We've had several, recent inquiries about our 2017 Snowy Owl project in Barrow, Alaska: how it went, nesting numbers, etc, so I decide to post an update.
For the first time in about 26 years, the Owl Research Institute didn't make it to Alaska for the summer. About a week before leaving for Barrow in June, Denver tore his right calf muscle while working on the Great Gray Owl Project. Matt was out of state with family commitments. And, because the vast, tundra landscape makes this project so physically demanding, we had to accept the fact that it just wasn't going to happen this summer. From the reports we've gotten, however, it sounds like it was a good summer to miss - very low, to no, nest counts were reported.
Low nesting occurrence, or the absence of nesting, is the likely result of low lemmings numbers: Snowy Owls only nest during summers when food is abundant. Snowy Owls have a circumpolar breeding distribution associated with Arctic tundra. Here they nest on the ground and are dependent on Brown Lemmings for successful breeding. Lemming numbers, however, fluctuate widely throughout the Arctic in location and time. Thus, in some years, some Snowy Owls may not breed. If the lemming population is low, owls may not be able to find enough food to feed themselves and their hungry chicks. They will wait for a nesting season when the lemming population is on the rise so they can support a viable nest.
When huge numbers of Snowy Owls migrate south into southern Canada and the northern U.S., it is an indicator of a strong breeding season. When this happens, the owls are usually young, perhaps 5-6 months old, so we know they just had a terrific breeding season. This year, in 2017, a few Snowy Owl sightings, as a result of migration, are starting to come in from British Columbia, although we don't anticipate large numbers.
This year, even though we were not physically present for the first time, marks our 26th year on the Snowy Owl Breeding Research project. It is the longest running breeding study of its kind in North America. Next summer, we will be there for sure, continuing to monitor and research these incredible owls from our research site near Barrow, Alaska. For now, stay tuned to read about migration activity, as well as new and exciting projects based on our Snowy Owl data.
As for Denver and Matt, they are both doing well. Denver says he enjoyed spending a summer at home, in Montana, catching up on house chores and landscaping (and we know his cat, Gnoma, named after the Mountain Pygmy Owl, certainly appreciated the change). Matt spent a great summer in Minnesota with his family and continues to be very busy with two adorable and curious daughters in the house. Both Denver and Matt, however, are back to a full plate of field work with the owls of Montana.