DCNR program helps fund groundbreaking study of Snowy Owls

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Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Ellen Ferretti today announced that DCNR’s Wild Resource Conservation Program is funding a transmitter to help better understand the southerly movement of snowy owls.


The program provided $3,000 for a transmitter being worn by a bird caught at the beginning of March in central Pennsylvania.


“It doesn’t happen very often, and when it does, it’s rarely as dramatic as this year. Pennsylvania was at the epicenter of a massive southerly movement of one of the Arctic’s most iconic animals,” Ferretti said.  “True to its mission of supporting research, conservation and education projects focused on biodiversity, the Wild Resource Conservation Program is happy to help with this important project.”


Named after the town near where he was caught, Womelsdorf is a young male that has spent the winter hunting in the farm fields of western Berks County. He is a very healthy bird, judging by the ample layer of fat lying below his dense feathers, and will have no problem carrying the 40 gram transmitter strapped to his back with Teflon ribbon.


This winter, hundreds of snowy owls moved as far south as Florida and west to the Great Lakes states. This “irruption” is the largest in a half century, and is likely due to a bumper crop of young owls, thanks to an overabundance of lemmings in the Arctic last summer.


Not much is known about the owl’s winter behavior and ecology, especially during an irruption. Recognizing this unprecedented opportunity, Project Owlnet, a network of U.S. and Canadian owl researchers, launched Project SNOWstorm to learn more.


The multi-state effort, which is based at the Ned Smith Center for Nature and the Arts in Millersburg, is utilizing a technology never before used to track an owl’s movements. Twenty owls have been captured and outfitted with solar-powered GPS transmitters that should provide an extraordinary level of detail about the bird’s movements.


Birds from a range of habitats, from ocean coast to farmlands to urban areas, have been tagged to gain the best sense possible of how they move and behave during an irruption.


“It’s ironic that we know more about the ecology of snowy owls on their breeding grounds in the Arctic than we do about their winter ecology when they’re down here,” says Project Owlnet’s co-director, Scott Weidensaul. “The incredibly detailed tracking data we’re getting has already produced a host of unexpected discoveries about where and how these owls move across the landscape, what habitats they use by day and at night, their hunting behavior and a lot more.


“We’ve found that some are home-bodies, rarely straying more than a half a mile from where they were tagged, while others have roamed hundreds of miles across multiple states,” Weidensaul said. “Some specialize in hunting waterbirds at night over the ocean, while others have spent weeks on end hunting ducks and gulls in cracks in the ice on Lake Erie, miles from shore. There have been almost weekly revelations.”


Anytime Womelsdorf passes within range of a cell phone tower in Canada or the U.S., the unit will download all of its data to Project Owlnet.


The small device can store up to 100,000 data locations, each indicating Womelsdorf’s latitude, longitude, altitude and speed.  It should continue operating throughout the bird’s life.


Anyone can follow Womelsdorf’s travels or those of his fellow owls by visiting Project SNOWstorm at www.projectsnowstorm.org.


For information on DCNR’s Wild Resource Conservatoin Program, go to http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/conservationscience/wrcp/index.htm.

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