The incredible snowy owl has shown up this winter in large numbers across the Great Lakes

A unique project, called SNOWStorm, was started to help learn more about these majestic birds by placing transmitters on the birds.

Recently, seasoned bird banders Chris Neri and Nova Mackentley banded a coastal snowy owl on the shores of Lake Superior. Photo: Chris Neri

Recently, seasoned bird banders Chris Neri and Nova Mackentley banded a coastal snowy owl on the shores of Lake Superior. Photo: Chris Neri

The snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is a most striking bird. With a stark white body accented by black or brown markings and piercing yellow eyes it makes for a visually stunning bird. Female snowy owls are slightly larger than males and have a wingspan of 4.25 feet to 4.75ft and a weight of 4.5-5 pounds making them the heaviest owl in all of north America, and one of the largest owls in the world.

The snowy owl spends its summers far north in the arctic tundra. They build nests on the ground (one of only a few ground nesting owls) as there are little to no trees at these latitudes. They raise their young on a diet made up almost exclusively of small mammals called lemmings. They are adapted well to diurnal (daytime) hunting as there is almost 24 hours of daylight in the summer of these far northern locations.

Irruption years

Some snowy owls won’t migrate and will spend the winter in the same territory they summer in, while others migrate short to mid-distances finding open fields throughout Canada or the northern United States. In some winters snowy owls will show up in large numbers throughout a large portion of the lower 48 states. These years are known as irruption years, and while it is not entirely clear why irruptions happen, it is thought it may happen when lemming populations are high equating to lots of healthy baby snowy owls.

While many snowy owls eat mostly small mammals and hunt in open fields, a fair number of snowy owls become coastal in the winter months. The owls will set up territories on sandy beaches, rocky seawalls and even ice pack and ice shelves. These birds will subsist on a diet that is made up much more of waterfowl like ducks and grebes. Some snowy owls in coastal areas of Canada have even been documented diving into water and catching fish in similar ways to osprey. Some of the best coastal areas to find snowy owls are in the Great Lakes. Lake St. Clair, Lake Ontario and Lake Michigan are many locations where you can find coastal snowy owls along the beach or edge of the ice.

Project SNOWStorm

The last massive irruption year was in the winter of 2013-2014. Not much was known about snowy owl irruptions or their life cycle in general, and so a unique project was started to help learn more about these majestic birds. The project is called project SNOWStorm, and involves trained experts placing transmitters on the birds. These special locators are solar powered and use cell towers to transmit the exact location of the birds. Even when out of cell range, the transmitters store location information and will transmit once the bird is back in cell range. It appears that 2017-2018 is another sizable irruption year. Recently, seasoned bird banders Chris Neri and Nova Mackentley banded a coastal snowy owl on the shores of Lake Superior. The bird was banded right on the shores of Whitefish Point Michigan and you can track the progress of this bird, nicknamed Gichigami, on the project SNOWStorm website.  Hopefully this and other birds banded will help us learn more about these majestic creatures so they can be protected for many years to come.

If you want to see a snowy owl in Michigan in typical open field habitat, there’s no better place then Chippewa county in the eastern Upper Peninsula.  Explore the winter birding map at www.northhuronbirding.com to learn about some of their favorite habitats. This map was made by Michigan Sea Grant and MSU Extension and describes how you can find the best winter birding in all of Michigan including snowy owls, pine grosbeaks, snow buntings and many other winter specialties. To find the most recent sightings of snowy owls in your area you can check out eBird, a citizen science project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Anyone can create an account and upload their bird sightings. And anyone can access their data explore tools, like this map of snowy owl sightings

If you see a snowy…

If you are lucky enough to find a snowy owl, it is very important to enjoy these birds without disturbing them. Keep a safe distance from the bird and don’t do anything to disrupt them. If you are in your car when you find one, stay in it as it will act as a blind. If you are on foot take note of the owl raises its head or body or swivels, it’s head towards you. These are signs the bird is nervous, and you should back away slowly and keep your hands lowered. Learn more about snowy owl etiquette and what you can do to help protect these special creatures.

Clean Marina Classroom Live: Petoskey

Event Date: 3/14/2018

When: March 14, 2018
Where: City of Petoskey Winer Sports Park, 1100 Winter Park Lane Petoskey, MI 49770
Workshop Host: Kendall Klingelsmith, City of Petoskey Marina

The Clean Marina Classroom is going on the road! In spring 2018, the Michigan Clean Marina Program will offer several in-person workshops. Michigan Sea Grant staff and Clean Marina certification specialists will cover important lessons from the online classroom tied to mandatory and recommended best practices for becoming a Clean Marina. Pledged marinas, as well as marinas due for re-certification in 2018, are invited to attend.

For the Classroom Live workshop to be effective, participants must take the following steps before the workshop:

    • Register for the workshop (dates and locations below).
    • Sign the Clean Marina pledge form (new and re-certifying marinas) and pay the required pledge fee (new marinas only).
    • Log in to the online classroom and complete the marina self-assessment (also called the certification checklist).
    • Bring your self-assessment, a notebook (paper and pencil or laptop) and your calendar to the workshop.

In return, each marina will leave with:

  • Clean Marina Classroom certificate
  • Scheduled certification site visit date
  • Prize for completing the workshop evaluation and survey

Other Locations

Harrison Township

When: March 27, 2018
Where: Thomas Welsh Activity Center, Lake St. Clair Metropark, 31300 Metro Parkway, Harrison Township, MI 48045
Workshop Host: Joe Hall and Sue Knapp

Bird Counts across Michigan

Event Date: 12/14/2017
End Date: 1/5/2018

The longest running citizen science project in the world celebrates its 118th year.

Birders are all bundled up at Tahquamenon Falls in the winter. Photo: Elliot Nelson | Michigan Sea Grant

Birders are all bundled up at Tahquamenon Falls in the winter. Photo: Elliot Nelson | Michigan Sea Grant

In 1900, an ornithologist (aka bird scientist) named Frank Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition, to count birds across the entire country. Conservation was in its early days, and Chapman was concerned about the decline in many of the bird species he loved. Frank Chapman’s idea was to collect data across the country on what birds were present and in what numbers to provide information on how bird populations were changing. Over the years this count, became known as the Christmas Bird Count. The count, which is organized by the National Audubon Society, has gained in popularity. In 1900, there were 24 counts from California to New York. Now there are over 2,500 counts ranging from Antarctica to Brazil to the farthest reaches of Alaska each year.

Fun and serious science

While counting the birds is a fun holiday tradition, the data collected is serious business. The data stored by the National Audubon Society is being used by ornithologists around the world for important research. The information collected in the counts can be used to track how bird populations are changing over time and how habitat changes can effect bird populations.

What is particularly unique about the Christmas Bird Counts is that they are run by volunteers with data collected by ordinary citizens from across the country. Anyone can volunteer to assist a particular count regardless of skill level.

Volunteers still needed

In Michigan there are around 65 counts that take place. Each count is organized on the local level by passionate volunteers or organizations such as Michigan AudubonThe Nature Conservancy and Michigan Sea Grant/Michigan State University Extension.

Each count is held on one day between December 14 and January 5. Many surveys take place during the weekend to attract the most participants and many counts are still looking for volunteers. If you are interested in participating in the Christmas Bird Count you can check out this interactive map to find the count closes to you. You can also contact the Michigan Audubon or one of their local chapters and they can help point you towards a count close to you. For more information on participating in a count read this Michigan Audubon article.

The holidays are a great time of year to get out and experience the outdoors. Why not contribute to science while you are at it?

Michigan Sea Grant receives John D. Dingell Friend of the Refuge Award

Michigan Sea Grant representatives Steve Stewart and Mary Bohling with John D. Dingell, Jr., IWRA Chairman Richard Micka, and Refuge Manager John Hartig.

Michigan Sea Grant representatives Steve Stewart and Mary Bohling with John D. Dingell, Jr., IWRA Chairman Richard Micka, and Refuge Manager John Hartig. Photo by Mark Messer

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:

  • Rhett Register, Michigan Sea Grant Communications Lead, (734) 647-0767, rregist@umich.edu
  • Cindy Hudson, Michigan Sea Grant Extension Communications Manager, (517) 353-9723, hudsoncy@msu.edu

The International Wildlife Refuge Alliance (IWRA) and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge recently honored the work of Michigan Sea Grant with the John D. Dingell Friend of the Refuge Award.

Michigan Sea Grant staff have been involved with both the IWRA and the Detroit River Refuge since they were organized. The IWRA recognized Michigan Sea Grant’s continued efforts in providing classroom and vessel-based education in southeast Michigan and their ongoing commitment to the mission of both the IWRA and the Refuge.

The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge consists of nearly 6,000 acres of unique habitat, including islands, coastal wetlands, marshes, shoals, and waterfront lands within an authorized boundary extending along 48 miles of shoreline. 

The IWRA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the mission and purposes of the Detroit Refuge, the only international refuge in North America. It provides many vital services to the Refuge, such as community outreach, education programs, habitat restoration, special events support, volunteer staff, advocacy, and fundraising.

“The Refuge is such a wonderful asset to the Detroit area,” said Mary Bohling, a Michigan Sea Grant Extension educator. Bohling also is a current board member and one of the original organizers of the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance. “The Alliance has been an important part of building fantastic partnerships to help protect, conserve, and manage the Refuge’s wildlife and habitats. As a Sea Grant educator, I’m very proud to have been a part of making this happen.”

Since 1991, more than 100,000 students and adults have participated in Michigan Sea Grant’s Great Lakes Education Program. In addition to classroom lessons, students, teachers, and adult chaperones board the schoolship Clinton to learn more about conservation and stewardship of our state’s Great Lakes and waterways. Soon students will be boarding the schoolship at the newly constructed fishing pier and boat dock in the Detroit Refuge Gateway. The accessible dock and fishing pier are expected to open in the fall of 2017.

“We’re honored to receive this John D. Dingell Jr. Award,” said Extension Educator Steve Stewart on behalf of Michigan Sea Grant. “We’re also looking forward to welcoming many more students on board the Clinton from the new dock at the Refuge Gateway. It is critical that students have the opportunity to experience and learn about these incredible water resources, and there is no better way to do that than on a schoolship. They will be our future decision-makers and the stewards of these incredible water resources.”

The award is named after former Michigan U.S. Congressman John D. Dingell Jr., who championed many conservation causes and legislation, and who supported the creation of the Detroit Refuge.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research, and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

In life, ivory gull draws crowd—and in death, will contribute to science

A rare arctic visitor brings birders to Flint, may be used by scientist to help better understand the species.

This ivory gull was present along the Flint River from March 9-13, 2017. The gull died on March 13. Photo: Andrew Simon Photo below of ivory gull flying taken by Darlene Friedman.

This ivory gull was present along the Flint River from March 9-13, 2017. The gull died on March 13. Photo: Andrew Simon Photo below of ivory gull flying taken by Darlene Friedman.

On the evening of March 9, 2017, Lauren LaFave, 16, was walking across a bridge over the Flint River on the campus of the University of Michigan-Flint. LaFave noticed an unusually white bird resting on the bridge and was able to snap a few quick pictures on her phone. After those photos were shared among a number of Facebook groups it was confirmed that the bird photographed was, in fact, one of the rarest birds in all of North America, an ivory gull.

To understand the rarity of finding an ivory gull in downtown Flint, one must understand a bit about the species. The ivory gull is a bird rarely found south of the Arctic Circle. In North America, ivory gulls breed in the high arctic regions of Canada on bare rocks exposed only during the summer months. Unlike most arctic birds that head south for the winter, the ivory gull spends its winters remaining in the arctic. It can be found foraging on pack ice in the Bering Sea as well as the ice edge region between 50°–65° north latitude around Labrador and Greenland. The bird research database Birds of North American Online notes that only 2000-3000 of these birds breed in North America. It is listed in the 2014 State of the Birds report as being a species that will most likely become threatened or endangered unless conservation actions are taken. The species decline is due in part to declining sea ice associated with climate change as well as high mercury levels that accumulate in their tissue.

The bird found in Flint is only the second ivory gull on record in Michigan, and one of only a relatively small number from the lower 48 states. Once the word got out of the bird’s presence, birders from several states and Canadian provinces flocked to see it, with some travelling in from Connecticut and Florida. The birding community was abuzz, and Flint certainly saw a small influx of tourism dollars as a result. Michigan Sea Grant and Michigan Audubon recently hosted a workshop which included highlights on the economic impacts of birding. Birding events like this and other bird-related travel and equipment expenditures are estimated to generate $40 billion a year in the United States.

Ivory gull flying ovef waterTo the anguish of many, the ivory gull was only around for a few short days. Despite its apparent health on March 9-12, the bird fell ill and died on March 13. Wayward birds from the high arctic are often disoriented and malnourished. Many become prey to local predators or succumb to local diseases. While many birders were heartbroken over the loss, some were consoled with the fate of the bird’s body. A few individuals collected the bird and it was quickly preserved and sent to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology in Ann Arbor. Collection staff from the museum will be performing a full necropsy and will send off tissue samples for analysis to help determine the cause of death. After the necropsy, the museum will add the bird to their collection of bird specimens.

Their collection of ivory gulls from around the globe has already been used in a variety of studies, including a recent study documenting the dramatic increase in mercury levels in ivory gulls. In general, there is still much to learn about the ivory gull as it is one of the least studied gull species in the world. It’s high arctic range makes comprehensive studies of the bird hard to perform. This is, in part, why museum specimens, such as the Flint ivory gull, are extremely important. Thanks to the action of those on the scene of the bird’s death, the Flint ivory gull’s legacy will continue on with the scientific studies it will generate for years to come.

Birding Trails Workshop

Event Date: 2/24/2017

Michigan Audubon and Sea Grant Michigan Host Birding Trails Workshop

Friday, February 24, 2017

9:30 AM-3:00 PM

Location: Boardman River Nature Center, Traverse City, MI

Communities across Michigan are recognizing birding as an economic driver. The US Fish and Wildlife Service indicates that wildlife-watching generates a billion dollars of economic activity in Michigan every year. Michigan’s grassroots-driven birding trails are a demonstration of the commitment of citizens, businesses, non-profit organizations, and agencies to preserving natural resources and promoting bird appreciation and protection. Birding trails offer birders, naturalists, and general eco-tourists opportunities to explore diverse habitats across Michigan. Birding trails are typically driving routes linking prime birding locations.

The growth of birding trails combines Michigan residents’ and visitors’ passion for birding and love of the open road, creating new opportunities for connecting birds and people. We want to nurture this growth by providing resources and support for new and existing birding trail organizers and teams.

On Friday, February 24, 2017, Michigan Audubon and Sea Grant Michigan will host a birding trails workshop to support this grassroots effort throughout the state. Click below If you are interested in attending and learning more about establishing and maintaining a successful birding trail. For additional information or questions, please contact Elliot Nelson at elliotne@msu.edu or (906) 322-0353. This event is free and open to the public.

Campers experience a bird in the hand at 4-H Great Lakes and Natural Resources Camp

Bird biologists demonstrate mist-netting capture techniques used to study bird populations, behavior, and health.

By Brandon Schroeder, Andrew Dennhardt and Kim Fake

Campers experience science techniques used to sample and study for birds using mist nets with Michigan State University researchers.

Campers experience science techniques used to sample and study for birds using mist nets with Michigan State University researchers. Photo: Cindy Hudson | Michigan Sea Grant

Youth participating in the 2016 4-H Great Lakes and Natural Resources (GLNR) Camp had the opportunity to test their wings as aspiring ornithologists (bird biologists). Learning about bird ecology, biodiversity, and conservation were the goals for these campers who gained eyes-on experience while searching northern Michigan habitats and identifying more than 40 bird species as they worked alongside avian ecologists from Michigan State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

This year the week-long 2016 4-H GLNR Camp, held annually in Presque Isle County at Camp Chickagami, provided hands-on learning experiences engaging 65 youth, ages 13-15, in exploring science, leadership, careers and, of course, recreation, related to Michigan’s Great Lakes and natural resources. The 4-H GLNR Camp, an MSU pre-college program, is sponsored by Michigan State University Extension4-H Youth Development, Michigan 4-H FoundationMichigan Sea Grant, and MSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, along with several other community partners.

Each morning during camp, teens participated in a variety of Great Lakes and natural resource science sessions relating to watersheds, fisheries, woodlands and wildlife, bird ecology, a climate expedition, and more. The bird ecology session offered a chance for campers to turn their eyes, ears, and minds to the skies while learning what it means to be an ornithologist.

Birds of a Feather science sessionbirding photo (GLNR Camp 2016) full size

Campers experienced first-hand how researchers use mist nets (hard-to-see netting set up roughly like volleyball nets) to capture flying birds for scientific study. Northern cardinals, blue jays, and Eastern phoebes were among the species captured in nets during early morning sampling; and youth experienced a rare opportunity to assist in identifying and recording data on each species. Once captured, campers learned about handling the birds safely and properly, as well as the wide variety of scientific data that might be collected from a bird such as species, age, body condition, weight, and more before releasing the birds back into the wild. Youth also explored northern Michigan habitats alongside experienced birders, learning how to identify a variety of bird species by sight and sound, as well as the unique life cycles and adaptations of birds.

Led by Andrew Dennhardt and Kim Fake, MSU Fisheries and Wildlife graduate students, and aided by Kirsten Johnson, a graduate student from the Department of Biology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and Cindy Hudson from Michigan Sea Grant, campers learned about ornithological careers, as well as how science is used to better understand and respond to threats to bird populations such as habitat loss and fragmentation, predation by domestic and feral cats, disease and pesticides, or climate change.

Hands-on science and career explorations, environmental stewardship and recreating in Michigan’s outdoors – all are part of this 4-H camp experience. Youth gain a new perspective and appreciation of Michigan’s Great Lakes and natural resources; and perhaps their own roles as environmental stewards and future community leaders. And who knows, perhaps the next generation of avian ecologist will fledge from this camp experience!

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.