Black Swamp Bird Observatory, Oak Harbor, OH
  • Nova McKentley and Chris Neri, Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, MI
  • Brian Washburn, USDA APHIS, Sandusky, OH
  • Allen Chartier, Inkster, MI
  • Tom Johnson, Hummelstown, PA
  • Alexis Dow Campbell, Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art

Looking for more?

There's a lot more information about snowy owls, this irruption and what we're doing through Project SNOWstorm at www.projectsnowstorm.org.
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Original campaign was 117% funded on March 27, 2015
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