A friend gave my name to the Madison Audubon Society as someone who might like to write about the amazing number of Snowy Owls who have been wintering in Wisconsin and other states in the Midwest and Northeast these past two years.  What I learned was thrilling.  I’m excited to share my article that appeared in Isthmus this week:


For the second year in a row, scores of snowy owls spent the winter in Wisconsin, delighting bird watchers. While those owls are now flying back to the Arctic, some are communicating their whereabouts to every cell tower they pass. One of those is a bird named Goose Pond, who was released near Madison as part of a national tracking effort called Project Snowstorm.

        Project Snowstorm began during December 2013, when birders in the Midwest and Eastern United States noticed an unprecedented number of snowy owls. The huge birds usually spend their entire lives hunting rodents through the sun-filled summer and endless winter nights of the high Arctic tundra.snowy-owl-eyes-11294429118HIjWhen large numbers venture south, it’s called an irruption. According to Project Snowstorm’s website, the winter of 2013-14 was the largest irruption in 60 years.

“In a typical year, we might not get any at all in Wisconsin,” says Matt Reetz, executive director of the Madison Audubon Society. “Last year there were about 88 snowy owls in the state. We thought it might be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, but this year we had almost 300.”

The exodus is prompted by a population boom. A bumper crop of rodents — lemmings, voles and ptarmigan — that the owls eat can double or triple the number of young owls born in the summer. But when winter comes, many of those boomers get pushed out and head south for the winter.

Snowy owls are something of a mystery because it’s not easy to study something white and nocturnal in the distant Arctic. A team of researchers in Maryland, including Racine native David Brinker, realized an owl irruption of this magnitude was an unprecedented opportunity.

Technology is now available to equip these birds with a solar-powered cellular tracking transmitter that weighs only 2% of the owl’s weight. It is attached with a harness that will eventually biodegrade, dropping the transmitter from the bird’s back.

Until then, the transmitter is programmed to collect longitude, latitude and altitude information every 30 minutes and communicate with the nearest cell tower. The signal is so precise it can pinpoint a fence post an owl is perching on.

But the equipment is not cheap. Even with discounts provided to the project by Cellular Tracking Technologies, it costs about $3,000 to track a bird for a year. Over the past two years, researchers raised $150,000 from the birding community.

“That allowed researchers to place 34 transmitters on owls so far,” says Brinker.

During the winter of 2013-2014, Project Snowstorm received donations from the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin to underwrite transmitters that were deployed in Wisconsin. Madison Audubon stepped up this winter to sponsor the transmitter for the owl called Goose Pond, named for the preserve where he was released.


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