For the last fifteen years, the Owl Research Institute has studied Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) in Barrow, Alaska, one of the few places in the U.S. where the owls regularly breed. This summer in Barrow was one of our busiest yet.
Here’s what it’s like to be an ORI researcher in Barrow:
Each summer, the crew surveys a 125-square-mile section of tundra. They hike at between 8-15 miles a day, although that doesn’t include all the extra bits of walking: zigzagging, circumscribing lakes and ponds, and forging across rivers, all while wearing hip boots all day.
Then there is the fact of the Arctic tundra. Despite 24-hour sunlight, sudden snow and bone-chilling wind regularly sweep through, making for 40 degree weather in the summertime. As crew member Jessica Crowley explains:
“We just got in from running our last surveys. It's snowing sideways and the wind is blowing at 40mph — I’m not exaggerating. We toddle around the tundra in six layers of clothing to stay warm and dry!”
Despite the freezing temperatures, several adventurous crew members took part in an annual Arctic plunge, which involves leaping into the frozen Beaufort Sea. ORI President Denver Holt, with strong memories of his plunge some years ago, opted not to take part in the swim.
What the 2008 season was like:
This year was busy. In Barrow, the Snowies come and go. Some years, the site is quiet; other years, the owls breed (93, 95, 96, 99, 00, 02, 03, and 06). 2008 wasn’t just a breeding year; it was one of the peak years.
The tundra was awash in Snowies: Snowy males, delivering lemmings to females; Snowy females, brooding; and snowy chicks, huddled in the nest.
In turn, the tundra was also swarming with lemmings. The Snowy Owl population tails the ebbs and flows of their prey species, the Brown Lemming, which is 97% of the Snowy Owl diet. One nest site, tended by a particularly assiduous male, had a ring of 40 lemmings around the site (although the record is actually 72).
Why we do it:
We go to Barrow to study Snowy Owl breeding biology, particularly in relation to the abundance of Brown Lemmings, their primary prey species. With ultimately 20 years of data, we will have a strong baseline against which to measure changes associated with Arctic warming.
We are also untangling other aspects of Snowy Owl lives — characteristics of nests; effects of human disturbance; hunting of Snowies in Alaska. Essentially, we’re trying to piece together the health of a species whose status is uncertain. Throw in the factors of human encroachment and global warming, and it becomes even more important to sustain a long-term presence in Barrow, to shed some light on the health of this species, and to preserve the Snowy Owl for generations to come.