In the winter of 2013–14, snowy owls descended into the northeastern United States in record numbers. Bird enthusiasts and scientists quickly launched Project SNOWstorm, a collaborative research effort that continues to deliver unexpected insights into the life of these mysterious Arctic hunters.
Since that migration event, nine snowy owls have been recorded on working farmland conserved by the Adirondack Land Trust in Clinton and Essex counties. Like other resident and migratory bird species found in the Adirondacks, the snowy owl prefers large, intact open spaces for nesting and hunting. The presence of snowy owls on these conserved lands shows the importance of open spaces for their wintering habitat.
Project SNOWstorm co-founder Scott Weidensaul joined the Adirondack Land Trust in January 2024 to share the inspiring story of people coming together to learn from nature. Watch the recording above and read an extended Q&A with Weidensaul below.
Have the transmitters used to track the movements of the snowy owls gotten smaller? How long do they last? If a group wanted to sponsor one, how much do they cost?
Weidensaul: The transmitters weigh about the same now as they did at the start of the project: about 45 grams, or about 1.6 ounces, roughly the same weight as two AA batteries. With miniaturization we’re able to pack more hardware in that mass, including a more powerful battery, a cell modem, GPS connection, accelerometer, and onboard thermometer.
The transmitters last for many years. Some placed on golden eagles were still working 10 years later. The issue we’ve run into recently is that as telecommunications companies retire 2G and 3G cell phone network coverage in favor of 5G, the transmitters can no longer connect. 3G networks are supposed to be phased out completely by next year, but most have a 2G fallback, and 2G will remain in use in Canada for another decade. The new transmitters run on LTE networks, which—we are assured—isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
In terms of cost, the transmitters are dramatically less expensive than they once were. Originally, we were paying $3,000 for each transmitter, plus data fees. That hardware price dropped to about $1,000 as the company shortened its supply chain and began manufacturing many of the parts themselves.
Why don’t banders wear gloves and goggles to protect against the snowy owl’s sharp talons?
I’d like to say it’s because we’re brave and tough! But the truth is, heavy gloves make it awkward to handle the bird carefully and gently. Snowy owls aren’t much for biting, and once you have control of the legs, you’re safe. Mostly. Every raptor bander develops a nice collection of scars. It’s just the price of admission.
Do you worry when people notice a snowy owl’s presence and a sighting attracts attention and excitement that could impact the bird’s well-being and safety?
We do. We have always urged birders and photographers to keep their distance. When possible, it’s best to observe from a vehicle, which acts as a blind. How close is too close? That depends on a lot of variables, including the personality of the bird. We usually say that if the owl is watching you and paying attention to you, you’re too close. Because there is a pervasive but mistaken belief that snowy owls are primarily diurnal (active during daytime), people don’t realize that flushing them again and again not only disturbs their rest, it puts them at risk from predators like bald eagles.
Are wind turbines a danger for snowy owls?
They can be, although we don’t have any good data on how big a risk they may be. We have tagged a number of owls on Amherst Island in Lake Ontario, and we have tracking data both before and after a large number of turbines were built on the island. None of our owls suffered any injury from the turbines. We hope to tag more owls there because we’d like to analyze the movement data to see if the snowy owls avoid areas near the turbines, as some open-country birds like prairie-chickens are known to do. But the preliminary evidence suggests they’re not bothered.
That said, we are concerned by plans for a lot of offshore turbines in the Great Lakes, since we know snowy owls migrate across the lakes at altitudes that would place them within rotor sweep. One of our New England owls flew right through a major wind farm in the mountains of western Maine a few years ago. Although it wasn’t harmed, we have no way of knowing whether the rotors were spinning at that time.
Do you think the 2023 Canadian wildfires, especially in Quebec and Ontario, may have affected the owls?
I think that’s unlikely. The fires were burning in the boreal forest zone, hundreds to thousands of kilometers south of the Arctic where the snowy owls spend the summer. And the snowy owls move through and across the forest in migration as quickly as possible because it’s a hostile environment to them.
What is a snowy owl’s lifespan?
Most of what we know about the average lifespan of wild birds comes from banding and recapture. Very few banded snowy owls are ever reencountered, so it’s a bit of a guess to say what their lifespan is. We assume it’s probably like their close relative the great horned owl, so around eight to 10 years in the wild. But there are several banded snowy owls in the 10- to 19-year-old range. Our Project SNOWstorm colleague Norman Smith at Mass Audubon recaptured a snowy owl he had banded as a juvenile, and that owl was 23 years old and still healthy.
Are U.S. airports that encounter snowy owls informed about bird rescue programs?
An airport will generally trap and relocate a snowy owl through a private contractor or the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services. In some places, the work is done by volunteers, as Norman Smith at Mass Audubon has done for 40-plus years at Boston’s Logan Airport. Similarly, a team of volunteer falconers in the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin trap and move snowy owls and other raptors. This came after there was a lot of protest when airports were shooting snowy owls, which many airports will do with birds under federal permits to prevent birds from striking airplanes. What we’ve done is partner where we can and tag owls before relocation so their movements can be traced.
Visit projectsnowstorm.org to learn more. The Adirondack Land Trust is grateful to Black Rooster Maple and Birds & Beans for sponsoring this event.