In Search of SNOW
The protagonists in this story are mystical, white creatures from the far, far north. They have come south to the warm winters of the northern United States to enjoy our rodents and birds. Normally only seen during Harry Potter movies, Snowy Owls have been spotted as far south as Florida this year. Starting in mid-November, reports began appearing along the coast of Nova Scotia south along the Atlantic Coast. On November 23, the first one showed up in Vermont—at the Burlington waterfront of all places! By Christmas it was an all-out invasion.
In North America, bird banders (people who put metal bands on birds for scientific studies) have created a system of code names for birds as a universal way to shorten lengthy names such as Gray-crowned Rosy Finch (GCRF). Following the convention, Snowy Owls are called SNOW—a fitting name for a white bird that spends most of its time on the ground in snowy places.
Even though the skiing is lousy, it has been a very exciting winter for some—particularly birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts, like myself. The excitement is because it has been much easier to find Snowy Owls this winter then anytime in recent memory. In extreme years it might require a plane ticket to the Arctic tundra to reliably find one. In 2011, I made a detour with my family on the way back from Christmas in upstate New York to get a chance to see one of the only Snowy Owls in Vermont that winter. We got lucky and found the bird, but other birdwatchers that had traveled from far corners of Vermont weren’t so lucky—that is the risk you take “chasing” Snowy Owls in a normal year. This year, however, it is possible to spend a morning (or afternoon) driving around western Addison County, VT and find multiple owls. So far the single day record in Vermont is 9 (and over 300 in southern Newfoundland.)
These beautiful birds have a unique ability to bring together a wide range of people from the serious birdwatcher to the Harry Potter fan. When they are found south of their normal range and in populated places they often gather crowds of birdwatchers, photographers and pedestrians.
Birdwatching (or birding as serious birders call their sport) has different meanings to different people—everything from looking at a birdfeeder once or twice a day to dedicating a lifetime and traveling the world to see as many species as possible. I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, admittedly closer to the latter. My parents tell me I started birding from my highchair watching our feeder and pointing to different species with names such as “Daddy Seed Cruncher” (Rose-breasted Grosbeak) and “Uncle Seed Cruncher” (Evening Grosbeak). By the time my classmates began reading books like Magic School House, I knew the names of most of the local birds and was reading field guides cover to cover. Now I bird when I can, where I can, but am always listening and looking for birds, even out of classroom windows.
In my year here at Middlebury (as a biology major), I am yet to find another student with the same level of interest in birds, but several friends can easily be convinced to drive around in search of a Snowy Owl with me. On one such trip, we found an owl pellet beneath a barn where a Snowy has been frequently seen. Owls swallow most of their smaller prey items whole and as a result, the hair, bones, and feathers the animals they eat are regurgitated in a neat little package called a pellet. With a little bit of pressure these pellets come apart easily and reveal a snapshot of the owl’s diet in the past 24 hours. Inside the mess of hairs that was our pellet we found a mostly complete skull, a couple jawbones, and a few smaller bone fragments. Pigmented teeth on one set of jaw bones told us the owl had recently eaten a Blarina Brevicauda (Northern Short-tailed Shrew)…wait sorry, I got distracted by a pair of adult Bald Eagles circling against the blue sky outside the Bicentennial Hall window as I write this…right, back to small mammals. The skull belonged to a species of vole, which based on the habitat the Snowy Owls favor, was almost certainly Microtus pennsylvanicus (Meadow Vole). I guess birding is about more than just birds.
Even if its hard to find other college students who are obsessed with birds, there are a good number of people in the community that are at least as fanatic as I am, if not more. One is Ian Worley—a semi-retired UVM Environmental Studies professor living in Weybridge, VT. In the birding community, Ian’s name is synonymous with careful observations and exact counts of birds anywhere in the southern Champlain Valley. Much of his reputation comes from his posts on the local birding email list serve (Vermont Birds). He birds nearly every day, and shares his sightings almost as frequently. From late fall through mid spring, he regularly counts all the waterfowl he can find on a large section of southern Lake Champlain. The lists he comes up with are truly amazing, and have had a real impact on the understanding of waterfowl distributions on Lake Champlain. When the ice conditions are right, it is not unusual for his reports to contain numbers like 2,134 Common Goldeneye, 2 Barrows Goldeneye, 550 Greater Scaup, 400 Lesser Scaup and 5 or 6 other species. In all his comments and observations, the scientist speaks first, but certainly does not overwhelm his witty sense of humor or aesthetic appreciation.
Equally passionate but very different in style is a special education teacher in Middlebury.
Like a real-life Magic School Bus, a white minibus pulls up and the door opens. “Welcome Aboard” a cheerful Miss Frizzle chirps. Only my Miss Frizzle is a middle-aged man with clean-cut brown hair—but that’s about the biggest difference. The plastered smile and passion for education belong to Rodney Olsen, a teacher with the Diversified Occupations program of the Hannaford Career Center. Today, and most days for that matter, this magic school bus is loaded with high school kids and headed out for an avian adventure. The science gadgets on this bus are binoculars and a peculiar cage with two brown mice.
“Anyone remember what scientists call them?” asks Mr. O from the driver’s seat.
“Wait, wait…ahhh…I know it….ahh.”
“It starts with a P…”
“Peromyscus!” (The latin name of the genus of these mice)
“Who said that?!”
“Hurricane Hannah everyone! What a find that girl is!” Mr. O exclaims, with a hint of show biz in his voice.
This simple conversation is part of a much larger success story. This is science class in Mr. O’s mobile classroom. The students all have some form of learning or social disability and would struggle in a traditional classroom setting. Here they are exposed to all sorts of cool things their high school peers will never experience. Mr. O has combined a love of birds with an incredible gift for teaching and has created a unique program.
The lesson for today is how to catch a Snowy Owl—well at least that’s the backdrop for learning data collection, problem solving, collaboration, and responsibility. While teaching the students vocabulary words (such as lemmings and dihedral) and monitoring behavior, Mr. O is simultaneously driving the back roads of Addison with his eyes peeled for hawks and owls. Every once and awhile, usually without warning, he slams on the breaks and pulls the bus to a stop. Sometimes it’s a false alarm, other times there is a hawk sitting on a telephone pole or tree. Today the focus is Snowy Owls, so we keep moving unless the raptor is in a good place to “drop” on it. When Mr. O says, “go ahead and drop it,” one or two students (and sometimes his teaching assistant) jump out of the bus and embed the mouse cage in the snow bank along the road. As soon as the kids are back in their seats, or sometimes just before, the magic school bus is thrown in reverse to a reliable jeering from the peanut gallery.
“Don’t get it stuck, Mr. O”
“They would have to get a tractor to pull us out”
“I could do it with my 4-wheeler”
“No you couldn’t”
Mr. O got the bus stuck in a muddy field earlier this fall, and the kids won’t let him forget it. Nor would they ever miss a chance to talk about the snowmobiles and 4-wheelers many of them own. One of the goals of the program is to get each kid a driver’s license by the time they graduate. It is clear from listening to the kids that some have spent a lot of times around trucks and engines and are more adept at mechanics than the average gear head, but for others its hard to imagine they will ever have the mobility or focus to get behind the wheel. One big, friendly kid named Dawson could almost pass for a public high school student who is more interested in “coydogs,” .22’s, and horsepower than long division and Steinbeck. On the other end of the spectrum is Dan who needs help walking and is only comprehensible on his second or third try. Danny is however, the best of the bunch at spotting distant raptors (although they often turn out to be crows). This is part of the beauty—a wide range of students doing really cool things.
The trap, called a Bal-Chatri, is a wire box with two live mice and monofilament nooses specifically designed to catch hawks, falcons, and owls. After backing to a safe distance, we wait for 5 or 10 minutes until the hawk descends on the mice, or loses interest. The entire time he is quizzing the kids or telling stories of past adventures with big birds of prey (the kids love to fantasize about catching an eagle).
Something about this teacher brings out the best in these kids–they are incredibly respectful, yet playful and engaged. He is soft-spoken and calm, yet easily excitable with anything bird. Like most birders I know, he can talk for days about things he has seen, birds he is looking for, and hypotheses he has developed about why there are so many American Robins this year, or so few Evening Grosbeaks. As for the Snowy Owl invasion this year, he prescribes to the dominant theory in the birding world—extraordinary reproductive success due to a population spike in Lemmings—the owl’s main summer food. If he is successful in catching an owl this winter, the data he gathers while handling the bird will be helpful in confirming or contradicting the current idea. Even though he “won’t let science get in the way of his students’ education,” he collects some morphological measurements and pictures, which can give clues about the bird’s age, sex, and health.
The real success and uniqueness of this program is that disadvantaged students are motivated to learn. Even if the hawks can only help with basic reading and writing skills, for some of the students that is more than they could ever accomplish in a traditional classroom with chalkboards and textbooks. Even though Mr. O’s eyes and mind are always out the window, his students and their needs come first.
During one of my outings with Rodney Olsen’s science class, I got on the bus in the midst of a lesson about Snowy Owls. The assistant teacher, a younger women who the students call AP, was reading to the kids about the diet of these diurnal owls. As I sat there I realized a lot of this information was new to me as well. For example, these remarkable predators have been known to prey on ducks, geese, and even small hawks. It is the abundance of Arctic lemmings, however, that influence the number that come south in the winter. A single owl can eat more than 16,000 lemmings during a year, and lemming populations are notoriously cyclical. The exact details and drivers of this population cycle are still a big mystery, as little work has been done and there appear to be differences between the Western Arctic ecosystems and Greenland ecosystems. Climate Change also presents a big unknown that threatens to destabilize the entire region. As for the owls, the prevailing theory is that in some summers, like the past one, the lemming population is so great that the owls will increase the number of eggs laid and there will be enough food to feed the extra young. Come winter when resources start to get scarce, many of the young owls, and some of the adults, need to fly south to find sufficient food. This is the case this winter.
With several more months to go, this winter is already one for the ages. A citizen science project from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, called ebird and viewable online at ebird.org, collects data from birdwatchers and researchers throughout the world and can document trends such as this invasion. The website was launched in 2002, but can accommodate historical records going back to 1900. Because ebird is a voluntary program without strict guidelines on data collection, multiple people seeing and entering the same individual bird can create biased outputs. Even so, this program with a map of all sightings clearly shows an unusually broad distribution of the owls in the state with the highest densities in southwestern Addison County. There was only one report from Vermont last winter, a smaller invasion in the winter of 2011-2012, and two reports in all of New England during the winter of 2010-2011.
Addison County is often the best area in the state to find these birds because of their fondness for wide-open spaces. Because they breed on the Arctic Tundra they have adapted to hunt from the ground, as opposed to many of the other owls here that hunt from perches in trees. In their barren home the summer sun does not set for up to two entire months when these birds are breeding, which necessitates daytime feeding and makes these birds relatively easy to find. There is a short section of Town Line Road between Rt. 125 and Jersey Street that has been remarkably productive this winter—I have seen a Snowy four out of five times I’ve been there, but there are at least two different birds involved. Snowy Owls plumage varies along a spectrum from nearly pure white to so heavily barred that they appear mostly black. The Snowy shown on page one is an example of a very dark bird that is most likely an immature female, a second, much whiter bird has also been seen in the same area and is likely an immature male.
Eleven species of owl have been recorded in Vermont over the years, but like the Snowy Owl, several of these are rare birds that wander south when food is scarce. Others are present in small numbers year round but are hard to detect and even harder to see. Only one species is abundant throughout the state, the Barred Owl (see photo). In my experience, anytime someone, a birder, or not, sees an owl of any kind it is a nice surprise. This adds to the mysticism of Snowy Owls—not only are they gorgeous and rare, they belong to a family that is elusive and mysterious. Can they really turn their heads all the way around? How do they see in the dark? Are the tufts on their heads ears?
No they can’t turn their heads 360˚ but the Snowy Owl and most others can go 270˚ in both directions. All owls have large eyes fixed in the socket that are very good at gathering light and spotting mice. Their ears are also highly sensitive, although they are on the side of the face as opposed to the tufts. Their faces are slightly asymmetrical (visible on the Barred Owl above) which helps the triangulate sounds of mice running beneath the snow.
I could talk for pages about how and why birding interests and excites me. But a complete stranger and beginning birdwatcher explained the power of birds much more elegantly than I ever will be able to. While watching the semi-famous Snowy Owl on Town Line Rd. in Addison, several people stopped on their way by, either jogging or driving. The third was a woman who had just moved to the area and was working at a house within sight of where we were standing. She stopped and asked what we were looking at (we were a strange sight with all our optics and warm clothes). After seeing the Snowy Owl through my scope and talking briefly about birds in the area, she got back in her car. Her parting words took a second to register, but were immediately immortalized in my mind—“today was a good day, but now it’s a great day.”