Welcome back, everyone, to another season — our 10th — of snowy owl research here at Project SNOWstorm! We’re anticipating an interesting year, with some big developments both in the field and off that we’ll be sharing in the weeks ahead.
But first, we have two treats. One is news of the first returning owl of the season — Columbia, an adult female originally tagged in Wisconsin in January 2020, who checked in Nov. 13 from southwestern Manitoba. Her data shows she spent the summer in the central Canadian Arctic — though it’s unclear whether or not she nested. Columbia spent most of the summer in a roughly 300-hectare (740-acre) area of Prince of Wales Island, but her location data doesn’t show the enormous number of stationary GPS fixes in one central spot that would clearly indicate the presence of a nest. It’s possible she started to nest and lost the clutch, or simply stuck to a small area because of abundant prey. You can explore her data and draw your own conclusions by checking out her tracking map.”
Also, every year we ask Dr. Jean-François Therrien of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, one of SNOWstorm’s core leadership team, to bring us up to speed on how the summer breeding season went in the North American Arctic. J.F. did his Ph.D. at Laval University studying the nesting snowy owls of Bylot Island in the Canadian Arctic, where Laval has a long-term research site, and he’s in regular touch with scientists across the North. What kind of snowy owl flight might we expect this winter? Here’s J.F.’s 2022 report.
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“Summer 2022 saw very low lemming abundances across most of the Canadian Arctic, the core breeding range for the snowy owl, including the long-term study site on Bylot Island (Nunavut). The only place harboring nesting snowy owls that we are aware of in 2022 was on Ward Hunt Island at the very northern tip of Canada (only a few hundred kilometers away from the North Pole).
Our colleagues in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow, Alaska) with the Owl Research Institute reported only a single nest in 2022.
The last time snowy owls nested in abundance on the Bylot Island long-term study site was in 2021, when the last waves of the pandemic still prevented us from visiting the field station in the high Arctic. We were, however, excited to hear about a new technique being developed by our colleagues from Université Laval in Québec, Canada, to detect nesting snowy owls on the tundra — from space.
Using high-resolution satellite images from 2021, when owls were nesting on Bylot but the pandemic kept researchers away, they’re developing a tool that can detect a nesting snowy owl against the green and brown tundra remotely. The process starts with images that have a resolution measured mere centimeters, which are analyzed by an algorithm that can pick out white objects that are potential snowy owls. That’s then combined with ground-truthing the following year to confirm which of the white objects were artefacts like white rocks, and which ones were no longer present — those would have been nesting snowy owls. This allows our colleagues to estimate the abundance of owls on the study site even though no humans were present.
Given this past summer’s observations, we are not expecting a huge winter irruption at our latitudes this coming winter and we are eager to see if the situation will improve on the breeding grounds in 2023. We have been anxious for a productive breeding season (when there isn’t a pandemic) so we can deploy tiny satellite transmitters on juvenile snowy owls.
In the meantime, Dr. Rebecca McCabe here at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, part of the SNOWstorm team, is currently working with our colleagues in the International Snowy Owl Working Group on a worldwide population assessment for the snowy owl. (This effort is being partially funded by Project SNOWstorm through the donations of its many supporters.) The assessment will result in a comprehensive paper assessing for the first time the snowy owl’s global status, as concerns have recently arisen regarding its long-term conservation.”