Birding News #55

:: Edmonton, Alberta, is the world’s capital of “ghost” or imperfect albino Black-billed Magpies

 :: A new study finds that jackdaws can communicate silently, just with their eyes 

:: Two more Whooping Cranes have been shot, this time in Louisiana. The cranes were a pair, the female was killed and the male seriously injured.

:: City-dwelling humans are affecting urban birds, according to a new study on the effects of urbanization on the stress response system of House Finches and the effects of an intestinal parasite and a virus on the birds.

:: The US Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee has approved the bill to reauthorize the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act; the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), “says the program is a good value because it supports the hobby of bird watching”

:: New Scientist has an in-depth profile of researcher Kazuo Okanoya and his pioneering work with Bengalese Finches and the key they might hold to learning more about human speech

:: Lead poisoning is becoming an increasing problem for birds in Virginia

:: A new US study reports that as many as 988 million birds in the country die annually from window collisions, and that most birds aren’t killed en masse hitting skyscrapers but from occasional collisions with many smaller buildings.

:: The Great Backyard Bird Count is this week — February 14th to the 17th. Click here to find out more about the count.

:: 11-year-old birder Mya-Rose Craig has an impressive life list of over 3,000 bird species

:: The town of Hempstead, Long Island, in New York, has outlawed feeding Rock Pigeons, ducks, and geese, to reduce the problem of cars, houses, and yards covered with excrement.

Great posts in birding blogs this week: 

:: From John at Two Birders and Binoculars: Rusty Blackbird Migration Blitz: Help Wanted!

:: From Kathy at Still Life with a BirderThe Zen Of A Rusty Hinge

:: From Shyloh at Beakingoff: A Detailed Telling of my Antarctic Journey – Part 4 – Elephant Island

:: From Laurence at Butler’s BirdsEncanto Encounters–Reigniting an Old Flame

:: Josh at Birding is Fun: Winter Rarities Keeping the Birding Action Hot!

:: From Robert at Birding for a LarkThe spring passage has begun

Where Are the Snowy Owls?

KeepCalmThis might be a strange question to ask with so many Snowy Owls being reported in the eastern United States and Canada the last couple of months. One group of birders from Newfoundland counted 301 Snowy Owls in weekend and one Snowy Owl made it all the way to Bermuda! But for those of us in western North America, who are accustomed to seeing Snowy Owls in the winter months, it’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves.

In fact, Snowy Owls have been found this winter in every northeastern state and even in some southern ones. This explosion of owls has excited birders, and even some non-birders, everywhere the owls have been reported.

Here’s a screenshot of all the recent Snowy Owl sighting reported to eBird. It’s hard not to notice the lack of reports from the owls’ usual winter range in northern Canada and Alaska. There are a handful of reports from the west side of the continent but nothing compared to the east side,

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Snowy Owls breed in the very northern part of Canada and Alaska where there is constant daylight in the summer, so during breeding season they have no choice but to hunt during the day. In the winter, they hunt by day or night, which is why this species is more commonly seen than other owl species. Snowy Owls mainly eat lemmings, voles, and mice, but they are opportunistic hunters. A Snowy Owl can eat more than 1,600 lemmings in a single year.

Lemming populations fluctuate drastically from year to year with peak number happening about every four years. Lemming populations don’t affect only Snowy Owls, but also Arctic Foxes, Rough-legged Hawks, weasels, Gyrfalcons, and other Arctic wildlife. When the lemming populations are high in the spring and summer, other species’ populations increase; when the lemming population drops, other species that depend on lemmings for prey decline. So goes the cycle of Arctic life.

A Snowy Owl nest in northern Quebec in 2013 -- brought to the nest even before the eggs have hatched. (photo by J. F. Therrien

A Snowy Owl nest in northern Quebec in 2013 — brought to the nest even before the eggs have hatched. Photograph by J. F. Therrien. I found this photo on the Arctic Raptors Facebook page

It seems likely that most of the Snowy Owls being seen/reported in the east are young ones that have been pushed out of their normal range by the adults or have moved out looking for food. This results in an irruption, or an invasion as some birders like to call it. An irruption is a large, temporary migration of a species into areas where they’re usually not found.

This recent invasion is likely caused by a lack of food supply for the owls, following a plentiful supply of lemmings last spring and summer in the owls’ breeding grounds, which meant the adult owls were able to raise lots of young. But this past fall and this winter, the lemming population may not have been able to keep up with the increased owl population, forcing young owls and even some adult birds south and east in search of food.

Last week I asked members of the Alberta Birds Facebook group if they’ve been seeing as many Snowy Owls as in previous years, more, fewer, or about the same. Some members said that they’ve seen fewer owls, and others said that they’ve seen about the same number as in previous years. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a Snowy Owl yet this winter, so I find myself wondering, where in North America are the Snowy Owls I usually see in the winter. The numbers of Snowy Owls in Alberta are definitely nothing compared to the east.

Here are some photos of a Snowy Owl I took a couple of years ago near our farm,

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As a result of the irruption, some researchers have started a project to track the Snowy Owls movements with transmitters. Project SNOWstorm is a really neat opportunity to study Snowy Owls, so please be sure to check out the website and donate if you want to help study Snowy Owls!

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More Snowy Owl stories:

:: An interview with Newfoundland birder Bruce Mctavish 

:: The New York Times looks at tracking the Snowy Owl irruption 

:: An article from eBird on Snowy Owls

:: From the ABA Blog: The 2013 Snowy Owl Invasion: It’s Getting Crazier by the Minute

Birding News #50

:: A Snowy Owl survived a collision with a pickup truck in Ohio

:: An article about all the new species of birds discovered in 2013

:: A USA Today story for the New Year about the renewed popularity of birding

:: The city of Medicine Hat, Alberta, has filed a joint application along with LGX Oil & Gas Inc. to ask that a recent federal environmental protection order, to help save the Greater Sage Grouse, be quashed or suspended to protect the viability of the city’s oilfields; the filing came just as the 30-day appeal period was set to expire.

:: Alberta’s proposed South Saskatchewan Regional Plan for the southern part of the province is open for public consultation until January 15th; the government is planning to finalize the SSRP this winter and put it into effect in April. There are good articles here on the SSRP by The Calgary Herald‘s environment reporter and by Kevin Van Tighem, author and retired superintendent of Banff National Park.

:: The Moluccan Woodcock may not be as endangered as scientists thought

:: New Hampshire state representative David Campbell killed six ducks with his BMW

:: Neil Hayward’s Big Year made it into The Boston Globe

:: A story from The Wall Street Journal about the controversy of playing tape calls

:: Two Bald Eagles were shot and killed in Maryland

Great posts in birding blogs this week: 

:: From Michael at The EyrieOpen Mic: Citizens clean up and researchers protect birds after oil spill

:: From Dan at Birds CalgaryMy 2013 Birding Year in Review

:: From Neil at The Accidental Big Year: Cooking with Skuas

:: From Kenneth at Rosyfinch RamblingsHungry cormorant babies

:: From Kathleen at BirdworthyDoesn’t Rain, But It Snows

:: From Julie at Birding is FunThe Longboat Key Pelican Squadron