Snowy Owls are Arctic breeders that can be seen in Maine during the winter. With an almost five-foot wingspan, they are one of North America’s largest owls. Snowy Owls are a highly nomadic species with a northern circumpolar distribution. On breeding grounds their diet is closely tied to small mammals such as lemmings, though they are agile hunters capable of taking a variety of prey. Their winter diet is diverse—they will consume seabirds, mammals, ducks, carrion, and crustaceans. Snowy Owls prefer open habitats and in Maine are most likely to be observed on the ground near the coast, tidal marshes, grasslands, or open fields.
In 2013-14, large numbers of Snowy Owls moved south in what is known as an irruption. This historic event inspired the development of Project SNOWstorm, which sees scientists, bird banders, wildlife veterinarians, and pathologists collaborating to study the raptors' winter ecology and movements. In support of Project SNOWstorm, BRI is analyzing mercury levels in Snowy Owl feathers collected from breeding and wintering grounds.
Since Project SNOWstorm began, researchers have affixed GPS-GSM transmitters to 38 Snowy Owls, following individual birds in three-dimensional detail. With the support of crowd-funding and donations from ornithological groups, the project continues to track Snowy Owls, relying on an expanding network of partners and collaborators, including BRI. Other project components include analysis of blood and tissue samples, as well as necropsies on dead Snowy Owls, to learn more about the birds' exposure to toxins and other threats.
In early January, renowned author Scott Weisendaul of Project SNOWstorm arrived at BRI to take part in this year’s Snowy Owl capture efforts. We again teamed with USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services to target owls that need to be relocated away from airfields to protect human (and owl) safety. Our mission was to deploy the project’s first CTT transmitter in Maine. After unsuccessful efforts in 2015, we were ready to change our luck in 2016.
Within an hour of setting up at the Brunswick Executive Airport we had a beautiful adult female Snowy Owl in hand. She was a healthy candidate for a transmitter and our team was ecstatic to finally put Maine on the Project SNOWstorm map. “Brunswick” the owl was the 37th bird in the 10th state for the project. After being banded, measured, weighed, she was carefully fitted with a custom backpack harness made of Teflon ribbon. She was later released at Rachel Carson National Refuge in Wells. She appears to be staying in the general area of the refuge and has even roosted on a few rooftops.
Our success was well-earned through a great collaborative partnership of various scientific entities. We are thankful to work with such talented people and look forward to tracking Brunswick’s movements.
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