UPDATE 3/11/15: Added below are details of new Snowy Owl children’s book as perk in Project SNOWstorm fundraiser, and of Orion the Hunter constellation that Orion the Snowy Owl is named for.
In this banner year of Snowy Owls, Maine wildlife researchers are stalking Portland and Brunswick airports, trying to capture and tag with a GPS transmitter one of these mysterious raptors, which seem as at home on the Arctic tundra, as on airport runways or the open summits of Acadia National Park.
This Snowy – to be the first in Maine to get a transmitter through Project SNOWstorm, a nationwide scientific effort – will be named Orion, in honor of the P-3 Orion planes that used to fly out of the former Naval Air Station in Brunswick, and the constellation Orion the Hunter, said Lauren Gilpatrick, permit and band manager for the Biodiversity Research Institute in Portland.
“It’s quite possible,” said Gilpatrick in an e-mail, that this Snowy “could make its way to Acadia. Some birds appear to prefer coastal habitats during the winter.”
Satellite tracking of these enigmatic raptors to better understand them began with the tagging of 22 birds from Massachusetts to Minnesota last winter, after an explosion of Snowy Owls – known as an irruption – brought thousands of them south, the most in nearly a century.
This winter, in a surprise to researchers, has turned out to be nearly as active with Snowies. To take advantage of this extra opportunity, Project SNOWstorm, a nonprofit volunteer collaboration formed just last year, is trying to raise $15,000 by March 27 through an Indiegogo campaign, to help cover 15 to 20 more solar-powered GPS transmitters, including the one to track Orion in Maine.
With about 3 weeks to go in the 2-month fundraiser as of the writing of this post, the campaign is about $2,000 short of its target. The Indiegogo campaign video, below, features amazing footage of Snowy Owls, and explains the need for more research.
Record Snowy Owl sightings reported in Acadia National Park
In Acadia National Park, a record-breaking 17 separate Snowy Owl sightings have been reported so far this season to eBird.org, at such hot spots as Sargent, Cadillac and Penobscot mountains. Numerous Snowy sightings at Bangor and Bar Harbor airports have also been added to eBird.org, a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.
In fact, said Gilpatrick of the Biodiversity Research Institute, a nonprofit that studies emerging threats to wildlife and ecosystems, researchers would be willing to capture and tag Snowies that may pose a danger to themselves and others at the Bangor or Bar Harbor airport, if they get reports of such concerns.
So far, the Snowy Owls at Portland and Brunswick airports have been playing hard to get. “These particular birds are proving to be difficult to catch and capture efforts are ongoing. We are hopeful that we will be able to deploy a transmitter soon!” said Gilpatrick on Friday.
There are no plans at the moment to capture and tag the majestic birds in Acadia National Park, said Scott Weidensaul of the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Pennsylvania, one of the founders of Project SNOWstorm, along with David Brinker of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Norman Smith of Mass Audubon.
“Conducting research in national parks is complex, beyond the usual state and federal permits required to trap and tag wild birds,” Weidensaul replied to our inquiry, in a comment on our earlier Snowy Owl blog post. “And at the moment we lack partners at Acadia NP with the necessary experience and permits for trapping and tagging large raptors.”
But any Snowy Owls that Project SNOWstorm’s partners in Maine may tag and relocate from airports “may be moved east along the coast toward the park,” Weidensaul said.
Snowy Owl sightings in Acadia National Park hard to forget
Even before the 2013-2014 irruption and record-setting winter for Snowies in Acadia this year, area residents and visitors to the park have been mesmerized by these denizens normally of the Arctic. Some officially report their sightings on eBird.org, while others share sightings on Facebook or elsewhere on the Internet.
One visitor to the park, Jan Hanraets, an internationally established landscape architect who’s contributed to Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation reports about Acadia, had such a memorable encounter with a Snowy Owl on Sargent Mountain in February 2007, he described it this month, eight years later, as if it happened only yesterday, in a post at his blog, www.explearth.org:
“I crack through some ice as I walk. A large Snowy Owl – some ten meters away – flies upwards stirred by the noise. Am I more surprised or the owl? The owl lands some 30 meters away on a rock.
“We stare at each other. Snowscape. Beauty. Big white bird, white faced, pleased to meet you. Please allow me to introduce myself. What’s puzzling you? Have a nice day.”
Hanraets told us he hadn’t reported the sighting to eBird.org, but was glad to share his experience through his blog, and now ours.
Anyone who’s ever encountered a Snowy, or just seen photos or videos, can imagine getting into a conversation with these regal birds, each one seems so distinct and striking.
In photos taken in Acadia this season by Michael J. Good, Registered Maine Guide and owner of Down East Nature Tours, and Rich MacDonald, naturalist, field biologist and Registered Maine Guide, and co-owner of The Natural History Center with his wife Natalie, Snowies certainly seem to exhibit unique personalities, as they appear to mug for the camera.
Even the wildlife professionals volunteering through Project SNOWstorm appear to anthropomorphize the raptors, giving each bird they tag such names as Alma, Baltimore, Buckeye and, hopefully soon, Orion.
In fact, Project SNOWstorm scientists are learning how different each bird is from all the satellite data coming in, and sharing that knowledge on individual interactive maps and profiles.
For example, some Snowies are home bodies, like Buena Vista, a young male banded in Wisconsin, rarely moving beyond a mile from where researchers tag them. Others range hundreds of miles in a few weeks, like Assateague, an immature male banded in December 2013 on Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, the first to be tracked by Project SNOWstorm.
Donate and get bumper sticker, book or photo of adopted Snowy Owl
The Indiegogo campaign will allow for the purchase of more solar-powered GPS/GSM transmitters, which cost $3,000 each even after a discount from manufacturer Cellular Tracking Technologies, the most expensive element of the research effort.
Different levels of tax-deductible donations offer different benefits. For example:
- At the $25 “Bucket of Lemmings” level, named after Snowies’ favorite food, which has been so plentiful it’s led to a population explosion in the Arctic and the recent irruption, you get a Project SNOWstorm bumper sticker.
- At the $50 level, you get an autographed copy of “A Snowy Owl Story,” a children’s book based on a true story, by Melissa Kim, illustrated by Jada Fitch, and published by Islandport Press in cooperation with Maine Audubon. (NOTE: See sidebar about Amazon.com links on this site.)
- At the $500 “Feathered Facts” level, you get an autographed first-edition copy of Weidensaul’s forthcoming book, “Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean,” along with other perks. Aside from being one of the founders of Project SNOWstorm, Weidensaul is a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2000 book, “Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds.” (NOTE: See sidebar about Amazon.com links on this site)
- At the $3,000 “A Happy Hedwig” level, named after Harry Potter’s pet owl, you’re basically adopting a Snowy Owl and will get a photograph of your owl being outfitted with a transmitter, a Snowy Owl print from famed artist and field guide author David Allen Sibley, and other perks. (NOTE: See sidebar about Amazon.com links on this site)
Aside from donating to the Indiegogo campaign, the public can help the scientific effort by uploading photos of Snowy Owls, especially any with spread wings and tails to better distinguish age and gender, or reporting any injured or dead birds to the appropriate authorities, say researchers. And if people see a bird with a uniquely numbered band on its leg, even if it’s hidden by heavy feathers, they’re encouraged to report that to Project SNOWstorm as well, whether posting on its Facebook page or commenting on its blog.
In the stars for Orion the Snowy Owl to appear over Acadia?
Once that first Snowy is tagged in Maine, hopefully any day now, it would only be fitting for Orion to make its way to Acadia National Park.
Although Orion the Hunter is “out” during the day in the summer and not visible over Acadia then, it is easily spotted in winter and early spring night skies, says Fiana Shapiro, who was one of the guides to the stars atop Cadillac during last year’s Acadia Night Sky Festival. Fiana is now an environmental educator at Sandia Mountain Natural History Center in New Mexico, which is also dark sky country.
May the stars be aligned for Orion the Snowy Owl to appear in Acadia’s skies this winter and spring, as the constellation Orion the Hunter does.