News & Features

Snowy Owls Could Stage Minor Incursion This Winter

Womelsdorf, a Snowy Owl captured and marked in Pennsylvania, by Project SNOWstorm

We may never see a Snowy Owl “storm” of migration like the incursion we enjoyed in the winter of 2013 – 14, but it does look like a few Snowies will visit us this winter. Already, there have been Snowy Owls reported across the Canadian prairies, the Great Lakes region, New England, and New York.  A very few have been found in Pennsylvania including at Presque Isle State Park in Erie County, Lancaster County, York County, and Lycoming County.  Others may be on the way or not yet reported.

Pennsylvania is deeply involved with Snowy Owls. Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, Millersburg, is home of the Snowy Owl project called “Project SNOWstorm.”  One of the key members of Project SNOWstorm, the American research group, is Jean-François (J.F.) Therrien, senior research biologist at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. J. F.  and colleagues at Laval University I Quebec have been studying Snowy Owls and other raptors in northern Canada for several years.   In this last breeding season, he worked with Laval University colleagues on Bylot Island in Nunavut.  Research is conducted by this team on Gyrfalcons, Peregrine Falcons, Rough-legged Hawks as well as Snowy Owls.

Snowy Owl chicks in eastern Canada by Pierre-Yves L. Herault, Project SNOWstorm

Snowy Owl chicks in eastern Canada by Pierre-Yves L. Herault, Project SNOWstorm

Of course, another Pennsylvanian, Scott Weidensaul, is a key member of the project and author of the recently published “Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  For more information about the Snowy Owl research, we recommend checking out the Project SNOWstorm website and J. F. Therrien’s blog about the Bylot Island research: http://www.projectsnowstorm.org/   The Pennsylvania Game Commission is proud to be a part of this research group and recommends your participation in Snowy Owl research and conservation.  Many Pennsylvanians already are on the team!

Philly, an owl that was unfortunately attracted to dangerous airport, by Project SNOWstorm

Philly, an owl that was unfortunately attracted to dangerous airport, by Project SNOWstorm

There is increased concern for Snowy Owls from the result of research projects. This and other arctic raptors greatly depend on lemming populations that fluctuate greatly from year to year.  It has been found that the meta-populations of Snowy Owls move from one region to another, abandoning one nesting ground and establishing another many miles away where prey populations are adequate for supporting reproduction.  Research is concentrated on a few key sites to keep an eye on the entire population of these very mobile predators.  It is very challenging to conduct research or population estimates on a boreal landscape with difficult transportation issues.

A few of the Project SNOWstorm collaborators – from left, Cindy Driscoll, Dave Brinker, Drew Weber, Scott Weidensaul, Doug Gross, Tom McDonald, Mike Lanzone, Trish Miller, Rowan Huy (with Eugene Potapov’s Snowy Owl book), Eugene Potapov, Steve Huy, Jean-François (J.F.) Therrien and Andrew McGann (©Scott Weidensaul)

A few of the Project SNOWstorm collaborators – from left, Cindy Driscoll, Dave Brinker, Drew Weber, Scott Weidensaul, Doug Gross, Tom McDonald, Mike Lanzone, Trish Miller, Rowan Huy (with Eugene Potapov’s Snowy Owl book), Eugene Potapov, Steve Huy, Jean-François (J.F.) Therrien and Andrew McGann (©Scott Weidensaul)

The 2013 nesting season was truly epic in scope, the highest numbers ever recorded in more than 20 years of monitoring. This eastern Canada nesting population was a source of the many great incursion of Snowy Owls in the Northeast United States in the epic irruption of 2013-14.  Understandably, the summer of 2015 was a “much quieter season” than the previous one according to J. F, but there was an “echo effect” from the previous invasion.  The summer of 2016 was better than 2015 but not nearly as good as 2014.   Reports from other parts of eastern Canadian Arctic have come in and suggest a fair number of Snowies on the Ungava Peninsula of northern Quebec.  It may not be the big surge of 2013 – 14, but may produce a minor incursion this winter.

Millcreek, an owl captured and marked in Pennsylvania, by Project SNOWstorm

Millcreek, an owl captured and marked in Pennsylvania, by Project SNOWstorm

The Snowy Owl should receive more attention for conservation, monitoring, and management in the future. In the 2016 revision of the Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan for Canada and Continental United States, the Appendix A, Species Assessment Information awards Snowy Owl as a Yellow Watch List with steep declines and major threats.

Cover of the 2016 revision of the Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan.

Cover of the 2016 revision of the Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan, significantly using a photograph of a boreal bird, the Evening Grosbeak.

The continental population is estimated at less than 30,000 individuals.  Of course, this is a rough estimate and certainly changes on a yearly basis.  Two different research teams came to the same approximate population size from their research projects.  The population of Snowy Owl is particularly challenging because of the remoteness of its nesting range and its nomadic behavior, responding to very variable small rodent populations.  There are strong suspicions that Snowy Owl populations move from one geographical area to another widely separated one.  These nesting grounds are likely to be in different provinces, states, countries, and continents.  For example, an owl population could nest on the Arctic tundra of Alaska one season and then move to Siberia the next.  So, population estimates are challenging to make even on a hemispheric level.  They change, sometimes dramatically, on a yearly basis.

Snowy Owl on ground by Wayne Laubscher

Snowy Owl on ground by Wayne Laubscher

As mentioned previously, Pennsylvanians have been participating enthusiastically in Snowy Owl monitoring and research. The Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Millersburg, Pennsylvania, is a base for the Project SNOWstorm team. The Dr. Eugene Potapov of Bryn Athyn College is a key Snowy Owl researcher who has co-written a book with Richard Sale call The Snowy Owl published by T & AD Poyser. And the technology that tracks Snowy Owls has been designed and manufactured by Cellular Tracking Technologies which originated at Somerset, Pennsylvania. Drew Weber, the project website manager, attended Pennsylvania Statue University and served in the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee.  And, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is a proud partner of Project SNOWstorm with Dan Brauning and Doug Gross serving as team members.

Young Male Snowy Owl Held by Lauren Fenstermacher and Steve Ferrara by Tim Kita

Young Male Snowy Owl Held by Lauren Fenstermacher and Steve Ferrara by Tim Kita

The Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology sponsored a Snowy Owl receiver on an owl referred to as “Erie” in the Project SNOWstorm marking project.  And, some Pennsylvanians are donors to the project.  Here is the Project SNOWstorm story the  “Erie” owl: Erie, then an immature male, was tagged in near the Erie, PA, International Airport on Jan. 19, 2014, along with Millcreek. He was one of several snowy owls in the winter of 2013-14 that spent the majority of their time well offshore, on the frozen surface of the Great Lakes — in his case, Lake Erie — making only occasional visits to land. Erie summered in 2014 along the southern edge of Hudson Bay, and spent the winter of 2014-15 largely on and around southern Lake Huron. In February 2016 he checked in from southern Ontario, but his transmitter malfunctioned, and attempts to trap him and remove it failed.”

Erie owl sponsored by PSO

Erie owl sponsored by PSO

Project SNOWstorm is using high-tech telemetry to track Snowy Owls across the continent. Even with this technology and the many team members such as Pennsylvanian Scott Weidensaul, this project really depends on volunteer data collection and financial support.  Please do your part for this winter visitor and all of the boreal birds.  Entering eBird data and being involved with the various birding and conservation partners are just two ways to do this.  There are many partners in the SNOWstorm project that are listed on the website.  You are invited to support this research at http://www.projectsnowstorm.org/.

Snowy Owl in flight by Wayne Laubscher

Snowy Owl in flight by Wayne Laubscher

We are grateful for the involvement of Pennsylvania birders in Snowy Owl research. Please keep involved both with Project SNOWstorm and with eBird.  The Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Diversity Section thanks you!

Doug Gross

Game Commission Ornithologist

Snowy Owl by Jake Dingel

Snowy Owl by Jake Dingel