Jackie Edmunds, Dane County Four Lakes Wildlife Center wildlife rehabilitation and fundraising co-ordinator, releases a rehabilitated snowy owl back into the wild in March.
For the second year in a row, scores of snowy owls spent the winter in Wisconsin, delighting bird watchers. While those owls are now flying back to the Arctic, some are communicating their whereabouts to every cell tower they pass. One of those is a bird named Goose Pond, who was released near Madison as part of a national tracking effort called Project Snowstorm.
Project Snowstorm began during December 2013, when birders in the Midwest and Eastern United States noticed an unprecedented number of snowy owls. The huge birds usually spend their entire lives hunting rodents through the sun-filled summer and endless winter nights of the high Arctic tundra.
When large numbers venture south, it’s called an irruption. According to Project Snowstorm’s website, the winter of 2013-14 was the largest irruption in 60 years.
“In a typical year, we might not get any at all in Wisconsin,” says Matt Reetz, executive director of the Madison Audubon Society. “Last year there were about  snowy owls in the state. We thought it might be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, but this year we had almost 300.”
The exodus is prompted by a population boom. A bumper crop of rodents — lemmings, voles and ptarmigan — that the owls eat can double or triple the number of young owls born in the summer. But when winter comes, many of those boomers get pushed out and head south for the winter.
Snowy owls are something of a mystery because it’s not easy to study something white and nocturnal in the distant Arctic. A team of researchers in Maryland, including Racine native David Brinker, realized an owl irruption of this magnitude was an unprecedented opportunity.
Technology is now available to equip these birds with a solar-powered cellular tracking transmitter that weighs only 2% of the owl’s weight. It is attached with a harness that will eventually biodegrade, dropping the transmitter from the bird’s back.
Until then, the transmitter is programmed to collect longitude, latitude and altitude information every 30 minutes and communicate with the nearest cell tower. The signal is so precise it can pinpoint a fence post an owl is perching on.
But the equipment is not cheap. Even with discounts provided to the project by Cellular Tracking Technologies, it costs about $3,000 to track a bird for a year. Over the past two years, researchers raised $150,000 from the birding community.
“That allowed researchers to place 34 transmitters on owls so far,” says Brinker.
During the winter of 2013-2014, Project Snowstorm received donations from the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin to underwrite transmitters that were deployed in Wisconsin. Madison Audubon stepped up this winter to sponsor the transmitter for the owl called Goose Pond, named for the preserve where he was released.
The Goose Pond Sanctuary, located about 20 minutes north of Madison near Arlington, is operated by the Audubon Society. Nine snowy owls were hanging out there all winter, and hundreds of people have gone to see them. The owl called Goose was actually trapped at the Central Wisconsin Airport near Mosinee.
Mark Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary manager, trapped him as part of an effort to remove snowy owls from airports, whose wide, open spaces remind the birds of their tundra home.
“We had five owls at Mosinee. There have been 120 owls trapped at Logan International Airport outside Boston. One of the owls there got hit by a plane,” says Martin. “We don’t want planes to crash or owls to die.”
When last year’s birds returned to the Arctic they were out of range, but their location data accumulates, ready to report if they return.
“One owl died in Canada, and two died in a freakishly heavy Northeastern storm last winter,” says Martin. “Five came back to the same place they were last winter. One owl flew back south at 50 mph for 350 miles nonstop. He was riding a strong north wind coming out of the Arctic.”
Goose Pond’s return to the north is now being monitored. The bird stayed around his namesake sanctuary for a while. “It sat on the ground in one spot for six days,” says Martin. “It may have been feeding on a goose.” After that it moved around and spent a lot of time at University Research Farm, then moved southwest, lingering on the Schurch-Thompson Prairie near Mount Horeb, where it sat all day on the same fence post. Then it settled briefly near Dickeyville.
Says Martin, “It’s not unusual for them to wander a bit at this time of year before they return to the Arctic. When it gets to northern Minnesota it will go out of cell tower range.”
His day-to-day travels can be followed on the Project Snowstorm webpage. Martin and many others are hoping that next winter Goose Pond will phone home.
This story was edited to correct a quote by Matt Reetz regarding the number of snowy owls that migrated here in the winter of 2013. Reetz said about 200 owls were spotted in Wisconsin that winter. The story also incorrectly located the Goose Pond Sanctuary — it is north of Madison, near Arlington.