snowy owl

Snowy Owls Galore

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Snowy Owls: Goose Pond, Arlington, and Coddington

Madison Audubon’s involvement with Project SNOWstorm began in February 2015 when Goose Pond Sanctuary experienced many observations of snowy owls as winter visitors. Project SNOWstorm was just getting started as a non-profit that studies snowy owls’ winter ecology after the historic snowy owl irruption of 2013-14.

What had once been simple (excited) observations of snowy owls near Goose Pond led to a parntership with Project SNOWstorm and local biologists to safely capture, place a transmitter on the back of, and release these birds back to the wild. We hope that those involved with “our” two snowy owls at Goose Pond — Goose Pond and Arlington — enjoy the memories of those events, and that new birders can learn about the snowy owl project. And now, we have the pleasure of watching a third owl associated with our organization: Coddington.

The three snowy owls Madison Audubon and its donors have supported as part of Project SNOWstorm. Left: Goose Pond (2015), photo by Richard Armstrong. Center: Arlington (2018), photo by Madison Audubon Society. Right: Coddington (2019), photo by Brad Zinda.

Over the past four decades snowy owls are seen infrequently at Goose Pond but sightings increased in the winter of 2013-2014 in our area. Ryan Brady, DNR Conservation Biologist provides updates on snowy owls, and this winter, 85 have been sighted in Wisconsin, but so far not on our sanctuary.   

Over 75 snowy owls have been tracked by Project SNOWstorm throughout the United States and Canada, including three owls with transmitters funded by MAS donors. The first bird, “Goose Pond”, was caught and released on February 14, 2015; “Arlington” on January 4, 2018; and “Coddington” and on January 3, 2019.


Mark Martin releasing the newly tagged Goose Pond owl. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Mark Martin releasing the newly tagged Goose Pond owl. Photo by Arlene Koziol

“Goose Pond” (2015)

Our first snowy owl was caught at the Central Wisconsin Airport at Mosinee, released at the UW Arlington Research Station one mile south of Goose Pond, and named after our nearby iconic wildlife sanctuary. (Conservation groups actively work on relocating owls that are found at or near airports due to the high risk for the birds and planes.) On March 19, Goose Pond flew southwest to Grant County, and his last transmitted data was six miles northwest of Dubuque, Iowa on March 29. Shortly after that his transmitter failed. We later learned that he spent time near Highway 151 near Platteville. When learning that he moved to a rural area in Grant County, Mark Martin, Matt Reetz, and raptor biologists from Eagle Valley tried trapping him so that his failed transmitter could be removed, but were unsuccessful.


Arlington’s piercing gaze is unforgettable. Photo by David Rihn.

Arlington’s piercing gaze is unforgettable. Photo by David Rihn.

 “Arlington” (2018)

Of all the transmitted owls in the Midwest, Arlington made the most movements away from and back to his release sight at the UW Farms. Project SNOWstorm scientist Scott Weidensaul wrote in the February 18, 2018 Project Snowstorm blog that “Arlington took a little walkabout Feb. 12-13, making a 90-mile (144 km) jaunt east to the outskirts of Watertown, south to Lake Koshkonong, and then back up to his normal (Arlington) territory.” Arlington later took a cruise to Rush Lake near Ripon and returned. That April, the Midwest was hit with giant spring snowstorms, delaying the bird’s migration back to the tundra.

A map of Arlington’s extensive travels while in Wisconsin. Image provided by Project SNOWstorm.

A map of Arlington’s extensive travels while in Wisconsin. Image provided by Project SNOWstorm.

From Project SNOWstorm’s May 13, 2018 blog: “…there’s been a lot going on, so let’s bring everyone up to speed. Unfortunately, the biggest news is also the saddest. Arlington, who was tagged Jan. 4 at Madison Audubon’s Goose Pond Preserve near Arlington, Wisconsin, was found dead along a roadside in Benton County, Minnesota, on April 29. Although we’ll conduct a necropsy to be sure, it appears he was killed by a vehicle collision — our third such loss this winter. A passerby saw a snowy owl sitting along a country road, not moving, and when they returned half an hour later, the owl — Arlington — was lying dead.

We’re deeply grateful to Carroll Henderson and the other folks at Minnesota DNR, who recovered Arlington, for reaching out to us immediately and making arrangements to have him and his transmitter shipped to us — just another example of the terrific cooperation we’ve enjoyed over the years from state, provincial and national wildlife agencies.  And we’d like to again extend our thanks to Madison Audubon for sponsoring Arlington’s transmitter — this is a hard loss for them as well as us, but Arlington’s movement data is and will remain a valuable legacy.”

Project SNOWstorm sent us the results of his necropsy that found low (sublethal) levels of Brodifacoum rodenticide, and also DDE, the breakdown product of DDT, which we find at varying levels in many snowy owls, and significant levels of mercury. We’re looking hard at what such toxins mean for snowy owl health. He had a moderately heavy load of parasitic nematodes, which we’ve seen at fatally high levels in some snowy owls.

Fortunately, Project SNOWstorm was able to recover Arlington’s transmitter and refurbish it for another bird in the future. While Arlington’s death was a blow, the prospects of tagging another owl with the transmitter gives Arlington’s followers and the donors to the $3,000 transmitter a second chance to hope.


Coddington, the snowy owl outfitted with Arlington’s transmitter, in profile. Photo by Brad ZInda.

Coddington, the snowy owl outfitted with Arlington’s transmitter, in profile. Photo by Brad ZInda.

“Coddington” (2019)

And a second chance came this winter! Coddington, an adult male snowy owl, was caught and released at Buena Vista Marsh on January 3, 2019 and outfitted with “Arlington’s” transmitter. The perils of winter life for snowy owls continue, however, as we learned this week that he made a narrow escape from disaster with help from a farm family in Plover and the Raptor Education Group, Inc. (REGI). Likely after chasing prey into a barn and getting stuck inside, and in a lagoon of cow manure no less, Coddington was rescued by the Biadasz family, cleaned up, examined, and is currently in rehab with REGI.

Because Coddington will be in rehab and stationary for three to four weeks, his transmitter was removed and we’re hoping to be able to capture, tag, and release another snowy owl with that transmitter. We are so glad Coddington will recover and in time to migrate north!


Arlington sits at the rock quarry outside of Goose Pond Sanctuary in 2018. Photo by Monica Hall

Arlington sits at the rock quarry outside of Goose Pond Sanctuary in 2018. Photo by Monica Hall

As you can see, snowy owls — indeed, most bird species — face numerous challenges when interacting with the human world. But programs like Project SNOWstorm, which work to understand those specific challenges, people like you and I, who work hard to take action to help birds like Goose Pond, Arlinton, and Coddington, can make a world of difference.

Thank you to:

  • Project SNOWstorm for establishing and coordinating the snowy owl winter ecology research project. Their staff of volunteers is great to work with!

  • Gene Jacobs, Raptor Biologist with Linwood Springs Research Station for catching and banding the three owls.  

  • MAS members that donated to funding two transmitters and to donors to Project SNOWstorm.

  • Everyone who provided sightings and photos, and helped trap the owls.

  • The staff at UW Arlington Research Farms for their reports and cooperation.

Together, we can make a difference!

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers, and Brenna Marsicek Madison Audubon director of communications

A Snowy Owl named Arlington

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Meet Arlington. Photo by David Rihn

Meet Arlington. Photo by David Rihn

This winter is shaping up to be a great snowy owl irruption year. Ryan Brady with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources estimated there are at least 225 snowy owls in Wisconsin this winter. In a typical year, Wisconsin sees a couple dozen snowy owls, so finding ourselves in a snowy flurry is just delightful!

Snowy owls are among the two or three species at greatest and most immediate risk from climate change, yet we know relatively little about their ecology during migration, and why they're here in human-dominated landscapes (read more about the snowies at Goose Pond in our December 15, 2017 FFF post). We’re honored to work with Project SNOWstorm again this winter to study snowy owls in a really cool way: using a backpack transmitter.

Project SNOWstorm tracks migrations and movements of snowy owls across North America. Photo from projectstowstorm.org

Project SNOWstorm tracks migrations and movements of snowy owls across North America. Photo from projectstowstorm.org

Project SNOWstorm began its work in the 2013-14 irruption and in the first four years they and partners have tagged 48 owls in 10 states, including Wisconsin. In fact, early in the project's history they worked with a snowy named “Goose Pond” (aka “Goose”), a clue as to its residence that winter. Goose was caught by conservation biologist Gene Jacobs at the Central Wisconsin Airport south of Wausau. Madison Audubon donors sponsored Goose to be outfitted with a Project SNOWstorm transmitter, and the bird was released south of Goose Pond at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station. (Relocation away from airports is a common and useful practice to protect both parties.)

Through data collected by Goose’s and other snowies’ transmitters, Project SNOWstorm has documented little-known and surprising aspects of snowy owl ecology and behavior, traced their migrations in unprecedented detail, and delved into their health and the risks they face from environmental toxins like mercury. Project SNOWstorm has also partnered with federal wildlife agencies and airports to find better ways to keep airplanes and owls safely apart. They published a paper in 2017 showing trends in the habitats used by tagged owls.

With this winter’s snowy owl irruption, Project SNOWstorm was once again looking for owls in Wisconsin on which to place transmitters. With three owls around Goose Pond Sanctuary, Madison Audubon Society stepped up and volunteered to help trap owls and raise $3,000 to cover the cost of a transmitter. If you want to help with the cost of that transmitter, please donate today!

The process was quite the rollercoaster.

A snowy owl perches in the late afternoon sun. Photo by Lester Doyle

A snowy owl perches in the late afternoon sun. Photo by Lester Doyle

On December 13, Goose Pond staff saw two snowy owls within two minutes from the Kampen Road residence. As a result, an owl trapping plan was quickly developed for the next day with Gene Jacobs and Tom Meyer who are both federally licensed bird banders. (Gene specializes in banding owls and banded 490 saw whets and 20 long-eared owls this fall at Linwood Springs Research Center. Tom and Rick Hill are the lead bird banders at Cedar Grove Ornithological Station where they banded over 800 raptors this fall alone!)

On December 14, the snowy search crews assembled. We received a phone call tip that a snowy owl was seen near Goose Pond’s Sue Ames Prairie just before the banders and volunteers arrived. However, after 90 minutes of extensive searching, attendees were disappointed to find not a single owl, snowy or otherwise. We were skunked. Goosed. Snowied.

But, owl trappers are a persistent group and Gene, Tom, and Rick, along with more volunteers tried again on January 4. Hopes were again high. One owl had been seen the night before along Highways 51 and K and another was seen near Highway K and Goose Pond Road.

Forming a game plan before scouting for the snowy owls. MAS Photo

Forming a game plan before scouting for the snowy owls. MAS Photo

Tom and Rick arrived in early afternoon and we immediately headed out. By 1:30 p.m. we found the owl near Goose Pond Road sitting in a large bare field. This particular bird waited patiently in the field for the next several hours until our owl scouts and trappers were assembled into teams and sent off to both keep an eye on the owl we'd already seen, and look for another one. Maddie with team members Matt Reetz and David Rihn, and Sue with team members Monica Hall, Janet Flynn, and Greg Tiedt, parked just off of Hwy K where they could watch the owl's movements, and potentially take off after it if need be. Mark and others searched with Gene for additional owls.

Gene was spot on when he said, “humans are the least patient animal on the planet.” Watching and waiting for a snowy owl to move, you quickly realize just how patient most animals, particularly predators, really are!

I spy with my little eye something that is white. Photo by David Rihn

I spy with my little eye something that is white. Photo by David Rihn

It wasn't until about 4:30 p.m., just as the shadows lengthened enough to finally cast a pall over his bright feathers, that the owl finally flew to the top of the gravel mound in the quarry. Tom and Rick had already set up a cage holding two starlings as bait. We waited in great suspense until suddenly a University vehicle came down the road by the quarry, and the owl flushed to a nearby fence post. The owl knew the starlings were there, but it was far more cautious after that! For the next 30 minutes, Tom and Rick noted that the owl would land on the ground next to the trap and walk around and around, looking at the starlings, considering what to do. 

Gene was summoned to the quarry to help, and he was getting ready to try and trap the owl with a bow net. Right about this time Mark called and reported that he and Brad Zinda, a wildlife student from UW Stevens Point, found another snowy sitting on a utility pole in the front yard of a house nearby. It was nearly 5:00 and getting dark. Since the snowy owl at the quarry was now skittish, Gene decided to try his luck with the snowy Mark and Brad found.

Gene set up a bow net on adjacent University land and backed up his vehicle just enough so that he could still monitor both the owl and the bow net containing a rock pigeon as bait, in nearly complete darkness. After 20 minutes, the owl attempted one quick pass at the pigeon in the bow net and then returned to a pole nearby.

By now it was about 5:35 p.m. and Gene turned on the headlights so he could see the trap. Then, quick as a flash, the owl swooped for the pigeon and Gene hit the remote control that caused the bow net to close.  Gene, Stacy Taritas, and Maddie all made a mad dash into the bitter cold to release the owl and rescue the unharmed pigeon. Stacy later mentioned “that night was the experience of a lifetime.”

The bow net was packed up and the crew headed to the Kampen Road residence, owl carefully in tow, where it was learned that the other owl at the quarry had also been captured! The first owl finally went for the starlings and his talons got tangled in the trap for just long enough to allow the volunteers to approach and untangle him (and save the starlings).

"The Boys", with Quarry on the left and Arlington on the right. Photo by Maddie Dumas

"The Boys", with Quarry on the left and Arlington on the right. Photo by Maddie Dumas

Both owls were young males and each was banded. The first owl was the smaller of the two and named "Quarry". The second was given the name “Arlington”, and was fitted with a solar pack transmitter that will send hourly location GPS data through a cell phone tower to “owl central” on the east coast.  

By the light of the rising super moon, the owls were both released back into the wild to hunt and enjoy the cold, crisp evening. What a thrill for Maddie and volunteer Gerry Bennicoff who released the owls!

Arlington can be tracked on the Project SNOWstorm website.  More info on another Wisconsin snowy owl caught and outfitted with a new backpack is available here. We will also be providing updates on the MAS website about our new friend Arlington. If you would like to visit Goose Pond Sanctuary to see Arlington and Quarry with your own eyes, the best time to search is the last hour of daylight. Respect for wildlife and private property is of the utmost importance, however; please do not approach the animals or trespass to get a closer look!

This, and one other snowy owl died after being struck by passing vehicles on January 12. Photo by Monica Hall

This, and one other snowy owl died after being struck by passing vehicles on January 12. Photo by Monica Hall

Related and sad news came to us this morning (Jan. 12). Two snowy owls within two miles of the place Arlington and his comrade were released, were killed by vehicles. While we are glad neither was Arlington, it is heartbreaking to see such preventable destruction of life. Please drive slowly and cautiously to help care for our magnificent wildlife!

NOTE:  Neither the starlings nor pigeon were harmed in the traps.

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary Resident Managers, and Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary Land Steward

 

Snowy Owl

Out here on the sanctuary, our favorite sign that winter is finally on its way are the first sightings of snowy owls! Even before our first snow flurries, we had a flurry of snowy owl activity with two confirmed owls in multiple sightings. Though we don’t see them every year, this year seems to be promising for snowy owl sightings in our area. In Wisconsin the snowy owl irruption began in November, with 105 birds spotted by November 29 -- a record for this date according to data from the Wisconsin DNR from the past eight years. Snowy owl sightings have been widespread across the Midwest and along the East Coast, with larger concentrations around the Great Lakes.

Photo by Richard Armstrong

Photo by Richard Armstrong

Snowy owls are the largest owl (by weight) in North America that spend their summers breeding and hunting their favorite food, lemmings, in the Arctic Circle. Some years they will remain in the treeless tundra through the winter, while other years -- like this one -- they migrate to southern Canada and northern United States (and must feel quite at home when they rest in the treeless fields of Wisconsin). Click here to read about habitats snowies use when they migrate south during irruption years. The magnificently white owls (think Harry Potter's Hedwig) are adult males, while females and juveniles have more brown specs throughout their plumage.

Photo by Rich Armstrong

Photo by Rich Armstrong

And they are as thrilling to see in person as you imagine or can attest to. My first snowy owl sighting was this year at Goose Pond! Now that I've seen one, I'm hooked on seeing them again. But we at Goose Pond spend a lot of time keeping tabs on these owls not just because we're obsessed with these beautiful creatures, but because they are mysterious animals and what exactly they're doing here and for how long is a puzzle we are trying to piece together with Project SNOWstorm. More on that below.

At Goose Pond the first sighting this year was on November 30 when my husband, Aaron Dumas, was driving home down Prairie Lane and saw a very white snowy owl fly in front of his vehicle from the direction of Wingspan. What a shot it would be to get a photo of a snowy owl sitting on the Wingspan goose! Multiple sightings over the next two weeks of both this white snowy owl, and a bird with more dark flecks show that we have at least two snowies out here. It's possible that the owls were originally attracted to our area by the constant calls of the swans, geese and ducks that remained on the pond until recently. At least two owls have hung around since the waterfowl left. 

On the evening of December 12, Goose Pond staff and volunteers were searching for the owls from 4:00 PM till dark. Sue, Arlene Koziol, and Linda Pils found a dark-flecked owl sitting on a UW Agricultural Station outbuilding about a two miles southeast of the pond. About ten minutes later, my group -- Mark, Caleb, and I -- spotted another dark-flecked owl sitting on a utility pole on Goose Pond Road just north of our Lapinski-Kitze Prairie. We were also rewarded with sightings a great-horned owl and a short-eared owl in the area. It was an owl sort of night!

Photo by Lester Doyle

Photo by Lester Doyle

The next evening Mark and I again searched for owls just before dark. Mark spotted a very white snowy owl flying at us, then over the Kampen Road residence. Just a minute later we found a brownish snowy owl on Kampen Road just east of the railroad tracks. Two snowies in two minutes!

Given the amount of snowy owl activity out here, Project SNOWstorm, a snowy owl research and conservation group, will try to attach a GPS-GSM transmitter on one of owls! Last night was our first attempt at trapping an owl for the project, but with twelve people out searching we saw not a single snowy owl! We will try again in a couple weeks.

Photo by Pam Sam

Photo by Pam Sam

The transmitters that Project SNOWstorm uses are a wonderfully innovative piece of technology. They are solar-powered, and use the cell phone network to record latitude, longitude, and altitude of the bird at intervals as short as thirty seconds. These transmitters have given researchers detailed insight into snowy owl behavior. For example, they found:

  • some birds spend nearly all their time within a quarter mile of where they were banded, while others will fly hundreds of miles in a few weeks.
  • snowy owls feed much more heavily on birds in the winter than previously thought. Some snowies remain on large bodies of water for weeks at a time, following small openings in the ice that attract gulls, ducks and grebes.  
  • snowies, as apex predators, are still being exposed to a great number of environmental contaminants such as DDE, mercury, and rodenticides.

Madison Audubon Society partnered with Project SNOWstorm in 2015 to release a snowy owl out at Goose Pond Sanctuary that was originally trapped at the Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee. Read more about the bird, named “Goose Pond,” here.

Transmitters cost $3,000 each, and Project SNOWstorm relies on donations from the public and non-profits like Madison Audubon Society to cover these and other research costs. If a Goose Pond owl is outfitted with a transmitter this year, we will likely name it “Arlington” after the village and township of Arlington, and the historic Arlington Prairie. 

Photo by Lester Doyle

Photo by Lester Doyle

Get into the wintery spirit and come look for the snowy owls yourself! The best times to search are dusk and dawn and keep your eyes on on utility poles, fence posts, and silos. Please be sure to keep a respectful distance from these wild animals, as they rest and hunt around Goose Pond Sanctuary. If the owls looking at you (let alone flying away from you), you're too close!

Happy Owl-idays to all!

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Rich Armstrong

Featured Sanctuary Bird: Snowy Owl

Featured Sanctuary Bird: Snowy Owl

Each week, we highlight a special bird sighting from one of our two wildlife sanctuaries.

Learn something new (and find out how to spot these birds!) by tuning in at the end of each week for our Featured Sanctuary Bird - and find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter via #FridayFeatheredFeature!