No GPS-tracked Snowy Owl to fly over Acadia this season

Despite multiple attempts and close calls since February, Maine wildlife researchers have been unable to capture and outfit a Snowy Owl with a GPS transmitter. The possibility of tracking one of these majestic raptors of the Arctic flying over Acadia National Park will have to wait.

snowy owl on cadillac mountain

Flight of the Snowy Owl over Cadillac Mountain, no GPS transmitter tracking available. (Photo courtesy of Michael Good and Down East Nature Tours)

“No, we did not have any luck before the winter window ‘closed’ on 3/15,” said Lauren Gilpatrick, permit and band manager for the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) in Portland, in an e-mail. “We are waiting until next winter to try again.”

Gilpatrick, along with BRI colleague Chris Desorbo and USDA Wildlife Services’ John Wood, have been stalking airports in Portland and Brunswick, hoping to relocate a Snowy Owl out of harm’s way, while also outfitting it with a GPS transmitter as part of Project SNOWstorm, a national volunteer research effort to better understand these mysterious denizens normally of the Arctic tundra. Their efforts are detailed in Project SNOWstorm’s blog.

“These owls are very intelligent, powerful, and absolutely gorgeous. It has been an honor to spend so much time watching them,” Gilpatrick said in an e-mail. Younger owls may linger into May in Maine, but the adult owls tend to head north by early March, and would have provided the most valuable data for better understanding their wintering habits, Gilpatrick said.

snowy owls in acadia national park

Snowy Owl spotted on Sargent Mountain, no GPS transmitter tracking available. (Photo courtesy of Rich MacDonald and The Natural History Center)

Beginning with the 2013-2014 winter, Snowies have migrated into the United States in such record numbers – a result of a population explosion up north with plentiful lemmings, a favorite food – it prompted the founding of Project SNOWstorm. Nationwide, more than 30 owls have been outfitted with transmitters since then, providing insights into the bird’s winter ecology, according to the project’s Web site.

March 27 was the last day to donate to Project SNOWstorm’s Indiegogo campaign, to fund more GPS/GSM transmitters and other aspects of the research.

Although there are no plans to capture and tag a Snowy Owl in Acadia National Park, according to researchers, it’s possible that any owl that may be captured next winter at Portland, Brunswick or any other Maine airport, outfitted with a GPS transmitter and relocated, could very well fly over the park.

But even without GPS data for a Snowy Owl in Maine yet, it’s evident that Acadia National Park is a hospitable environment for the birds. A record number of Snowy Owl sightings, 17, have been reported so far this season to the online eBird database this winter, with Sargent and Cadillac among the hot spots.

What name will the first Snowy Owl to be GPS-tracked in Maine have?

Initially, the Maine researchers planned on giving the name of Orion to the first Snowy Owl to be outfitted with a transmitter in the Pine Tree State, in a nod to Orion the Hunter constellation and the P-3 Orion planes that used to fly out of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.

snowy owls in acadia national park

Could there ever be a GPS-tracked Snowy Owl named Acadia? Might this Snowy flying over Sargent be a candidate? (Photo courtesy Michael J. Good and Down East Nature Tours)

But Project SNOWstorm protocols call for using a name based on the location of capture or release, such as Sandy Neck for an immature female Snowy that had been captured at Logan Airport and released on Sandy Neck Beach on Cape Cod (which unfortunately drowned after apparently being swamped by high winds and waves in the wake of a nor’easter, while crossing open waters off Martha’s Vineyard).

“We gave the question of owl names a lot of thought at the beginning of the project. We wanted to avoid human or pet-like names, to minimize anthropomorphism, but using transmitter or band numbers makes it hard for the public (and, frankly, for us) to keep all the birds straight,” said Scott Weidensaul of the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Pennsylvania, one of the founders of Project SNOWstorm, in a response to our initial blog about tagging a Snowy Owl in Maine.

“Picking locale names like Plum (Plum Island, MA), or Chippewa (Chippewa Co., MI) seemed like a good compromise.”

That’s when we suggested in a blog comment to Weidensaul the name Acadia, if by chance researchers find it makes sense to relocate an owl there.

snowy owls in acadia national park

Could peek-a-boo Snowy on top of Sargent be a candidate for the name Acadia? (Photo courtesy of Michael J. Good and Down East Nature Tours, as shared on eBird.org)

The national park is favorable territory, judging by the record Snowy Owl sightings reported to eBird,org, and far from busy airports that could pose a danger. The broad open summits of Sargent and Cadillac certainly can be reminiscent of the Arctic tundra that Snowy Owls like so much, especially during a winter in Acadia like this past one.

And imagine all the fans of Acadia National Park – about 2.5 million people visit each year – who might become fans of Acadia the Snowy Owl.

We won’t know the name of the first GPS-tracked Snowy Owl in Maine until it’s tagged, hopefully next winter.

What moniker do you think it should have, and why? Let us know in a comment below, and we’ll share the results with researchers.

5 thoughts on “No GPS-tracked Snowy Owl to fly over Acadia this season

  1. Pingback: Fall a season of comings and goings for wildlife in Acadia

  2. Michael J. Good, MS

    There is sometimes a price to pay when a bird like this is captured, as the stress and rigors of the banding /telemetry process could use up energy reserves needed for these majestic birds to make their trips north. I would ask that everyone involved put the birds physiological well being as first priority and data gathering take a secondary mandate. It seems to me that a stressed unhealthy bird will yield no data if it dies. Birds captured early in the season are most likely healthier and more likely to yield important information. My years of work on MDI reveal the mountaintops of Acadia to be vitally important for these birds that migrate here.

    “Snowy owls nest all across the Arctic tundra of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, and Russia. One careful estimate put their total world population at about 300,000. However, their numbers undoubtedly vary from year to year, rising and falling with changes in food supply and other factors, and they probably have declined overall in the last century.” Kenn Kaufman

    Reply
    1. Acadia on my mind Post author

      Thanks for the insight, Michael! That might be contributing to why the researchers don’t want to go late in the season. Project SNOWstorm lists as the first frequently asked question on its Web site the following:

      “Does this hurt the owls?”

      And the answer:

      “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, and 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 owls that come south each winter 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.”

      http://www.projectsnowstorm.org/frequently-asked-questions-answered/

      Reply
    1. Acadia on my mind Post author

      Hi Sue, good question. Interesting that the Bangor Daily News article didn’t mention that researchers had been attempting to tag captured Snowy Owls earlier in the winter as part of Project SNOWstorm.

      According to the researchers, they felt it would have been too late in the season for them to have gotten much data, before the Snowy Owls moved back north out of cellular range. That was why they had established a March 15 cut-off, and had let another Snowy that had been banded but not GPS tagged go, even though it was only 2 days after the cut-off. They figured it would be more beneficial from a scientific standpoint to wait until next winter.

      There’s a link to the Project SNOWstorm post describing that decision, in the third paragraph of our blog post.

      Thanks again for the question!

      Reply

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