By Molly Daly
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - The massive incursion of Snowy Owls in the Eastern U.S. has been a treat for birders and the general public -- and it's also a great opportunity for researchers, with an unprecedented, crowd-funded wildlife research effort underway.
This was supposed to have been a quiet winter for naturalist Scott Weidensaul, who should be finishing work on a book. But the snowies came, and Project SNOWstorm was hatched.
"We are probably not going to see something of this magnitude again in our lifetimes, so it's an opportunity for us to learn as much as we can about a species about which we know very little."
So Weidensaul and his colleagues -- all volunteers -- are catching and banding the birds, taking blood and feather samples, and fitting birds with solar powered GPS GSM transmitters.
"It uses the orbiting GPS satellites to triangulate its position within a fraction of a meter. We've got the transmitters programmed to transmit the data every third day. They're solar powered, it's got a fairly small battery, so we're trying to preserve power," says Weidensaul. "But the picture that it paints of where these owls are going and what they're doing is unlike anything we've ever had probably for any species of owl before."
The birds with transmitters are named for the place they're captured. Philly (pictured) comes from Philadelphia International Airport.
"We relocated him to Lancaster County -- and he didn't like Lancaster County. He turned right around, and by Sunday, he was back at Philadelphia International Airport."
He spent Wednesday sitting on a light standard by the exit back onto I-95.
"We're not sure if we're going to try to relocate him again. So far, he's been able to stay out of the way of the planes, but it's a very dangerous place for an owl."
But since the tundra, a Snowy Owl's natural habitat, is flat and treeless, coastlines, open farmland, landfills and airports look a lot like home.
"Even if there are 737s landing regularly, that's better than being in some place with all those funny looking long tall spiky things we call trees."
Project SNOWstorm is already revealing some surprises about how and where the birds hunt. For instance, some of the Snowies along the coast are going offshore at night, "and hunting seabirds and waterbirds out over the open ocean, and over Delaware Bay and Barnegat Bay."
Weidensaul says he and his colleagues have found the Arctic birds are in surprisingly good condition.
"People assume these Snowy Owls are being chased down out of the Arctic by hunger, which is not true, and that they're wandering around down here until they starve to death, which is also largely not true."
They're here because a bumper year for lemmings other rodents led to a baby boom for the owls. Weidensaul says most of the visitors are young birds, which don't always have the skills they need to survive, and some won't make it.
"But the vast majority of these Snowy Owls are doing just fine. And in fact, all of the ones we've caught this winter have been fat and healthy, they're in good muscle tone, they've got good weight, they've got fat stores under their skin -- they're very healthy."
The biggest danger they face -- is us, "and particularly, collisions with cars, collisions with aircraft, eating a poisoned rat that gives them secondary poisoning -- those are the real dangers."
Meanwhile, amid all this scientific discovery, Weidensaul still has a book to finish.
"At this point, Houghton Mifflin just wants to see a manuscript."
As it happens -- the book's about owls.
Listen to Molly Daly's conversation with Scott Wiedensaul in this CBS Philly podcast:
To learn more about Project SNOWstorm and follow Philly's travels, visit ProjectSNOWstorm.org.
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