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2018 Season update - the Snowy Owl Project

2018 Season Update – The Snowy Owl Project, Utqiagvik, Alaska

The 2018 Snowy Owl Project kicked-off in late May with researcher Matt Larson’s arrival in Utqiagvik, Alaska. This is base camp for the study site – 100-square miles around the town and bordered by the Arctic Sea - the only area in the United States where Snowy Owls breed with regularity. Surveys of the tundra at this time – still covered with snow and ice - yielded three nest locations, all with 5 - 7 eggs. Photos of these early season nests showed warm eggs surrounded by ice walls – it was a late and very cold spring. Nonetheless, these findings, combined with other encouraging signs, fueled hope for a strong breeding season.

Denver Holt arrived in June: a pattern of life for 27 years. A brief history of the Snowy Owl project: while the relationship of Snowy Owls to lemmings is common knowledge today; in 1991 this wasn’t the case. As a young man, Denver was fascinated by this dynamic and its implications to reproduction, so he headed to their only U.S. breeding grounds to launch his research. Today, it’s like a second home for him and his Snowy Owl Breeding Ecology and Lemming Population Study is the longest running study of its kind in North America. The official start to the project this season was slowed by weather conditions that made many areas inaccessible; a broken-down 4-wheeler compounded the problem. Soon, however, the project was in full swing.

Despite some early optimism, the season will not see the uptick in fledglings we hoped for. The late winter may have affected breeding, as it has for most of the bird species there. The same may be true for lemmings, which are around but not abundant, and the key ingredient to any successful breeding season. An interesting aside: despite the vast expanse of tundra, the Barrow Triangle – a 20 square mile area in and around the town – is the heart of nesting there. It’s not understood why this is, although it may be that lemmings, drawn by warmth or protection from predators, choose the close proximity to town and the owls follow suit.

In total, seven nests were located this season. Three failed during incubation. Of the four that produced hatchlings, two have seen younger nestlings die because of low lemming numbers. One nest is thriving and the other, a late nest that is 2 – 3 weeks behind the others, has been full of surprises. During incubation, Denver questioned if the four eggs would hatch; now, the nestlings are all doing well and the male appears to be a capable provider. Denver is currently monitoring all four nests and most of the chicks have been banded. Given that there are years when Snowy Owls do not nest at all, this season isn’t a bust…although it’s far cry from a boom year as well.

When complete, this season’s findings will be incorporated with data from hundreds of other nests that span more than a quarter century. It is here that that the population data take shape. Longitudinal research – conducted in the same area, by the same researcher, with the same protocol - is increasingly rare, yet produces some of the richest, and most influential, data. For the Snowy Owls of the Alaskan Arctic, the population declines are now well documented and alarming. For Denver Holt and ORI, understanding these declines is an increasing focus. A new, collaborative analysis on the effects of climate change on Snowy Owls is currently

underway. Additionally, increasing local education about the impact of human interactions with owls, and documenting the spread of new development over important breeding grounds, are all part of these efforts to understand declines as well.

So what remains for the 2018 Snowy Owl research season? Denver is still in the Arctic and will monitor the juvenile owls through fledge, a tenuous time for young birds. He will continue work on the climate change project with the Max Plank Institute of Ornithology, which will be complete soon. In October, our work with Snowy Owls will appear in Smithsonian Magazine and feature the photojournalism of Melissa Groo. Melissa has spent a great deal of her summer in the field with Denver this breeding season and writes wonderful accounts of the joys, challenges, and rewards that go with it. And, lastly, we are partnering with an incredible group of researchers on a new study that will collect the majority of its data from satellite transmitters. Stay tuned for information on this soon.

As always, thank you for your interest in our work and for making owl research and conservation a priority in your life.

Photo credit: © Melissa Groo,

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