Archive for January, 2009

Snowy Owl Release January 19, 2009

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Back in early December, this young female Snowy Owl had been hit by a car near Old Orchard Beach, Maine, suffering a badly bruised wing but luckily no broken bones. She was taken to the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick, and after being examined by their vet, their dedicated staff and voluteers watched over her progress carefully for the next month. First a period of rest and quiet, and then graduating to the 100 foot flight cage for regular exercise until she was ready to be set free. Normally wildlife rehabbers try to release animals close to where they were found, but this release was set for Plum Island so that Norm Smith from Mass Audubon, who has been studying Snowy Owls since the 80s and radio-tracks a number of them, could band the bird and include her in his study.

We all met up at the designated release point, a small parking lot just this side of the bridge going onto Plum Island in Newbury Massachusetts, with the expanse of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in front of us. The sky was overcast and opalescent, looking colder than it really was, but cold is nothing to a Snowy Owl who originally hails from someplace like Baffin Island or above the Arctic Circle. From a Snowy’s perspective, a New England winter is probably not unlike a Florida vacation for us.

Below, Norm is banding her in the parking lot after recording her weight and other measurements from the back of his truck.

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Throughout her strange ordeal surrounded by a crowd of curious but well-meaning humans, she’s quite calm and not at all living up to the Snowy’s high-strung reputation. After the banding, Norm marks the top of her head with a red Sharpie so she can be identified by scope for the next couple of weeks. I was struck by how fearless she behaved, and the intelligence and poise I found in her steady eye contact led me to believe she knew her freedom was just moments away.

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Norm’s full of Snowy Owl lore, for instance it’s not true that darker birds like this one are always immature, nor is it true that whiter birds are always adults. And instead of the conventional wisdom that starving Snowies invade New England during periods of food scarcity up North, turns out it’s just the opposite. It’s after a bountiful lemming summer on the tundra that their expanding population pushes well-fed Snowies to migrate further south in the winter.

Here Norm’s telling us the story of a large female he photographed about the same size as this one (1900g), who took down a full grown Peregrine Falcon that had been moving slow on account it had just captured a pigeon! Can’t wait to see the pics he promised to send. Snowies are big birds, especially the females.

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Banded and tattoed now, Kristen from the Center is getting her ready for the big moment. You can see how the red spot will help with ID, and how she’s really quite dark from a topside view.

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Now the moment rehab people live for, when all the hard work of caring for a wild animal pays off and a majestic creature regains its freedom.

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Seconds later we’re all sighing, and she’s set off over the wide open salt marshes fringing the Parker River. Air! Space! Sky! I’d bet by this point she’s no doubt forgotten all about the peculiarity of humans already. And if I were her, I know after a month of eating mice inside a giant box, I’d be thinking about . . . duck!

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