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Update from Alaska: "It's a tough year on the tundra"

July 5, 2022

 

Today we heard from Denver and got an update on how the 2022 Snowy Owl breeding season is going:

So far only one Snowy Owl nest

As of today, he's only been able to find one active Snowy Owl nest in ORI's study area, which is in and around the town of Utqiagvik, Alaska.


This nest has 6 eggs, and he estimates that the female started laying on June 16 or 17-- which is about 30 days later than normal. Typically, Snowy Owl eggs hatch sometime around June 15 to 21th.


A female Snowy Owl lays flat on the tundra, covering the eggs in her nest. She is peering at the camera.
Female Snowy Owl on the nest. Photo taken by ORI volunteer Jennifer Sperry.

The male and female are both attentive, and keep a close eye on the researchers when they check on the nest. To Denver, 6 eggs in the nest indicates that they are a good pair, and that their territory is located in a lemming hotspot.


An all-white male Snowy Owl sits upright on the ground, looking towards the camera.
The male Snowy Owl on the ground near the nest, keeping a close eye on researchers. Photo by Jennifer Sperry.

Live stream camera- coming soon!

The plan is to try to put a live stream cam on this nest sometime in the next week or so! Follow ORI's social media and website for updates, and visit explore.org to check it out!




An all-white male Snowy Owl in flight.
The male Snowy Owl in flight. Photo by Jennifer Sperry.

"It's a tough year on the tundra"

When Denver arrived in Utqiagvik on June 14, there was still snow on the tundra, and the spring melt-off was very late. He wasn't able to get out to do any surveys for a few days (he usually gets out right away) because of the snow.


He reports many male Snowy Owls on territories in the study area, and some territories with both male and female owls. These territories that have pairs on them could have had nests that failed early, but there's not way to tell for sure. All of the known Snowy Owl territories in the study area are occupied.


After completing the first round of lemming population surveys, he's noticed there aren't many lemmings around this year in ORI's research area. This is probably why there is only one Snowy Owl nest- there don't seem to be enough lemmings to support Snowy Owl breeding this year.


Many shorebird nests are failing as well: Denver says that other researchers have told him that there are fewer nests overall, and that many eggs are being preyed upon. "It's a tough year on the tundra," Denver said.


Why are lemmings so important?

Lemmings impact all of the species that make their home in Utqiagvik, not just Snowy Owls—though they do make up roughly 90% of the Snowy Owl diet during the breeding season. In years with high lemming populations, most of the predators that eat lemmings have more young: Snowy Owls, Arctic foxes, gulls, jaegers, weasels. Indirectly, the sea ducks and shorebirds that nest in the Arctic also benefit: more predators eating lemmings means fewer predators eating eggs and chicks.


Small fuzzy lemming in the palm of a researcher.
A lemming in the gloved hand of a researcher. Photo by ORI.


 

More about Snowy Owls and ORI's research:

  • Looking for a great summer read? Check out this book all about ORI and Denver Holt's years of Snowy Owl research:




This series of posts from 2019 gives a great overview of Snowy Owl breeding:


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