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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

He (Hearts) Philly - Project SNOWstorm

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I spend a lot of time at airports, but usually not like this — crouching next to a taxiway at Philadelphia International Airport, trying to keep a snowy owl from being killed.
Working with the USDA’s APHIS-Wildlife Services program and the Pennsylvania Game Commission, I was hoping to catch a snowy that had set up housekeeping at the midst of this enormously busy airport. Snowies love airports — the flat, open landscape must look like their Arctic home in an alien world of trees and hills, and many airports are close to coasts, rivers and marshes that provide a lot of owl food.
That’s how Steve Ferreri of the Game Commission and I came to be sneaking along the edge of a taxiway last Thursday, crouching beside the slowing moving truck of Wildlife Services technician Jennifer Dzimiela Martin.
The truck hid us from the owl, which sat on the far side of the taxiway beside the main runway, unperturbed by the immense noise of 737s landing every few minutes just yards away from it. We set up our bownet, slipped into the truck, and Jenny crept back about a hundred feet while I played out the trigger line to the trap.
Which the owl ignored, completely, for the next three hours. Birders often assume that snowy owls are diurnal — and they are, in the middle of the Arctic summer when there’s no darkness. In winter, however, they prefer to hunt after dark, and it wasn’t until the sun sank behind orange clouds and dusk settled in that this bird began to show some interest in its surroundings.
Still, it took another 45 minutes to lure the owl into the net; it kept zooming past the lure but not landing, and at one point, in a fit of nerves, I triggered the trap too soon and had to walk up to within 20 feet of the bird to reset it.
But eventually we were successful, and back in the quiet of Jenny’s office we banded and processed it. Opening the wings, which spanned almost five feet, we could easily see that this was a young owl, hatched this past summer — there were no contrasts between old and new flight feathers as would appear on an adult.
The owl was lightly marked, with spots rather than bars on the secondaries — suggesting it was a male, which its relatively small size (just 1,543 grams) confirmed. We took feather samples for DNA and chemical isotope analysis, and then carefully fitted him with a GPS transmitter.
Wildlife Services technician Jennifer Martin holds Philly, banded, tagged and ready for a ride. (┬ęScott Weidensaul)
Wildlife Services technician Jennifer Martin holds Philly, banded, tagged and ready for a ride. (©Scott Weidensaul)
Releasing him at the airport might well be a death sentence. Snowy owls have been killed by plane strikes at some airports already this winter, and the risk to the planes (and their crew and passengers) is not insignificant, either. The FAA National Wildlife Strike Database shows snowy owls rank in the top third of species hazardous to aviation operations, based on damage to aircraft and negative effects on flight.
That’s why SNOWstorm collaborator Norman Smith, with Massachusetts Audubon, has already relocated more than 50 snowy owls this winter from Logan International Airport in Boston, a task he’s been fulfilling for more than 30 years — a win-win for the airport and the owls.
So Steve and I transported the owl — which we’re calling Philly — about 40 miles northwest of the city, to the rolling, open farmland of eastern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Norman usually moves the owls he catches 20-40 miles, so it seemed like a safe bet.
Philly and his transmitter. (┬ęScott Weidensaul)
Philly and his transmitter (and some harmless feather lice around his eyes – the warmth brings them to the surface of the owl’s plumage). (©Scott Weidensaul)
The area where we released Philly has already been hosting several snowies this winter, and we hoped he’d find it to his liking. But when his transmitter (programmed to send data every third day) checked in for the first time on Sunday, we realized that Philly was very much a creature of his namesake city.
The first two days he lingered around his release site, then Saturday afternoon he moved to a recycling center off Rt. 322, and the top of the nearby Lancaster landfill. After dark, he was off — flying back to the southeast at about 35 mph, stopping every few miles to perch on Amish barns before taking off again.
By midnight he was flying along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, resting briefly on an office building, and later on the E.N. Pierce Middle School in West Chester. By daybreak Sunday he was sitting on a huge townhouse complex on Carriage Drive, just northeast of West Chester, where he spent the day.
Sunday night, though, Philly was on the wing again, and his last recorded position, when the transmitter made its upload at 7:30 p.m. that evening, was on top of a store at the Lawrence Park Shopping Center in Media, Delaware County — just 8.5 miles from the airport where we caught him.
His transmitter won’t check in again for a few more days, and our fingers are crossed that, instead of returning to the taxiway at the airport, he’ll fetch up somewhere farther down the Delaware River, or even move south along it to the safe, wide salt marshes of the Delaware Bay.
But that may be a false hope. You can take a snowy owl away from a dangerous airport, but you can’t make him stay away. We’ll continue to work with USDA Wildlife Services and the Game Commission to relocate any snowies that are in harm’s way at the airport — including, if we have to, one very persistent bird.

Crow's Nest Preserve - The hunt for the Red-headed Woodpecker, A BCDC Trip

Adult Red-headed Woodpecker - Photo by Bill Kemmerer

       Sunday, Jan 12th was a cloudy day with less than wonderful visibility. Nine intrepid BCDC members carpooled to the Crows Nest Preserve owned by Natural Lands Trust at French Creek State Park. From there, Debbie Beer of NLT led the trip with an additional 15 people. We headed down the very soggy path toward the creek.  The first bird seen was a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Next, everyone had decent looks at a Red-headed Woodpecker in a forested area sitting atop a dead tree stump.  We strode on until the path became so wet and muddy that the group had to turn around. During our return, the original Red-headed Woodpecker was joined by two more adults and were seen by most of the participants. We then hiked on the road to the other end of the trail adding Northern Flicker, Cedar Waxwing, Bluejay, Goldfinch, Swamp Sparrow, and a Red-tailed Hawk among other birds. At the end of the hike we saw a Downy Woodpecker pair near the NLT office. We tallied 26 species in all for the day.

Monday, January 13, 2014


                     Good Binoculars and Hot Chocolate Improves This Outing
Snowy Owl - December 2013 near Episcopal Academy
 Owls can be spooky, especially since they are so often seen at dawn and dusk; they rarely provide an adequate view. Currently our region is experiencing a somewhat spooky appearance of large numbers of Snowy owls from Canada and the Arctic. Most of us will never see one in our lifetime, which after my limited experience with snowy owls, I believe is something of a shame.

          Two years ago I became, in the parlance of serious birders, a “chaser”. A chaser is someone who hears about a particular bird he is interested in seeing, tracks down information on its where-a-bouts, and chases after that bird to view it. For some that means an addition to their birding life list; to me it means I hope to see a particular bird and imprint it in my memory.                        

Friends heard about a snowy owl in New Jersey, tracked down some plugged-in birders and obtained directions to its location near Scott’s Mountain hawk watch in New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Lehigh University. I saw my first snowy owl there, right where my sources said it would be. (Hint: You must have reliable sources.)

An important factor with snowy owls is that they are out-and-about during the day, and can often be seen because they are large and mostly white.

          I had become a low level chaser, and duplicated the trip two weeks later to share that owl with my wife. It was worth it, it truly was a treat. Later I successfully chased another snowy owl to a spot south of Carlisle, Pa, and did so again last year. Snowy owls are big, beautiful and unusual looking birds.

          So far I have found two random snowy owls that visited from the far north. It was exciting and I enjoyed it. This year’s multiple snowy owl sightings indicate we are having a fairly large snowy owl irruption across the region, and numerous birders and nature types are getting to see some of the giant, white owls from the north. This is a much more exciting occurrence, and worth looking into.

          For snowy owls an irruption is when brown and collared lemmings (rodents) are in short supply in the owl’s normal winter range and the owls “irrupt”, or travel far enough south to find food so they can survive the winter. Irruptions are not the same as the normal, seasonal north – south migration done by some owl species.

          Ornithological history records that the first snowy owl irruption in North America occurred the winter of 1833-34. From then until 1945 there were 24 snowy owl irruptions, occurring at intervals of 3 – 5 years. Snowy owl irruptions have since continued at roughly the same intervals. The irruption in the winter of 1926-27 featured 2,363 snowy owl sightings in the eastern U.S., though 90% of them reportedly settled in Michigan, Maine, New York, Massachusetts and Minnesota.

          To get an idea about the ignorance and bias against snowy owls in the past, one only need know that about 1,500 snowy owls were taken to taxidermists in Ontario and Quebec as a result of the massive 1926-27 irruption.

          Lemming populations rise and fall dramatically between boom and bust, though the cycle is still not fully understood. When lemming populations drop drastically it impacts snowy owls severely. Conversely, large lemming populations often results in large owl populations.

Drastically cold weather, especially with freezing rain or crusted snow, dramatically restricts the owl/s ability to catch lemmings, which might cause an irruption over a period of time. Without food northern owls face a drastic loss of weight, and endure a race against time to find food. If the owls survive such a season their reproduction rate the following spring might be naturally restricted.

It is important to realize that most irruption years do not cause mass starvation. Rather, after feeding and regaining their weight the owls return north to their regular breeding range to breed. Adult weight is 4.5 – 5.5 lbs., with females being larger than males. Snowy owls return north because their breeding areas provide improved breeding conditions.

          Really serious birders have probably already gone chasing snowy owls in the region, but it might be time for more of us moderately involved birders to take up the chase. Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey have numerous snowy owls; many have been spotted in both states.

          Check and (including their e-Bird feature) to learn more about snowy owls, including the locations of recent sightings. Use e-Bird to post your sightings and photos. Enjoy

                                   A Little Quiz- Name the below owls

Thursday, January 2, 2014

2014 Delaware New Years Field Trip

Bruce Childs scanning the marshes at Port Mahon Road
      We launched the year 2014 with our field trip to the state of Delaware. We no sooner arrived at Port Mahon Rd when within a minute of getting out of the vehicles we had our Short-eared Owl scouring the marshes for breakfast. Also over the marsh were 7 Northern Harriers, a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, about two thousand Black Ducks in the bay along with hundreds of Canada Geese and a small fly by flock of Dunlin. 

       I decided to change things up a bit this year and headed to the Dupont Nature Center and Mispillion Light at Slaughter Beach instead of going directly to Indian River Inlet. I was trying to time the tides at the inlet to our advantage. We were looking for Nelson's Sparrow at Mispillion Light, but couldn't pish one into view. As we drove to the nature center we encountered a slight problem with the roadway. It was covered in water from the rising tide. I decided to go first to test if the cars could get through. I drove through with my car door open to make sure the water wasn't to deep. It was quite deep actually, about 8" but I got through.
Navigating the 8" of salt water from the bay (photo by George Wrangham)
      We managed to get to the nature center and found lots of Black-bellied Plovers, Dunlin and Ruddy Turnstones. I'm sure we missed other birds because we were in a hurry to leave as the tide was rising quicker than I thought. 
        Fowlers Beach was our next stop and we found lots a Snow Geese in the surrounding fields.
      At the beach access we found the road to the bay was closed. But we managed to add Tundra Swans and Greater Yellowlegs, plus Ruddy Ducks and Buffleheads.
        We arrived at Indian River Inlet around 10:30AM with an outgoing tide. This is what I was hoping for as it encourages the Bonaparte's Gull to feed in the riptides. We didn't discover any unusual gulls but found Gannets, both species of Loons, Red-breasted Merganser, Boat-tailed Grackles, 150 Long-tailed Ducks, Surf and Black Scoters and the best find was a female King Eider. Another surprise species was a Tri-colored Heron flying around and landing in the marsh grasses.
Long-tailed Duck in the inlet
       As we were driving south to Indian River Inlet I noticed that the Lifeguard station was gated closed. I knew that a Snowy Owl was hanging out there but didn't know how to approach the parking situation on the return trip north. I also knew everyone was expecting to stop there to hunt for the owl. Well on the way north, as we approached the lifeguard station there must have been twenty cars parked along the side of the road with a huge crowd of people standing around with binoculars and cameras. That solved the problem. We just pulled off onto the shoulder and got out to see the Snowy Owl just sitting on top of the dune visible from Rt 1.
A real crowd pleaser
        At Silver Lake we found the usual massive flock of Canvasbacks but also found three nice male Redheads floating among the Canvasbacks. At Cape Henlopen we stopped at the nature center to get the Brown-headed Nuthatch, but to our disappointment this is what we found.
Empty feeder (photo by George Wrangham)
       Apparently the staff never filled the feeder, so there were no birds. At that
 point we did get more Bald Eagles, Red-breasted Mergansers, Loons and Scoters and a flock of 180 Snow Buntings.
       Broadkill Beach produced Greater Scaups, Pintails and Coots. A walk around Prime Hook HQ added a few sparrows and woodpeckers but the surprise was three species of warblers, Yellow-rumped, Common Yellowthroat and Nashville Warbler. We could not find the expected White-crowned Sparrow. At this point we called it a day. We ended the trip with 89 species, a little above the average of 83. The weather was very copperative with little wind and temps in the high 30's. 14 participants joined in the trip. 
A departing photo from the boardwalk at Prime Hook