28 June, 1999
CONTENTS: SNOWY OWLS AND THE OWL RESEARCH INSTITUTE (ORI)
GUEST SPEAKER: PHILIP MARTIN, ENDANGERED SPECIES BIOLOGIST, United States Fisheries and Wildlife Service (USFWS)
PICTURES: Snowy owl chicks/ Denver Holt, founder of ORI
Hi everyone! Sorry that I have been off line and out of touch for a little while. I was working hard to get the videoconferencing software up and working. With help from Grace Abromaitis, who is also working on the Steller's Eider project, we made friends with the Barrow Computer Store owner and are set up and ready to go there. They were incredibly helpful, and if you are ever in Barrow you should definitely stop in there! (That's my first plug!):-D
While the afternoon was spent at the computer, the morning meant being out on the tundra (are you surprised at this at all, by now?) Don't stop reading now, because it was a very interesting day! Denver Holt, founder of the Owl Research Institute (ORI), was kind enough to take me out to a nest to see Snowy Owl chicks that were anywhere from a couple days to a week old. He did this so that you could see firsthand how amazing they are. The adults are very big and bright white (the female has some brown on her, too - great camoflauge when she is on her nest and there is still some snow on the tundra), and I wish I had a good picture of them for you. I don't, however, because they fledge (fly away) when humans are still far away! They nest on tall mounds, often high-centered polygons. It is unfortunate that this high, dry type of tundra is also favored by developers! Some individual nests have been disturbed by the expansion of Barrow and its "suburb" Browerville, but it is unlikely that development has significantly affected the overall population of Snowy Owls so far.
The Owl Research Institute is a non-profit organization that began in 1988. While in college, Denver happened to discover the lack of information written by scientists about owls, and coupled that knowledge with his desire to pursue field biology. He understood that many wildlife biologists end up spending a great amount of time at a desk, whether they are working for an agency or for a University. Because he wanted to spend as much time doing research outdoors as he could, he took the plunge and started the Owl Research Institute in Missoula, Montana. There, he not only does research on owls, he allows classrooms and the general public to come and learn about them,hands-on. Ever since 1992, he has spent the majority of his summer up in Barrow, studying the Snowy Owl in a designated 75 square mile plot of land. Although this is his 8th year studying this arctic raptor, it is only the 4th breeding year that has occurred since the study began.
This year, however, has proven to be a good year for breeding owls. In the last couple of weeks, the owl researchers (there are 3 visiting Barrow from the ORI: Denver, Julie Petersen, and Ann Paulson), have discovered 29 nests. Since the eggs are starting to hatch, they are now ready to start the second phase of their research: monitoring the behavior of the hatchlings and the adults, recording data (on the number of eggs/hatchlings/fledglings, growth rates, plumage changes, blood analysis, etc.) and banding the new chicks and the unbanded adults. Behavioral studies include looking at polygamous versus monogamous matings. There are a small percentage of male owls that care for (feed and protect) females on two nests instead of one. The ORI plans to research whether the secondary female (the second owl the male mates with) is as successful in raising young, as the primary female (the first owl mated with) - and how they both compare with the nest success of a monogamous female. Another interesting aspect of their study is correlating lemming populations with owl populations. The researchers set out a trap line to examine the relative abundance of lemmings each year - lemmings are the preferred food choice of the owls. Lemmings have populations that cycle somewhat regularly. Often they become very abundant, and then the population crashes. This is especially interesting to me, since when it is a good year for owls to nest, it seems to be a good year for the Steller's Eider to nest, too! The eiders may benefit by nesting near the owls - since they are aggressive in protecting their own nests - and may unintentionally also protect the eiders. While this is still just a theory, it is true that we found many Snowy Owls when we were out looking for Steller's Eiders! Other things that are unknown about the owls is how loyal they are in returning to the same mate, and how often they return to the same nesting grounds or even same nesting mound. To answer these questions, the ORI is attaching satellite transmitters to the owls for the first time this year. They will attach like a backpack onto the owl, and hopefully will remain on the owl for up to a year and a half. This would be enough time for researchers to follow the bird from the nesting grounds to wintering grounds and back. This study was inspired by the finding of an owl found with a transmitter attached from Russia! Collaboration with the Russian scientist who attached the transmitter has indicated that when the Snowy Owl populations are high in arctic Alaska, they are low in arctic Russia, and vice-versa. Since Alaska is so close to Eastern Russia, and so many species seem to move back and forth between the two land masses, communication of scientists from the two countries is crucial to understand the big picture and make accurate population estimates.
One final aspect of the study is something that is often done in biology classes nation wide (and will hopefully be done in mine this year, too! :-D) - analyzing owl pellets for food consumption. Owls have weak digestive enzmyes, so undigestible materials such as bones and fur are regurgitated in the form of a big pellet, or ball. Oftentimes, it is possible to reconstruct full skeletons of prey species by carefully dissecting owl pellets. I am now inspired to collect a few off of the tundra for my class in the fall (I should have been doing this the past three weeks, of course)!
I really appreciate Denver taking the time out of his day to help me, especially when the arctic research timetable is so short! The Owl Research Institute is a unique place in that it recognizes the importance of education being paired with research - just like this program (Teacher's Experiencing the Arctic) does! If you have any questions for Denver about owls or the Owl Research Institute, please feel free to contact him through me.
GUEST SPEAKER: PHILIP MARTIN, Endangered
Species Biologist for USFWS
Hello. My name is Philip, and I moved to Alaska 20 years ago. I was born in New York City, and lived in the eastern U.S. until after I graduated from college. During college I took a class that changed my life Ė it was a field trip to the Arctic! Something about this place really caught my imagination, and I ended up moving to Fairbanks to study arctic birds as a graduate student. My parents are still unhappy that I made this choice, but after 20 years they are beginning to accept the fact that I probably wonít move back "home" to Massachusetts.
I have worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for nine years. For most of that time, my job was to try to understand the impacts of the oil and gas industry on arctic tundra wildlife and habitat. As you probably know, oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in the late sixties. Since then, an area that was once a vast wilderness has been transformed into a sprawling industrial area, with hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines, and huge facilities. Because the whole area is underlain by permafrost, everything that gets built there is either on pilings (like a dock) or on a thick (5í) gravel pad. Otherwise, the permafrost under the structure would start to melt, and the ground would collapse. So, wildlife habitat is lost when it gets covered with gravel. In contrast to Hawaii, plants grow very slowly here, and it can take many decades for plants to grow on a gravel pad, which provides little moisture or nutrients. There are indirect impacts, too -- surface water drainage is changed (which changes the vegetation), human activity can disturb nesting birds, and some species benefit from human activity at the expense of others (for instance, arctic foxes get food from humansí waste disposal sites, and then there are more foxes around to eat bird eggs and young).
This past March, I switched jobs to work with the Endangered Species program. In 1972, Congress passed a law called the Endangered Species Act, which was intended to keep wildlife species from becoming extinct. My first assignment is to work in Barrow -- the project Michele is helping us with. You may already know that Hawaii has more endangered species than any other place in the United States. Species that evolve on islands are often unique to those islands, have small populations, and are vulnerable to the dramatic changes that humans often cause. Hawaiian plants and wildlife have been badly affected by a variety of things. Native forests have been converted for agriculture and housing. Introduced species, such as rats, mongoose, and feral cats, prey on native species. Other introduced species compete with native species for food and space. Introduced livestock, such as goats and pigs, changed the native plant communities. Bird malaria has been introduced, and affects birds that live in the lowlands where the malaria-bearing mosquitoes are found. Hawaiiís native wildlife species have a lot of problems to overcome.
We are lucky in northern Alaska. There are only two species that we know of whose populations are in trouble Ė both are types of seaducks called eiders. One is the Spectacled Eider, and one is the Stellerís eider. At Barrow, we are studying the Stellerís eider. Being an endangered species biologist is a lot like being a detective. We know there are not as many Stellerís eiders as there used to be in Alaska, and they only nest in a small part of their former range. The problem is, we donít know why they are in trouble. Unlike Hawaii, most of the habitat in northern Alaska is pretty much unaffected by humans. There arenít any introduced species that might cause trouble for eiders. We donít think that hunting pressure was so severe as to cause a population decline. As Angela mentioned, we are
checking to see if environmental contaminants (such as lead) could be a problem. Of course, a migratory bird could be affected somewhere else along its migratory pathway, away from its breeding grounds. These birds winter in marine areas, and there may be changes in the oceans that affect their food supply away from the breeding grounds. It could even be something as complicated as global climate changes affecting marine food webs. Until we understand more about these birds, it will be hard for us to really help their populations to recover, which is the goal of the Endangered Species Act.
Even though we donít know nearly enough about Stellerís eiders, we can still do things to help keep their populations healthy in the Barrow area. We are trying to figure out where the preferred habitat is located and we are hoping we can preserve some of the best nesting areas. Helping eiders
could result in changes in the way that Barrow neighborhoods are developed. We will try to teach people not to disturb these birds, or shoot them. People in Barrow hunt for much of their food, so we have to get them to cooperate by hunting the more abundant species. If it seems that nesting success is very low, we might even decide to control predators that eat eider eggs and young, such as ravens and foxes. We will try lots of ways to help eiders, hoping that they will hang on until we figure out the real problem, or conditions improve naturally.
So, if you like good mysteries, you might think about becoming an endangered species biologist. I am afraid there will still be plenty of work for you in Hawaii, for the foreseeable future. If you want to find out more, you could talk to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists on Oahu who study endangered species. Even if you donít want to become a biologist, you might want to know more about native species, simply as a part of your island heritage.
I hope to visit Hawaii next winter with my family (Alaskans sometimes need to get away from the cold and dark winters), so maybe I will meet some of you some day.
P.S. Your teacher is working very hard. She works with us all day, and then she stays up late to get her homework done EVERY night. You should give her good grades.
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