Amishtown joins the crew

Scott WeidensaulUpdates12 Comments

Jenny Martin and Amishtown, just before his release. (©Scott Weidensaul)

USDA Wildlife Service technician Jenny Martin and Amishtown, just before his release. (©Scott Weidensaul)

One of the best — and worst — places for snowy owls this winter has been airports. The owls love them probably because they so closely resemble the flat, treeless terrain of the Arctic, but they’re obviously dangerous places, both for the owls and for the planes (and their passengers) that might hit them.

We found that out last month, when one of our tagged owls, Philly, collided with was struck and killed by a plane and died at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), despite having been relocated several weeks earlier far to the west. Fortunately, the jet was not damaged — a serious concern.

That’s why we’ve spent a lot of time helping USDA Wildlife Services technician Jennifer Martin trap snowy owls at PHL this winter, and she’s been busy on her own trying to move them out of harm’s way. Wednesday morning I was back at the airport, this time to band and tag an immature male Jenny had caught, and then move it to a safer place.

This was a big boy, tipping the scales at more than 1,900 grams; by contrast, most of the males we’ve caught this winter have been in the 1,550-1,650g range. He had tremendous layers of subcutaneous fat, and has obviously been eating very, very well.

We banded him, took blood and feather samples for DNA, sex confirmation and stable isotope analysis, and then carefully fitted him with a Teflon ribbon harness to hold his solar-powered transmitter in place in the middle of his back.

Then he went into Jenny’s big dog carrier for an hour-long trip away from the city. When we moved Philly Jan. 9, we released him near the Lancaster/Chester county line, only to have him return to the airport three days later. Despite repeated attempts, we couldn’t recapture him, and he was struck and killed by a jet Jan. 29.

New Holland gets another snowy owl. (©Scott Weidensaul)

New Holland gets another snowy owl. (©Scott Weidensaul)

This time, we moved the new owl a little farther west, 55 miles into the heart of Lancaster County — and the epicenter for snowy owls in the region, just north of the town of New Holland. As many as four snowies have been in that area all winter, suggesting its flat, almost completely treeless terrain must have an excellent supply of food.

Amishtown Road is a little two-laner that runs through classic Lancaster County farmland, and it seemed like a good place to let him go — and “Amishtown” seemed like a good nickname, too. Jenny gave him a toss into the air, and he flew off in a huge, looping circle with the powerful, almost falconlike wingbeats typical of a snowy owl. He eventually landed about a third of a mile away, where he sat and preened.

Meanwhile, drivers kept stopping their cars and asking if we were looking for snowy owls, then offering directions to the nearest ones — less than a mile away, where two were sitting next to a Mennonite church, one of them on a stone wall just a stone’s toss from the parking lot.

Amishtown’s transmitter, like all of the units now, reports in every third day, and tonight will be the first chance we’ve had to see where he is. The New Holland area got 22 inches of snow yesterday, but I’m not worried — this owl had more fat than almost any other owl of any species that I’ve ever handled, and this kind of weather is a snowy owl’s stock in trade.

Our biggest concern, obviously, is that he not go back to the airport. SNOWstorm collaborator Norman Smith has moved more than 70 snowies from Logan Airport in Boston this winter, including two tagged owls, Duxbury and Sandy Neck, both of whom have steered clear of the airport. Most relocated owls stay relocated, and we think Philly was an exception.

But keep your fingers crossed.

Go to the interactive map for Amishtown.

Oh, Canada!
Lucky #13
  • Maybe this is a stupid question but why do they get so close to the planes? What attracts them to Philly more than the other airports?

  • Scott Weidensaul

    It’s not a stupid question at all. Snowy owls are attracted to airports because airports are flat, open and treeless — just like the tundra. And planes are no more strange, alien or frightening to them than trees, which they’ve also never seen before coming south.

    Philadelphia isn’t any more or less attractive than most airports — in fact, our SNOWstorm colleague Norman Smith in Boston has moved something in excess of 70 snowy owls this winter from Logan Airport. Almost every airport in the Northeast and upper Midwest this winter has had at least a couple of snowy owls, although Logan may set the record.

    • How do you make the airport less attractive to Snowy owls? The owls hit the planes in the air flying or closer to the runway ground?

      • Scott Weidensaul

        There’s not a lot that can be done about snowy owls in particular, although wildlife specialists work with airports on issues like landscaping and vegetation to make them less attractive to, say, waterfowl or gulls.

        The danger is when the owls are actively flying around, usually at dawn and dusk. Being so naive about all things human, they simply don’t recognize planes (or vehicles in general) as a threat. There have been cases when the owls have been hit by the exhaust wash from jet engines, but that’s rare. It’s astonishing to see them sitting placidly next to an active runway as one 737 after another touches down just a few yards away, or taxis with its wingtips passing almost over the owl’s head.

  • Paula Goldberg

    Can you say more about what the DNA samples will show besides confirmation of gender? What will the stable isotope analysis show?
    Thanks.

    • Scott Weidensaul

      We’re collaborating with a number of scientists, including Jean-François Therrien, who is part of a Canadian team that’s been studying snowy owls in the Arctic for years, and Glenn Proudfoot, who has done a lot of mitochondrial DNA work on owls of many species. We’re taking both blood and feather samples that will further their studies, looking at the genetic makeup of snowy owl populations, as well as how snowy owls fit into the large framework of owl taxonomy.

      Stable isotope analysis is a burgeoning field of study. Chemical elements come in different “flavors” — varying by the number of neutrons they possess. People are most familiar with radioactive isotopes like carbon 14, used to date ancient bones, but feathers contain stable isotopes that don’t decay, and which can tell a lot about the environment or latitude where the feather was grown. Because almost all the owls we’re catching are young from last summer, the isotopes in their feathers may tell us a lot about the region where they were hatched.

  • What a beautiful bird- and an amazing up close photo of him! Thank you <3

  • Mary Lenahan

    Woohoo!

  • PaNewz.com requests permission to post one photo of Amishtown with credit with a link to your story.

  • Vic Attardo

    Hi Scott. How much does Amishtown weigh?

  • Looks like you will be making another trip to PHL – we watched another Snowy there today. It is unbelievable – it’s like they know when there is a vacancy on runway 27R!

  • Carl Wagner

    wow a lot has changed its been a while since I have been on this website. I heard that Amishtown was still doing good so far up there in Canada. hopefully he will still be alive next year.