Science

First Snowy Owl Tagged in Wisconsin This Season

An airport fugitive takes off with some crowdfunded bling, thanks to Madison Audubon.

Snowy Owls have been dominating the spotlight of late. The birds were featured in our post about the Christmas Bird Count; we shared tips on where to spot them around New York City; and, for the second year in a row, we gave you an update on Project SNOWstorm. Now we bring you the tale of Goose, the celebrity Snowy that has taken Wisconsin by storm.

A dozen Snowy Owls have made a showy appearance at the Goose Pond Sanctuary, a 660-acre reserve managed by the Madison Audubon Society in Arlington, Wisconsin, during the past two winters. To take advantage of these unusual visits, reserve staff decided to partner up with Project SNOWstorm to try and tag a bird. “We thought it would be a great opportunity to learn about the ecology of these beautiful winter visitors,” said Sue Foote-Martin, one of the sanctuary managers, in a blog post.

Of course, state-of-the-art GPS transmitters cost money—$3,000, in this case. Madison Audubon launched an Indiegogo Campaign to crowdfund the cash, and was able to raise the money in less than 30 days. But the next step—finding a candidate to wear their pricey transmitter—didn’t go quite as smoothly.

After spending days chasing after wary adult owls at the sanctuary, Gene Jacobs, the raptor biologist working on the project, got a serendipitous call from the Central Wisconsin Airport in the town of Mosinee. “They said, we have five snowy owls hanging out here, and we’re not sure what to do with them,” says Emily Meier, the digital communications manager for Madison Audubon.

Birds and airports are never a good pairing. So Jacobs decided he’d head over there to try and capture an owl. On February 13 he returned to Goose Pond Sanctuary with his bounty: an adult male Snowy, weighing about 3 pounds. Unruffled by the 100-mile journey from the airport, the charismatic bird was christened “Goose” in honor of the sanctuary where he would be released. He was fitted with a solar-powered transmitter, hand-fed some rodents, and, finally, unleashed with a great deal of fanfare that same day.

 

A video posted by Madison Audubon (@madisonaudubon) on

 

After the release he hung out by the sanctuary for a few days, before venturing farther afield. Though Goose is long gone, he’s occasionally checking in with his tracker (you can view his progress on Project SNOWstorm’s website). “The past two transmitter check-ins we believe Goose has been out of cell phone range, so we haven’t received data,” Meier says. “[But] we’re looking forward to the next check-in and hope he’s flying closer to a cell tower!”

Goose may not know it, but he’s helping to champion a movement for helping Snowy Owls avoid runway ruin. “Project SNOWstorm [is] interested in figuring out more about what happens to owls when they’re relocated from airports,” Meier says. Ornithologists are hoping Goose’s movements will help them understand why owls might pick runways in the first place (it could be because airstrips look at lot like the flat Arctic tundra, where the birds spend much of the year), and how we can steer them toward safer takeoffs.

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