A Look Back – Way Back

Scott WeidensaulUpdates4 Comments

A record catch of Snowy Owls during the winter of 1960-61 in Wisconsin. From left to right, Errol Schulter, Tanya Schulter, Chuck Sindelar, Fran Hamerstrom, Paul Drake and Alan Jenkins. Image courtesy of The Iowa State University Press Ames Iowa, photo taken by Orvell Peterson.

As we wait to see if snowy owl activity will pick up as we move deeper into winter, I thought it would be fun to look back on something my SNOWstorm co-founder Dave Brinker pulled together in December 2015, during our early years, which puts what we’re doing in some historical perspective. This was the first of several “On the Shoulders of Giants” posts about pioneers in snowy owl research in North America, this one focusing on Operation Snowy Owl in the 1960s in his native Wisconsin and featuring one of the most influential raptor biologists of the 20th century, the legendary Fran Hamerstrom.

The story Dave tells is an interesting reminder of a time before scientists had the kind of slick GPS/GSM transmitters and other high-tech means of tracking the movements of wild animals, when a can of spray paint was the most effective way of tracing owl movements. (As well as raising the eyebrows of law enforcement.) You can read the post here. Enjoy!

A Year-end Thank You
It's Quiet...Too Quiet?

4 Comments on “A Look Back – Way Back”

  1. Whatever happened to the Snowy Owl report? I know it wasn’t yours, but I now have no way of knowing where the snowies are in Washington state. I can see where they’ve been over the last few years, but that doesn’t help now!
    Any suggestions?

    1. I’m afraid we have no information on that report, which as you noted isn’t something Project SNOWstorm was involved with.

  2. Ahhh, Way back! I was present for these pictures of the trapping crew and still have some of my own. This was a life changing experience, at least for me. I and two other young junior high school lads, youngest members of the old Green Bay Bird Club, were selected to help guide the trappers around the area. We had been following the owls for a few weeks. The pictures were taken in the Hussong’s basement where we processed the owls. Clara Hussong was a decades long Nature Columnist for the Green Bay Press Gazette and her two page article on this adventure was republished across the state, leading to more owl reports. The 7 owls trapped was the record for many years until Chuck Sindelar and I trapped eight in day over a decade later.

    This was my first introduction to this remarkable cadre of researchers. after this and subsequent owl trapping excursions to Green Bay, our enthusiasm resulted in being invited to the Hamerstroms for spring Prairie Chicken “booming”. After sitting in frozen blinds before dawn waiting to scope out the numbered, colored leg bands on the dancing chickens we were rewarded with afternoons of hawk trapping with Fran. Sindelar was working on the chicken project at the time and soon I became one of his gaboons. This led to winter trapping of Golden Eagles in central Wisconsin, climbing and banding in Osprey and Bald Eagle nests and of course continuing the Snowy Owl banding at Green Bay. After the infamous “numbered” Osprey banding expedition in 1969 when I was teamed up with Dan Berger, I ended up spending three years raptor trapping at the Cedar Grove Ornithological Station. I opened my own raptor banding station at Little Suamico WI in 1971. Dave Evans another of Sindelar’s gaboons headed for Duluth where he started raptor trapping in 1972 at Hawk Ridge. Dave has banded more Snowy Owls and other raptors than anyone in NA.

    As for Way Back, I would point out none of this Snowy Owl work would have been possible without the creation of the Bal-chatri traps designed by Dan Berger and Helmut Mueller (Bird-Banding, 30, 18-26, 1959) Their creation completely changed raptor banding. Prior to this most raptors were only banded as nestlings or at the very few banding stations designed to capture migrant raptors.

    As for color marking the owls when banding, it was very helpful in tracking birds and not wasting time trying to recapture an owl already banded. The spray paints originally used was quickly replaced with the quick drying alcohol based Dykem layout dyes. These proved to be durable enough on flight feathers to be observed on owls in subsequent winter if they returned. It also did not mat feathers.

    The owl numbers reported for individual owl banders should be taken lightly. I was using Sindelar’s bands for years and a few from Roy Lukes who was my master bander in the beginning. Dave Evans also started banding at Duluth with Sindelar’s bands. Having access to old records, I know Don Follen also used some of Fran Hamerstrom’s bands. There are a myriad of Snowy Owl trapping stories!
    Some were life changing.

    1. Tom, thanks for the memories from one of the old guard. Fred and Fran are heroes of mine though I never got to meet them. As Dave Brinker mentioned in his article, the work we’re doing now builds on the pioneering work you and others did in decades past.

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