Are you curious about the snowy owls visiting us this winter? Would you like to know who the owls are and where they’re going? So would a team of scientists. They’re going to find out and you can help.
This winter’s snowy owl irruption is so huge that by December ornithologists and wildlife managers realized they had a golden opportunity to find the answers to many questions: How old are the owls? What sex are they? Have they been exposed to toxins? Where are they going?
So far Project SNOWstorm has tagged two owls, one at Buena Vista, Wisconsin, the other at Assateague, Maryland. As soon as each owl was released his tag began transmitting at regular intervals. Their location data is continuously collected, then mapped to make a picture of the owls’ movements.
With only two tagged owls we can already see two different approaches. “Buena Vista” never moves far from his favorite winter territory (click here for his late December map). “Assateague,” on the other hand, loves to wander and has visited three states in only two weeks! (Click here for Assateague’s map).
You can help Project SNOWstorm in two ways. If you take pictures of snowy owls this winter, you can submit them to the project to add to their database.
Yesterday, while the Christmas Bird Counters were absent from Duck Hollow, Michelle Kienholz stopped by to take a run on the Duck Hollow Trail. Surprise! From the parking lot she saw a peregrine falcon taking a bath in the Monongahela River. Very cool!
A long time passed — at least 10 minutes — and the peregrine continued to stand in the water. Michelle noticed a fisherman in waders standing further out than the peregrine but the falcon didn’t leave. Why was it staying there so long? Was something wrong? She emailed me with a snapshot.
I was at home logging the 6,000 crows I counted over my house at dawn when I received her message so I drove down to Duck Hollow to take a look. No peregrine in sight but there was a merlin in the river near the fisherman!
The fisherman left the water, the merlin flew to a dead snag overlooking the river, and my phone beeped with another message from Michelle saying the peregrine had flown upriver after 20 minutes in the water.
I looked at the snag again. The merlin was gone, a kestrel was standing in its place, and the merlin was in the river taking a bath. Michelle came back from the trail and I showed her the other two birds.
Here’s the merlin bathing. Quite a different bird!
And then the merlin left…
I wish I’d been there earlier. In Pittsburgh there are only three possible falcons — American kestrel, merlin and peregrine falcon — and Michelle saw all three within half an hour. A Falcon Sweep! Her sightings were added to the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count.
p.s. One of Michelle’s photos showed the peregrines’ bands. The USFW band is pinkish and shows ’160′ or ’760′ (right leg, left side of photo). The color band (left leg, right side of photo) is black/green and the black seems to end in ’5′. Who might this be?
Dorothy, the matriarch at the University of Pittsburgh nest, has a pinkish USFW band with the number 1807-77607. Her black/green band is 5/*A. Hmmmmm!
Installed one week ago, it’s already capturing the activities of the Hays bald eagle pair at their nest above the Monongahela River.
As you can see, installing the camera involved some scary tree climbing by Derek Spitler of the PA Game Commission. (The nest is in the center of the photo.) Click on the TribLive screenshot below to read Mary Ann Thomas’ report and see close-ups and video of the installation.
Though the site is within the city limits it is quite remote. There is no electricity and no Internet connection so the camera must run on solar power and transmit using the cell network. Right now Bill Powers is working out the kinks — too little battery power to run all night and thin data bandwidth from Sprint — but he has to fix all of it within the next two weeks before his access to the site is cut off.
Bald eagles abandon nest sites with too much human disturbance so the PA Game Commission has allowed PixController to visit the camera only until January 15. All other access is off limits. Don’t even dream of going there yourself! The area is posted and you’ll be fined $1,000 to $10,000.
Trib Total Media will stream the live feed on its website beginning in February. Meanwhile you can see new video clips and watch the eagles online at PixController’s eaglecam site. If the camera is not streaming, rest assured that Bill is working on it.
p.s. While you wait for activity in Pittsburgh, watch eagle chicks on camera in Ft. Myers, Florida! The first eaglet hatched on Christmas Eve, the second on Christmas Day. Watch them on the Southwest Florida Eaglecam.
Joe Monahan of Boone County, Iowa generated a heated discussion on PABIRDS last week when he urged folks to save snowy owls by feeding them store-bought mice. According to Joe the owls are starving: “The dead owls found here that were necropsied were found to be emaciated. Which is why I decided to start feeding the one remaining in our area.”
His idea raised ethical issues but Joe’s argument was that, based on those found dead, snowy owls are starving and ought to be fed. The core of the discussion came down to: Were the dead owls evidence of a starving population? Will feeding help or hurt?
Deciding the leading cause of death of a population — and what to do to help that population — based on those “found dead” is quite misleading. If you visited Moore, Oklahoma on May 11 the majority of people found dead were killed by a tornado. If we acted on that very real but skewed statistic we would move people out of Oklahoma because it’s a state known to have many tornadoes. However, the real leading causes of death in Oklahoma are heart disease and cancer, as elsewhere in the US. Moving people away from Tornado Alley would not help and could hurt — upsetting some so much that they’d die prematurely (the autopsy would say it was heart disease).
Snowy owl studies by Paul Kerlinger, Norman Smith and colleagues show that as a population, wintering snowies are not starving at all. Kerlinger’s study says: “Trauma-induced mortality was the cause of death in 64% of all cases, and starvation was implicated in just 14%, a figure the authors felt was likely inflated by several factors. Almost half of all snowy owls examined had moderate to heavy fat, and many of those lacking fat had suffered massive injuries.” (Note that a bird that’s suffered massive injury starves because it cannot hunt.) And, “of the 20 snowy owls Norman Smith satellite-tagged at Logan Airport, only four died – one from a plane strike and three from gunshot wounds.” (People do hunt snowies up north.)
Will feeding help or hurt the birds? Joe described his feeding method: Holding a live mouse by the tail he would wait for the owl to fly toward him, then he toss the mouse when the owl was within 100 yards. Or he tossed a live mouse on a gravel road for the owl to retrieve.
Since the real leading cause of death in snowy owls is trauma, Joe’s well intentioned effort will probably backfire. The owls will learn to trust humans and roads and may die prematurely, hit by a car or a bullet.
For everyone’s well being, learn more before you act.
During the snowy owl invasion two years ago, Rick Remington captured close-ups of a resident peregrine falcon strafing a snowy at Chicago’s Montrose Harbor in late January 2012. The snowy defended itself by doing somersaults to present its talons to the peregrine!
Speaking of talons, take a peek at this photo by John Mattera of a peregrine and snowy at Jones Beach, Long Island during a fight in December 2009. Click here for the story and photos from New York DEC’s newsletter.
If you read PABIRDS you’ve seen this discussion and perhaps the video, but it’s well worth passing along.
This winter has quickly shaped up to be an “invasion” year for snowy owls. These big, beautiful birds are popping up in open spaces, on buildings and at shorelines across the northern United States. On the PABIRDS listserv alone, at least 33 snowies have been reported in Pennsylvania since December 1 — about half of them at Presque Isle State Park.
Snowy owls “invade” in the winter when they’ve had a hugely successful breeding season up north because of super-abundant lemmings last summer. Most of the visiting birds are young owls on their first trip away from home. They’ve come south to eat our abundant food and rest between meals. Studies have shown this is a good move on their part. Scott Wiedensaul points out that the vast majority eat well and return to the Arctic in spring. Of those that die, the leading cause of death is trauma, not starvation.
But they shouldn’t be harassed. Last Saturday there were seven snowy owls at Presque Isle as well as birders, photographers and owl enthusiasts. Most people kept a respectful distance but two photographers approached the owls and flushed them repeatedly even though observers warned them not to. This prompted Jerry McWilliams to write:
“Just a reminder to birders and photographers who are interested in observing or photographing the Snowy Owls. You should resist the urge, as we have all experienced, to try and approach too closely. The owl that visited my waterbird count this morning was very alert and did not remain in one spot for long. Between the Coyotes and enthusiastic humans, it is a challenge for these northern invaders to have a chance to rest and find a meal. Please come and enjoy them, but keep your distance and respect their needs.”
The disrespect is not limited to Pennsylvania. A similar discussion occurred on NJBIRDS about incidents in New Jersey.
Presque Isle Audubon and the state park are doing something about it. Presque Isle Audubon is organizing volunteers to alert visiting photographers and birders about owl etiquette as they enter the Gull Point Trail. State Park rangers (DCNR) will also be monitoring the situation.
If you see people harassing wildlife, speak up or report them to park rangers. If you would like to volunteer at the Gull Point Trail, click here for Presque Isle Audubon contact information.
A gentle reminder to respect the owls will go a long way.
(video by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, first published in 2010)
p.s. Click here to read an excellent explanation of wild bird reactions to humans — with a special emphasis on raptors and owls — by Julia Ecklar of the National Aviary.
Ever since the first snowy owl showed up at Presque Isle State Park on November 23 Erie’s resident pair of peregrine falcons has been on the warpath. Peregrines hate owls and snowies are no exception. How dare an owl invade their territory!
On November 26 a second snowy arrived and perched near the first at Gull Point. On November 30, a third and darker owl came to Beach 6. The snowies like the banquet at the lake. They’re eating visiting waterfowl.
Their arrival has kept the peregrines quite busy. Many observers have seen the peregrines attacking the owls.
One owl is annoying, two are worth shouting about. On Friday while Shawn Collins was on his way to Gull Point he heard a peregrine whining and warning at Beach 10. The peregrine was so upset and distracted that it remained perched and whining on a telephone pole while Shawn snapped several pictures.
Angry and swift, the peregrines teamed up to convince the owls to leave. Would it work?
The owls are bigger and know about large, powerful falcons. They come from the land of the gyrfalcon.
Snakes seem to be a subtext on my blog lately. Snakes caused the extirpation of the Guam rail, they’re one of many foods eaten by secretary birds, and now I’ve learned there’s a falcon in Central and South America that eats poisonous snakes and laughs.
The laughing falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans) is named for his two most obvious traits. Herpetotheres roughly means to “mow down snakes,” cachinnans means to “laugh immoderately.”
He captures snakes by watching from a perch, then pouncing to break their necks or behead them. And he really does laugh. Listen to this recording of a pair “singing” a duet.
Laughing falcons are about the size of peregrines and are often pictured with their head feathers raised, a pose that makes them resemble ospreys not falcons. When they lower their head feathers, as in this photo on Wikimedia Commons, you can see their falcon family resemblance.
I first heard of this species when Charlie Hickey posted photos from his trip this month to Puntarenas, Costa Rica. (Click here for Charlie’s photos.) I wonder if it was hard to find this bird in Costa Rica. According to BirdLife International the laughing falcon has declined drastically in some locations but has such a wide range that it has not yet been listed as “vulnerable.”