ASSATEAGUE — The frequency and volume of snowy owl sightings throughout the local area and across much of the northeast in recent weeks have not abated and the phenomena is now being considered a once in a lifetime event.
Through much of December and the early weeks of 2014, local residents and visitors to beaches in Maryland and Delaware have been treated to rare opportunities to see snowy owls up close and in person as the arctic visitors have flocked to the mid-Atlantic coastal areas. Their visit is called an “irruption” in scientific terms, and while irruptions are fairly common for many species of migratory birds, the ongoing irruption of snowy owls in the local area has been especially noteworthy and is being referred to now as a natural history event.
A couple months in, the snowy owl irruption has shown no signs of abating, according to Carrie Samis, education coordinator with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.
“The irruption isn’t waning,” she said. “The birds are everywhere in record numbers. This is the biggest irruption in 40 to 50 years and likely the largest in our lifetime. While irruptions occur in other years, it’s never been of this magnitude.”
Samis said this week there is no indication the snowy owl irruption w until the magnificent birds are ready to continue their migration later this winter or early spring.
“It’s likely that we’ll continue to see snowy owls through February,” she said this week. “By March, they’ll probably start making their way back to the arctic.”
Scientists are seeking answers for the unusual irruption of snowy owls and are trying to gain a better understanding of the migration patterns of the large, majestic birds. To that end, an effort called Project SNOWstorm has been started to research the current irruption in the local area and across much of the U.S. Through Project SNOWstorm, some of the birds have been briefly captured and fitted with a solar-powered transmitter allowing scientists and bird-watching enthusiasts to track their movements. The first snow owl fitted with a transmitter was tagged on Assateague in December and the bird has traveled hundreds of miles since.
The first owl tagged in Maryland, appropriately named “Assateague,” has traveled great distances since being fitted with the first transmitter back on Dec. 17. “Assateague” left the barrier island two days after being fitted with the transmitter and flew north to Cape Henlopen where it hung around for a day. The owl then flew 38 miles across open water to reach the north shore of the Delaware Bay.
From there, the owl moved across the New Jersey coast to the town of Reed’s Beach, where he spent a week. Leaving Reed’s Beach, “Assateague” flew across southern New Jersey in the middle of the night and followed the Tuckahoe River toward the Jersey shore before flying up the coast to Atlantic City, where he spent some time on the famous Steel Pier. “Assateague” then continued up the Jersey coast to Brigantine, completing a journey of 100 straight-line miles or 150 flying miles from where he started on Assateague just 11 days earlier.
By contrast, a second snowy owl tagged under Project SNOWstorm in central Wisconsin on Dec. 23 has not shown the same wanderlust as his Assateague relative. Named “Buena Vista” for the area in Wisconsin where he was first observed and later tagged, that snowy owl has rarely ventured more than a mile or so from where the transmitter was first affixed.
“Assateague” has not been heard from for several days, but scientists are not overly concerned. Project SNOWstorm officials believe the owl has likely moved into an area with limited cell phone coverage, which will not impact the GPS data. The units continue to record locations around the clock, even if the owl moves out of cell tower range. Once “Assateague” moves back into transmitter range, a fresh pile of backlogged data showing his recent whereabouts will become available, according to Samis.
“Although ‘Assateague’ is out of range now, the transmitter is still collecting information, which will automatically download once the bird is back in range,” she said. “Assateague has traveled well over 250 miles since being fit with the transmitter, from here to Delaware to New Jersey. Already, we’re seeing differences in movement and behavior that could help us better understand these birds.”
From the outset, Project SNOWstorm set a fundraising goal of $20,000 for more transmitters to track the snowy owl irruption in the local area and across much of the eastern U.S. Less than two weeks into the fundraising effort conducted on Indiegogo, just over $19,000 has been raised. Samis said this week the $20,000 will be used specifically for transmitters, but the fundraising efforts will continue after the goal is reached and donations will continue to be accepted.
“Additional dollars will be used to fund more research, toxicology screenings, necropsies when dead birds are found, etc.” she said. “The more money they raise, the more research they can do, gleaning as much information as possible about this event. We really don’t know a lot about snowy owls and this is our big chance to learn a lot more.”
Later this month, the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art at Salisbury University is hosting a panel discussion on the snowy owl irruption and the research it has inspired. Samis will be joined on the panel by ecologist David Brinker and state wildlife veterinarian Cindy Driscoll, both of Maryland DNR. The program is set for Wednesday, Jan. 20 from 4-6 p.m. at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art.