Project SNOWstorm

A recent, historic invasion of the lower 48 states by snowy owls has given birdwatchers and “Harry Potter” fans cause to rejoice.

In what is know as an irruption, an unprecedented number of owls have left their Arctic nests and wandered south for reasons related to prey population. They’ve been spotted here in Williamsport and as far away as Bermuda.

Wayne Laubscher, bird enthusiast and biology aide for the state Game Commission, is a local participant of Project SNOWstorm, a crowdfunded initiative whose goal is to attach cellular transmitters to captured snowy owls to better understand their flight patterns and migratory behavior, as not much is known about the Arctic predators.

“They’re unique, high-profile birds, and they have a certain mystique about them,” Laubscher said, adding that the recent irruption could have come at no better time, given the advanced tracking technology now available to researchers and the public.

“These kinds of irruptions occur every so many decades,” Laubscher said. “This is the first time scientists have had the technology to get very precise tracking on these birds.”

Snowy owls have been making headlines since December of last year when controversy arose after two were shot down at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in response to an owl that had flown into the engine of a plane that was on the tarmac a week prior.

In late January, a snowy owl was hit by a bus in downtown Washington, D.C., and still is recovering from a broken toe and head injury.

Laubscher and colleagues recently captured and banded two snowy owls in Northumberland County. Both were males, so the owls were marked with identification numbers only instead of being tagged with cellular transmitters, as males aren’t big enough for the harness. Laubscher hopes to tag a few females before they leave the area.

The $3,000 transmitters are placed on the middle of an owl’s back using a low-friction teflon ribbon and are meant to stay there for the life of the bird, allowing for extensive flight data of pinpoint accuracy.

According to Project SNOWstorm’s website, studies of snowy owls wearing transmitters have found no evidence that they pose any danger to the birds.

Though the cause of the large-scale irruption still is up for debate among ornithologists, Laubscher blames an overabundance of food in the Arctic – lemmings, specifically – causing the owls to reproduce at a faster rate than usual. The irruption largely is made up of juveniles seeking their own territory for winter hunting.

“There’s always a post-breeding dispersal,” Laubscher said. “But not to the extent that we’re seeing now.”

He said there have been sightings throughout Clinton and Lycoming counties. In Williamsport, birds have been sighted around Newberry and near the Williamsport Regional Medical Center.

Laubscher hopes Project SNOWstorm will reveal if the owls leaving the Arctic and flying south are the same owls that fly back home when winter is over.

He believes Project SNOWstorm would greatly benefit from the public, whom he encourages to contact the Game Commission after a sighting.

“The reports we’re getting are rather belated,” Laubscher said. “We want more real-time reports.”

Laubscher said that when the owls come to this area, they stay for weeks at a time. He expects sightings to continue throughout the rest of the month.

“Presumably, there’s a lot of food down here: rodents, rabbits, small and large birds, waterfowl, squirrels, almost anything up to about their size,” he said.