Scott Judd trained his camera lens on the white dot in the distance. As he moved up the Lake Michigan shoreline, the speck on a breakwater came into view and took his breath away: it was a snowy owl, thousands of miles from its Arctic home.
“It was an amazing sight,” said Judd, a Chicago IT consultant. “It’s almost like they’re from another world. They captivate people in a way that other birds don’t.”
The large white raptors have descended on the Great Lakes region and northeastern U.S. in huge numbers in recent weeks, hanging out at airports, in farm fields, on light poles and along beaches, to the delight of bird lovers.
But for researchers, this winter’s mass migration of the owls from their breeding grounds above the Arctic Circle is serious business.
It’s a chance to trap and fit some of the visitors with tiny transmitters to help track them around the globe and study a long-misunderstood species whose numbers likely are far fewer than previously thought, researchers say.
“There is still a lot that we don’t know about them … but we aim to answer the questions in the next few years,” said Canadian biologist Jean-Francois Therrien, a senior researcher at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania.
The solar-powered transmitters can last for years, collecting information such as latitude, longitude, flight speed and air temperature that is downloaded to a server when the birds fly into range of a cell tower.
Snowy owl numbers lower than previously thought
The use of transmitters, which intensified during the last North American mass migration in winter 2013-14, already has yielded big surprises.
Instead of 300,000 snowy owls worldwide, as long believed, researchers say the population likely is closer…