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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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Read on to explore what Project SNOWstorm does
to better understand and protect this magnificent hunter.
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 seven years we've tracked more than 90 Snowy Owls from Alaska and the Dakotas to the Great Lakes, New England, southern Canada and the mid-Atlantic, including their summers in the Arctic. Our tracking data has documented previously unknown behavior, and shed light on poorly understood aspects of the snowy owl's life, both in their temperate wintering areas -- the main focus of our work -- as well as their breeding grounds in the North.
We continue to partner with Cellular Tracking Technologies, which supplies the high-tech, next-gen transmitters we use, and whose engineers and staff have been part of our team from the beginning.
In July 2019, we expanded our study of the movements and mortality rates of juvenile snowy owls by tagging six young owls in their nests on Bylot Island in the Canadian Arctic -- a project we piloted in 2018 in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska with our colleagues at the Owl Research Institute. This is one of the very few times 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, and part of an ambitious plan to tag additional juveniles in North America, Greenland and Norway with colleagues in the International Snowy Owl Working Group.
Our plans to continue that work in 2020 were interrupted by the novel coronavirus pandemic, during which field work in the Canadian Arctic was suspended out of concern over spreading the virus to remote communities in the North. We are looking forward to the summer of 2021 with cautious optimism that we can resume this important and exciting research.
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, during which COVID-19 safety protocols will force us to curtail some of our normal field work, we will continue to focus on this critical area of research. Ph.D. student and SNOWstorm core team member Rebecca McCabe is analyzing existing data from 42 snowy owls we have previously tagged and relocated from 13 airports in the U.S. and Canada. Becca will also be working with authorities at Montréal–Trudeau International Airport in Quebec to fit additional owls with transmitters this winter, testing how variables like relocation distance, direction, and time before release change the likelihood that such owls will return to the airfield.
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 250 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. 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 continue to publish a stream of peer-reviewed scientific articles based on our research, so our findings inform the wider conservation of snowy owls, in such prestigious international journals as Nature, Ornithology and Ibis. 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.
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. 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Dr. David La Puma
Dr. David La Puma is the director of global market development for Cellular Tracking Technologies, the former 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 ... Read More
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
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
Norman Smith, recently retired as the director of the Blue Hills Trailside Museum, having 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 ... Read More
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. J.F. is senior scientist and graduate studies director at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, where he oversees research projects on a variety of species and ecosystems. When he’s not monitoring ... Read More
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.
Rebecca McCabe is a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University (Quebec, Canada). For her research Rebecca is using Project SNOWstorm’s dataset to link individual movements to population-level processes by focusing on various aspects of snowy owl winter ecology in North America. She is a research associate at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and has been collaborating with other researchers and organizations on raptor-related projects since 2013.
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
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
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