Cornell Lab writer Pat Leonard is in Barrow, Alaska, with Snowy Owl researcher Denver Holt of the Owl Research Institute. Holt’s organization, along with explore.org, were responsible for setting up the Snowy Owl cam featured on our Bird Cams project in summer 2014. Leonard visited Holt for some fieldwork in the damp, chilly summer of far northern Alaska.
First: a quick lesson in shifting gears on an ATV—the ubiquitous mode of transport in Barrow when there’s no snow on the ground. Then field researcher Denver Holt of the Owl Research Institute, barrels off in the lead, taking us about 10 miles out of town to nest #8. (Note to Bird Cams fans: this is not the same nest as is shown on the Snowy Owl cam, though Leonard hopes to visit that nest in a few days.)
It’s a cold day (about 35 degrees Fahrenheit) made colder by the wind and colder still by open-air transportation. Both of us are bundled to the eyes in multiple layers. Sometimes even that is not enough. But hiking provides more than a useful means of covering the terrain—it warms you up. We’re heading about a mile out from the dirt track, just specks of humanity in a vast landscape with few reference points as we circle a small freshwater lake to get to the nest.
The wide vista is sliced neatly in two: gray overcast above, the flat tundra below in muted greens and browns. It’s spongy and soft when you walk on the drier parts; wet areas are not deep but the ridges and bumps could easily grab and twist the ankles of the inattentive.
Along the way, there’s much to see and a lot to learn in the company of a skilled guide. Holt is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the tundra. “Those are marsh daisies and buttercups,” he says, pointing to tiny pips of color, flowers that look so fragile and yet endure in one of the harshest environments. He can explain how the mounds have built up over thousands of years due to freezing and thawing of the upper layers of the tundra and the pressure exerted by subterranean ice ridges.
As we get closer to the unnamed lake we see Yellow-billed Loons, then a cluster of oh-so-lovely Pacific Loons with their sleek gray necks. Red Phalaropes are skittering around while a Glaucous Gull floats on the wind above and seems to be chuckling at the clumsy humans trudging below. But nearby are the remains of a gull that was taken by a Snowy Owl recently, according to Holt. It seems as if he knows every move they make. But is there a chick or chicks still around nest #8?
A Snowy Owl chick—about 25 days old—just before banding. Photo by Pat Leonard.
A flash of white. There’s the big female in the distance, watching us. Then Holt hears a sound that I miss beneath the white noise of the wind. There’s the male! “He’s barking at us, that’s a good sign that there might be a chick nearby,” says Holt.
We don’t know for sure where the chick or chicks will be. Snowy Owl chicks spend their first three weeks on the nest being brooded by their mother. After that period, while they’re still downy, gray, and flightless, they split up and wander away from the nest, possibly to make them less visible to predators. They won’t be able to fly for another three or four weeks. During this time, finding them on the endless, hummocky tundra is quite a challenge, even for an experienced researcher like Holt.
Then, crouched behind the nest mound, there’s the owlet—a small gray ball of fluff with golden eyes and the beginnings of wing feathers. (We really don’t know the chick’s gender but we seem to want to refer to it as “he.”)
Holt pulls out his banding materials and the record book for this nest. It holds all the data, such as egg measurements, number of chicks, etc. He’s been spending the “balmy” summer months in Barrow to collect this data for 23 years. This nest had seven eggs to start with, and seven chicks hatched. But as far as Holt can tell, this one undersized chick is the only survivor. The eggs in all 20 nests he’s monitoring this season hatched just fine, but it seems all the nests have had several chicks die. Holt isn’t sure why. The brown lemmings that Snowy Owls feed on and seem to require to trigger breeding, have been present in so-so numbers—not a boom, but not a bust either.
Our little chick clacks his bill and peeps as Holt looks him over and claps a silver band around his leg. He’ll be monitored again soon. Holt tries to visit every nest every three days to track the chicks’ progress. He feels this chick should be farther from the nest for his age. We both hope he will make it. Mom and Dad are still nearby watching carefully but not attacking. Some pairs are more aggressive and will dive at intruders with those wicked long claws flexed to do damage.
Except for when we banded the chick, we’re always on the move. Holt says that’s the way you find most of the chicks now that they are off the nest but can’t fly yet. Keep scanning the ground for something moving in the general vicinity of a nest and hope to see a small form tottering around the tundra like a little gray gnome.
This is part of a day in the life of a Snowy Owl field biologist, where success may be defined as locating a lone speck of fluff on the vast tundra, marking it with evidence of its encounter with humans. You hope one day to find it again and in doing so unravel another small piece of the Snowy Owl puzzle: why do they do what they do, and why do they go where they go?
Pat Leonard wrote about Snowy Owls in the spring 2014 Living Bird magazine, and about Project SNOWstorm during the great winter irruption of 2013–2014.
(Top image: Denver Holt records data on the Alaskan tundra, by Pat Leonard.)