Be part of this journey!

We're continuing our work this winter, learning more about these majestic Arctic predators, but we can't do it without your help. Your donation to Project SNOWstorm is tax-deductible through our institutional home, the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Pennsylvania, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
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Founded in 2013, Project SNOWstorm has grown rapidly into one of the world's largest collaborative research projects focusing on snowy owls, staffed by a largely volunteer team of scientists, banders and wildlife veterinarians. It is funded entirely by tax-deductible donations from the public.

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Read on to explore what Project SNOWstorm does
to better understand and protect this magnificent hunter.

Winter Tracking

One of the most important elements of our research is understanding the winter ecology of snowy owls, using GPS/GSM transmitters that record the bird's location, altitude and flight speed as frequently as every six seconds. On-board temperature sensors and accelerometers add additional layers of data to help us understand how these birds hunt, migrate and survive both here on their more southerly wintering grounds, and in the Arctic.

 

In the past five years we've tracked 70 snowy owls from the Dakotas to the Great Lakes, New England, southern Canada and the mid-Atlantic, including their summers in the Arctic. Our tracking data has revealed previously unknown behavior, and shed light on poorly understood aspects of the snowy owl's life. 

 

This winter, we are focusing much of our attention on several specific research areas. We'll be:

  • Tracking owls in the prairie grasslands and farms of the Great Plains, to complement our larger dataset from the Great Lakes and Atlantic coast. 
  • Continuing our studies on Amherst Island in Lake Ontario, to determine how the ongoing construction of 27 wind turbines may affect the large number of snowy owls that traditionally winter on this internationally famous owl hotspot, comparing their movements now with tracking data from before the turbines were built. 
  • Continuing to explore the territorial interactions of snowy owls by tagging multiple individuals occupying the same small area, most likely in the Cat Islands of Lake Michigan, and opportunistically elsewhere.

Our research partner, Cellular Tracking Technologies, continues to supply these high-tech, next-gen transmitters at their cost, about $3,300, which is several thousand dollars below retail -- an in-kind contribution that now totals more than $140,000, and for which we are very grateful.


 

Arctic juveniles

Working with our colleagues at the Owl Research Institute, we experimentally deployed three satellite transmitters this summer on juvenile snowy owls still in the nest in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska. This is the first time fledgling snowies have been tracked anywhere in the world, a critical step to understanding juvenile mortality and movements -- a completely unknown part of their life cycle. The success of the pilot project means we will move ahead with more ambitious plans to tag additional juveniles in North America, Greenland and Norway in the coming year with colleagues in the International Snowy Owl Working Group.



Owls and Airports

Because they are flat and treeless, airports are especially attractive to snowy owls -- and especially dangerous. Project SNOWstorm works with airport authorities and federal wildlife agencies to explore ways to better prevent airplane strikes, safeguarding both passengers and owls, as well as assisting in the capture and relocation of snowy owls away from airport to safer, appropriate habitat.

 

This winter, partnering with researchers in Quebec, we will be using our tracking technology to study the movements of snowy owls at Trudeau International Airport in Montreal.


Health and environmental risks

Several of the most important elements of Project SNOWstorm take place not in the field but in the lab, where we explore the largely unknown world of snowy owl health, and how the modern landscape they now inhabit places them at new and worrisome risk. 

 

Our team of wildlife veterinarians and pathologists, based at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, have necropsied more than 200 snowy owls that have been accidentally killed or found dead, and we've tested hundreds of blood samples from live birds captured for banding and tagging -- by far the largest examination of the health and condition of wintering snowy owls ever undertaken. 

 

Some of the findings have been encouraging. We've found, for example, that contrary to long-standing assumptions about snowy owls in winter, most migrant owls are generally in good physical condition, not thin and starving as was once assumed.

 

But there are reasons for concern. Toxicology tests have shown that most snowy owls carry at least some level of dangerous chemicals in their bodies, from lead to rodenticides (rat poison) to pesticide residues like DDE. Most troubling, many snowy owls have shown significant levels of mercury, an insidious toxin generated by coal-fired power plants and vehicle exhaust, which bioaccumulates through the food chain until it causes behavioral and reproductive problems. Because mercury contamination may be tied to diet (especially the consumption of waterbirds like ducks, gulls and loons), our tracking data is proving valuable in discerning where snowy owls may be experiencing the heaviest exposure.

 

We're also using DNA samples from owls to explore the genetic structure of North America's snowy owl population, and analyzing stable chemical isotopes in their feathers, blood and tissue to look at questions like their point of origin in the Arctic, and how their diets change over time.



Outreach and education

Everything we do at Project SNOWstorm is shared with the public. All of our tracking maps are available and updated regularly as new transmissions come in, with email alerts and regular blog posts explaining in fascinating detail what we're doing. Our collaborating partners at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania are currently developing school curricula based on Snowy Owls and SNOWstorm's data, and we happily cooperate with students and teachers who want to use our data in classroom projects and workshops.



Analysis and publications

Project SNOWstorm's tracking work represents the largest and most diverse set of winter movement data for snowy owls anywhere in the world, and we're drilling down into it to see what it reveals about these Arctic migrants, the habitats they use, and how best to protect and conserve them. We're supporting the work of Rebecca McCabe, a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University, whose doctoral research uses our data to explore a number of aspects of snowy owl winter ecology. And we continue to publish a stream of peer-reviewed scientific articles based on our research, so our findings inform the wider conservation of snowy owls. 


Who We Are

In all, there are more than 40 scientists, banders, wildlife veterinarians and pathologists who donate their time and expertise to Project SNOWstorm. Our institutional home, the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in central Pennsylvania, is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, so your donation to Project SNOWstorm supporting their work is tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.

 

These are some of the faces of Project SNOWstorm:

Dr. Erica Miller

Dr. Erica Miller was a full-time wildlife veterinarian and rehabilitator for 25 years and has been on staff at three veterinary schools. She now splits her time as chief veterinarian at the Brandywine Zoo in Delaware; wildlife veterinarian for the New Jersey’s Office of Fish and Wildlife Health and Forensics; associate professor in wildlife medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s ... Read More

Dr. Cindy Driscoll

Dr. Cindy Driscoll became the first state fish and wildlife veterinarian for Maryland DNR in 1999. She is currently the director of the Fish and Wildlife Health Program at the Cooperative Oxford Lab and consults with local, state and federal agency officials on matters of wildlife and aquatic animal health. For 30 years she has provided veterinary services for endangered ... Read More

Michael Lanzone

Mike Lanzone is founder and CEO of Cellular Tracking Technologies, which has been a major sponsor of Project SNOWstorm since its founding. With his wife Dr. Trish Miller, Mike is one of the leading golden eagle researchers in North America, and developed the GPS/GSM transmitters we use in our snowy owl research. Snowies are close to his heart, since he ... Read More

Steve Huy

Steve Huy is a co-founder of Project SNOWstorm, and a co-director of Project Owlnet. He operates the Lambs Knoll station in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, where he bands migrant northern saw-whet owls.

Matt Solensky

Matt Solensky is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in North Dakota. He has been studying raptors since graduate school, when he spent a season banding migrants at Hawk Ridge in Duluth, MN. Matt later spent five years tagging a variety of large raptors — bald eagles, ospreys, Swainson’s and broad-winged hawks — ... Read More

Nova Mackentley and Chris Neri

Nova Mackentley and Chris Neri are a legendary pair of raptor banders living at Whitefish Point on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A lifelong birder, Chris began banding owls in the mid-1990s at Cape May, NJ, and began banding raptors at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in 1999. He met Nova when she was hired as a seasonal owl bander there in 2005; ... Read More

Dr. David La Puma

Dr. David La Puma is director of NJ Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory, and an avid birder, ornithologist and conservationist. David received his Ph.D. from Rutgers University where he studied the effects of fire on the federally endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow in the Florida Everglades, and conducted two postdoctoral research projects on radar ornithology.

Dr. Sherril Davison

Dr. Sherril Davison is an associate professor of avian medicine and pathology at Penn Vet. She received her B.A., VMD, M.S. and MBA from the University of Pennsylvania and is board certified by the American College of Poultry Veterinarians.   Her major interests are pathology and epidemiology of infectious diseases of poultry and wild birds.She has been integral part of the prevention and ... Read More

Dr. Jean-François Therrien

Jean-François (J.F.) Therrien was born and raised in Quebec (Canada), completing his Ph.D. at Laval University in 2011 studying the movements and predation pressure of snowy owls in the Arctic ecosystem. Eight years ago, J.F. was hired as senior research scientist at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, where he now oversees research projects on a variety of species and ecosystems. ... Read More

Drew Weber

Drew manages the website and crowdfunding campaigns for Project SNOWstorm, and has been with the team from the very first irruption. Drew got his start with owl research during several seasons of following telemetered Northern Saw-whet Owls around southcentral PA from dusk to dawn in the middle of winter. During the day, Drew is the Merlin Project Coordinator at the Cornell ... Read More

Tom McDonald

Tom McDonald is the founder of Project Snowywatch in New York State, where the primary thrust of his 30 years in the field has been snowy owl migration, ecology and habitat studies. He has worked with more than 600 owls and has been a contributing member of the International Snowy Owl Working Group since 2009. Tom is currently working on ... Read More

Andrew McGann

Andrew McGann’s “bird jobs” started early, conducting point counts and banding saw-whet owls during high school. He went on to work with chickadees and Cozumel thrashers during his B.S. in biology at Villanova University, and with rusty blackbird winter ecology for his M.S. in biology at the College of William and Mary. He also worked in ecotoxicology, tracking mercury pollution ... Read More

Norman Smith

Norman Smith, director of the Blue Hills Trailside Museum, has worked for Massachusetts Audubon since 1974. He began studying snowy owls at Logan Airport in Boston in 1981 and has banded and relocated more than 800 owls. In 2000 he was the first one to put transmitters on wintering snowy owls, proving for the first time that some do make ... Read More

Dr. Trish Miller

Dr. Trish Miller is senior wildlife biologist at Conservation Science Global, and an expert on eagles and eagle biology. With her husband, Mike Lanzone, Trish spends countless weeks in the field each year, in North America and overseas, trapping and tagging large raptors.

Scott Weidensaul

Scott Weidensaul is the author of more than two dozen books and field researcher specializing in migration. In addition to co-founding SNOWstorm, he is a co-director of Project Owlnet, and has directed the Ned Smith Center’s owl-banding project for 22 years. He is a founder of the Northeast Motus Collaboration, and a co-founder of Critical Connections, a research program with ... Read More

Gene Jacobs

Gene Jacobs is a raptor biologist and owner of Raptor Services, LLC (research/consulting). He has studied Wisconsin raptors since 1973 and banded more than 17,000 raptors along the way. He’s passionate about sharing raptor education, he teaches raptor field techniques workshops for the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point outreach program. Gene joined Project SNOWstorm in 2013.  He received the “Outstanding Contributing ... Read More

David Brinker

Dave Brinker. Originally from Wisconsin, Dave — a founding co-director of Project SNOWstorm — is a regional ecologist in the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Natural Heritage Program, where he focuses on biodiversity conservation.  In 1994 he founded Project Owlet, a continental network of migrant northern saw-whet owl banding stations.  He also directs the Central Appalachian Goshawk Project, and is a ... Read More

Photo credit: ©Alan Richard - Snowy Owl in flight, and perched shot