Snowy Owl Presentation Recap

image001On Monday, January 5, at 6:30 pm, the Orleans Conservation Trust (OCT) hosted the first of five  presentations in our 2015 Winter & Spring Lecture Series at the Orleans Yacht Club. For more than an hour and half, Norman Smith, director of the Mass Audubon Blue Hills Trailside Museum, amazed and inspired more than 100 attendees gathered on a cold winter night.

Norman has studied birds of prey for more than 35 years, including rehabilitating the injured and successfully fostering more than 1,000 orphaned hawk and owl chicks into adoptive nests. And he the pictures to prove it! Scrolling through 100+ slides, Norman gave attendees an intimate look at owls and  raptors of all shapes and sizes—images that could be seen nowhere else. To the delight of his audience, in nearly every picture Norman identified his “staff” or “consultants”—who were in fact his children, seen handling owls and raptors from the age of two.

Norman showed slides of male and female snowy owls, identifying the physical characteristics of each. Females are typically larger in size than males and have darker feathers. However, those characteristics can be misleading, and after 35 years of research and observations, Norman still finds it nearly impossible to determine an owl’s sex and age from a distance.

The heart of Norman’s presentation focused on his ongoing long-term Snowy Owl Project. Since 1981 he has spent countless days and nights, in all imaginable weather conditions, observing, capturing, banding, and color-marking snowy owls at Boston’s Logan International Airport. Norman made it clear that all of his work is performed with special permits: the public of course is not allowed to enter restricted airport property, or to capture any kind of owl or other raptor.

“So why would snowy owls stop at Logan Airport,” Norman asked. He explained that, as the owls migrate north and south, they look for stopping places that resemble their home on the Arctic tundra. A slide showed clearly that to the snowy owl, the land around Logan fits the bill. It’s low and flat, with short scruffy plants and grasses, and an abundance of small mammals and birds to eat.

In fact, Logan Airport has the largest known concentration of snowy owls in the Northeast. The birds usually show up at the airport in early November; the earliest date recorded is October 22. They leave in early April; the latest date recorded is July 7. However, this past year two snowy owls were documented staying within the Boston area the entire year. Their presence at the airport is a double-edged sword. While the owls help by scaring away other birds that might endanger aircraft, they themselves are large enough to pose a threat. To protect both birds and jets, Norman safely captures and relocates snowy owls each year.

Norman also discussed his efforts to track snowy owls. Since 1997, he has attached tiny transmitters to the healthiest owls he relocates. These transmitters send data such as location, temperature, and altitude, enabling researchers to learn more about snowy owl migration routes, the rate at which they travel, if and where they stop along the way, where they spend the breeding season, and where they spend the winter. Listeners were dismayed to learn that over the years Norman has found many owls dead, not of natural causes but shot during their travels. The tracking project is a partnership with the US Geological Survey (USGS) and Boise State University (BSU), and is completely dependent upon private donations.

Rounding out the lecture was a group of slides showing Norman’s children handling the raptors and owls from toddler age through adulthood. He described how his daughter’s early interaction with the birds inspired her in high school to design a program to capture and record the elusive saw-whet owl. The only project of its kind in the country, this program ran all the way through her college years, eventually leading to the capture of thousands of saw-whet owls. To Norman, this experience demonstrates the importance of getting kids actively engaged with outdoor environmental projects.

If you missed this lecture, please attend our next presentation on Monday, February 2, from 6:30 – 7:30 pm at the Orleans Yacht Club (39 Cove Road, Orleans). Bonnie Snow, Orleans resident and amateur historian, will discuss the history of the lands now conserved on Town Cove, including Sea Call Farm, Meadow on the Cove, and the Windmill.