I saw my first (and so far only) Snowy Owl in December 2011, at Montrose Harbor on the Chicago lakefront. I happened to be in town for Christmas and was able to convince a few family members to make the trek into the city with me to look for the bird. None of them were birders, but the lure of a large, white owl hanging out in downtown Chicago during daylight hours was too great to resist. We piled into the car, drove into the city, and after wandering around for a few minutes, noticed a line of spotting scopes (and corresponding birders) that were trained on the bird, which was perched calmly on one of the many docks in the harbor. It was an amazing moment–not just my life view of Snowy Owl, but an opportunity to share the excitement of birding with non-birders, to talk a bit about why this was happening, and to meet other birders who were there for the exact same reasons. It was everything I love about birds and birding rolled up into one big snowy Christmas package.
So as 2013 drew to close, you may have noticed: Snowy Owls are turning up everywhere again. They are generally birds of the high Arctic, and while some remain in this northerly habitat year-round, others migrate to southern Canada and the northern U.S. for the winter. And occasionally Snowys appear in numbers much farther south than their normal range in a phenomenon known as an irruption.
Smaller irruptions happen every few years (like the winter of 2011-2012, when I saw my lifer Snowy), but once or twice in a lifetime a mega-irruption occurs. As the Project SNOWstorm website says, this winter, 2013-14, is the largest Snowy Owl irruption in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions in four or five decades, with birds showing up as far south as Florida and even Bermuda.
A lot of what we thought we knew about why Snowy Owl irruptions occur (e.g., food scarcity in the Arctic) may be not only a little incorrect, but exactly the opposite of what is actually happening. Because so little is known about irruptions, combined with the nearly once-in-a-lifetime aspect of these large-scale events, researchers are trying to quickly mobilize to study and better understand this rare phenomenon. This is where you have the opportunity to get involved.
Stop looking over your shoulder, I am talking to you. Yes, YOU!
Project SNOWstorm is a collaborative research effort by Project Owlnet, the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art and many independent researchers, agency, and organizational partners. Scientists are tagging owls throughout the Northeast and Great Lakes with new GPS-GSM transmitters in an effort to track movements and learn more about the Snowy Owl irruption of 2013-14.
Thanks to the generosity of early donors, researchers deployed their first transmitters in mid-December 2013. But to expand this work, including additional transmitters, toxicology screenings of blood and tissue samples, professional necropsies of dead owls, stable isotope and genetic analyses, and much more, Project SNOWstorm needs your help.
Here are three easy ways to get involved:
- Join the project Indiegogo campaign (there are some fantastic perks, ranging from a project bumper sticker to an original illustration by renowned artist, birder, and educator Jen Brumfield, depending on how much you’d like to contribute).
- Go to the Project SNOWstorm website to learn more about other ways to support this important work.
- ‘Like’ the Project SNOWstorm Facebook page.
This is a tremendous opportunity to connect people, including children, to wildlife, science, technology, and conservation. It’s all here – a big, beautiful owl, field science, technology-based research, rapid-fire communication via social media and online updates, real, meaty, educational stuff, and the chance for people – you, me, anyone – to get involved.