Farmers needed to test EnviroImpact tool

With the tool, farmers can better determine when to apply manure as a fertilizer source with lower runoff risks.

By Meaghan Gass and Erica Rogers

Farm machinery shown in a field spreading manure. Utilizing manure as a fertilizer source can be a cost-effective way for farmers to meet crop nutrient needs, and with effective application, be environmentally sustainable. Photo: Beth Ferry, MSU Extension

Utilizing manure as a fertilizer source can be a cost-effective way for farmers to meet crop nutrient needs, and with effective application, be environmentally sustainable. Photo: Beth Ferry, MSU Extension

Are you a farmer applying manure to your farm fields? Then your help is needed to test the Michigan EnviroImpact tool.

The MI EnviroImpact tool is a decision-support tool for short-term manure application planning that shows daily runoff risks across Michigan. The tool’s runoff risk forecast comes from real-time precipitation and temperature forecasts, which are combined with snow melt, soil moisture, and landscape characteristics in order to forecast runoff events. With the tool, farmers can better determine when to apply manure as a fertilizer source with lower runoff risks.

MI EnviroImpact Tool Website Screen Shot

Reducing risk of runoff

Nutrients found in manure and commercial fertilizers, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, can enter rivers and streams as runoff, and in Michigan, almost all of our waterways flow to the Great Lakes. When it rains, these nutrients have the potential to wash into nearby waterways, which can cause an excess of nutrients and lead to algae overgrowth, or harmful algal blooms. These algal blooms can have a big impact on the Great Lakes watershed as they consume oxygen that fish need to survive and can affect the quality of drinking water. With manure application planning, farmers are able reduce the risk of nutrient runoff and help better protect the Great Lakes.

Manure application is just one source of harmful algal blooms, but with proper planning, farmers can help keep applied manure nutrients on their fields and reduce runoff entering the Great Lakes.

Pilot program seeks farmers to help

Currently, tool developers are recruiting farmers to pilot the MI EnviroImpact tool. If you are interested in piloting the tool and sharing a testimonial, please contact Erica Rogers (email: roger392@msu.edu; Phone: 989-875-5233, ext. 5296). Farmer input and feedback could be used in promotional materials to highlight the tool and how farmers can use it as a decision support tool to reduce runoff risk.

The Michigan EnviroImpact Tool was developed in partnership with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration National Weather ServiceMichigan Department of Agriculture and Rural DevelopmentMichigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance ProgramMichigan State University Institute of Water ResearchMichigan Sea Grant and MSU Extension. The tool is part of a regional effort to improve runoff risk decision support tools in the Great Lakes basin supported by the Environmental Protection AgencyGreat Lakes Restoration Initiative, and National Weather Service North Central River Forecast Center.

Future Spartan already building MSU network through underwater robotics, science career exploration

Alpena High School student assisting sturgeon science team in capturing video, data in the Black River.

Liz Thomson works with Doug Larson from the lake sturgeon science team at MSU to install underwater cameras in the Black River. Courtesy photo

Liz Thomson works with Doug Larson from the lake sturgeon science team at MSU to install underwater cameras in the Black River. Courtesy photo

High school is a good time to explore career opportunities—an idea that one Alpena High School student has taken to heart. Liz Thomson soon will be a proud student of Michigan State University. However even before attending MSU, she has combined on-the-job career exploration with networking at the college.

This past year (and upcoming summer), Thomson has worked for Michigan Sea Grant and gained experience that cross-connects her passion for underwater robotics with an interest in future science careers. Along the way she has found many opportunities for fun and to add engaging learning, leadership, and career experiences to her resume.

Dr. Kim Scribner and Doug Larson lead a lake sturgeon research team from MSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. They are embarking on a new citizen science project to track movement of spawning sturgeon along with other fish species in the Black River (Cheboygan River Watershed). Thomson is contributing to the project.

The MSU sturgeon science team is installing cameras above the water to capture video of the variety of large fish migrating in the Black River during the springtime sturgeon spawning season. Thomson explored underwater video options and also helped install an underwater camera which will be used help to verify species identification in video data collected during this project. Her project reflects a career exploration opportunity supported by the Michigan Sea Grant and a recently funded Great Lakes NOAA B-WET grant supporting meaningful watershed education experiences for youth across northeast Michigan.

Thomson has fostered her expertise in applying underwater technology toward science through her leadership with the Alpena 4-H Underwater Robotics club and involvement with NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s MATE Underwater ROV (remotely operated vehicle) competition.

She has been part of several underwater robotics teams who have built and successfully competed across the state and nation. She also has been involved in a variety of hands-on Great Lakes and natural resource learning experiences in elementary, middle and high school through the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (NEMIGLSI). The initiative is a regional place-based education network and partnership for which MSU Extension and Michigan Sea Grant provide leadership.

Photo shows Liz Thomson who is the subject of the story

With this new project, Thomson is able to explore careers in Great Lakes and natural resources, and support research designed to better connect citizens with stewardship of the state-threatened lake sturgeon.

While employed by Michigan Sea Grant, Thomson has supported Great Lakes educational programs in northeast Michigan ranging from fisheries science to youth education projects. “Michigan Sea Grant has given me lots of great connections and networking opportunities from the lake sturgeon project and from the NEMIGLSI network,” Thompson said. “Working with the Sea Grant staff has allowed me to develop my skills with data entry and summarizing evaluations and surveys.”

Beyond this in-the-water project, Thomson has been working with a local Sturgeon for Tomorrow Chapter and educators from the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service to adapt their sturgeon education program for Great Lakes educator audiences. This summer she hopes to pilot some adapted educational activities with teachers – and data collected through this sturgeon citizen science project will be integrated as part of these adapted lessons.

2018 Summer Discovery Cruises

Event Date: 6/13/2018
End Date: 9/15/2018

What do shipwrecks, wetlands, fisheries, research and birds all have in common? Those are just some of the topics featured on board these fun, interesting, and educational boat trips.

Got fish? You will if you join one of our fisheries-themed cruises this summer! Photo: Steve Stewart, Michigan Sea Grant

Got fish? You will if you join one of our fisheries-themed cruises this summer! Photo: Steve Stewart, Michigan Sea Grant

The 2018 season of educational Summer Discovery Cruises begins June 14 as the education vessel Clinton sets sail from Lake Erie Metropark for the upper reaches of the Detroit River. This first cruise is a special 5-hour “Journey through the Straits” cruise, sailing north from Lake Erie through the entire length of the Detroit River. Starting within the boundary of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, we’ll pass Grosse Ile and Fighting Island, get a close look at the steel industry in River Rouge, see Historic Fort Wayne, cruise under the Ambassador Bridge, view Detroit’s incredible downtown waterfront up close, and pass to the west of Belle Isle before docking.

Following the Journey through the Straitsthe Clinton will sail on Lake St. Clair for two weeks in late June and July, operating out of the Lake St. Clair Metropark marina. The second half of the summer is spent on Lake Erie and the lower Detroit River.

Join us on the water for our 17th year of learning about the magnificent Great Lakes! There are more than 20 cruise themes to choose from this summer. Topics range from lighthouses, wildlife, shipwrecks, bootleggers and history, to fisheries, ecology, wetlands, habitat restoration and weather.

A new cruise added this year coincides with Macomb County’s bicentennial. This cruise – “200 Years Around Lake St. Clair” – will look back at what life was like around Lake St. Clair long ago. From the first people of the region to the European fur traders, explorers, and settlers, participants will learn how the natural history of Lake St. Clair influenced the human history and use of this magnificent lake.

Summer Discovery Cruises range from 2.5 to 5 hours on the water and range in price from $15-$35 per person. The cruises are a collaborative effort between Michigan State University ExtensionMichigan Sea Grant, the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and a number of program partners, including DTE Energy, Michigan DNR, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, and the National Weather Service.

The 2018 Summer Discovery Cruises season begins June 14, with the final cruise offered Sept. 15. Registration is now open for both individuals (ages six and above) and for groups. For more information or to register, go to www.discoverycruises.org.

‘Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle’ is a must-see art exhibit for Great Lakes lovers

Paintings reveal the hidden life beneath the beautiful inland seas.

If you love the waters and creatures of the Great Lakes, you won’t want to miss the chance to see the Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle exhibition at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. But don’t delay — the magnificent art exhibit is nearing the end of its three-month run and will only be in town through April 29, 2018. After that Michiganders will have to wait until 2020 for the paintings to return to the state.

The art museum commissioned the artist to research and create five mural-sized paintings depicting the past, present, and future of the Great Lakes. Over the course of four years, Rockman traveled the Great Lakes region, met with scientists and other experts, and created this special display. Included in the exhibit are murals, watercolors, and field drawings.

Detail of a Lake Trout from Forces of Change panel

Rockman’s five mural-sized paintings are filled with information and detail. His paintings have been described as “visual essays” and indeed tell a story which invokes wonder, appreciation, and also apprehension for the future of these critical waters. It’s an important story for all of us to learn and know.

A critical resource

The Great Lakes — Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, and their connecting channels — form the largest surface fresh water system on earth. Environmental stewardship, sustainable economic development, and responsible use of the Great Lakes are crucial components of keeping the lakes and the region vibrant. Rockman’s exhibit challenges viewers to remember how actions and decisions often have ripple effects on the lakes. Several of the large panels can be “read” from left to right, telling the evolutionary story and showing scientific and cultural timelines. Reading these paintings, one can’t help but wonder what’s next for these important waters and be challenged to be a better steward of them for future generations.

For the museum visitor, drawing keys help tell the story and identify each element contained in the large panels. The museum has also created a Great Lakes bingo game to capture the imagination of children and adults, but also impart facts and knowledge. Playing the game encourages real study of the individual elements of the panels.

watercolor of wood duck with sand embelishments

The watercolors and field study drawings are magnificent as well. In the field studies, Rockman has included sand, dirt, and other elements he collected during his travels around the region. For example, his Common Snapping Turtle includes sand from Pictured Rocks, and his rendering of a wood duck includes sand from the Cuyahoga River.

Book a bonus you won’t want to miss

To add to the experience of viewing Rockman’s paintings, be sure to pick up a copy of the exhibition catalogue, which was published by the art museum in association with Michigan State University Press. The book’s essays, descriptions, and beautiful photographs make it a perfect way to enhance — and remember — the experience of standing in front of one of Rockman’s beautiful paintings. The catalogue was written by Dana Friis-Hansen, director of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, with contributions by Jeff Alexander and Thyrza Nichols Goodeve. One suggestion would be to order and read the book first, then see the exhibit. At the very least, grab one at the museum store to study at leisure. The book also includes the detailed keys that explain each element of the large panels.

After leaving Grand Rapids, the exhibit will tour the Great Lakes region. The tour schedule will wrap up back in Michigan in 2020 with its visit to the Flint Institute of Arts. For more information, visit the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s website at www.artmuseumgr.org or contact Visitor Services at (616) 831-1000 or info@artmuseumgr.org.

Exhibition Touring Schedule:

Project F.I.S.H. training helps educators connect youth to fishing

Hands-on activities, games and practice develop fishing skills, encourage conservation.

Participants practice fish printing, or Gyotaku (a traditional Japanese method), before learning how to prepare fish. Photo: Mark Stephens, Michigan State University

Participants practice fish printing, or Gyotaku (a traditional Japanese method), before learning how to prepare fish. Photo: Mark Stephens, Michigan State University

Recently teachers, 4-H program coordinators, and informal educators gathered at Michigan State University to participate in Project F.I.S.H. (Friends Involved in Sportfishing Heritage) training, where they learned hands-on ways to get youth excited about fishing.

Over the course of two days, participants explored the aquatic food web, practiced tackle crafting and casting skills, played games and discussed fishing management and ethics. They also learned how to filet fish and discussed food safety issues through the Eat Safe Fish in Michigan program.

To support efforts following the training, each person received a spincast rod and reel, backyard bass game, tackle box, tackle crafting supplies, bluegill fish print mold, a natural resources stewardship project guide and the Project F.I.S.H. curriculum with instructions for more than 100 fishing education activities. They also receive access to the Bait Shop, an online store that offers educational fishing tools at a discounted rate.

Fishing makes connections

Project F.I.S.H. was launched in 1996 with support from MSUExtension, the Michigan Department of Natural ResourcesGreat Lakes Fishery Trust, and many volunteers. The program has trained more than 2,000 volunteers and through them impacted 200,000-plus youth. Not only do youth learn about sportsfishing, but they also connect to their local waterways and learn how important clean water and a healthy fishery is for our state. One popular event is the annual 4-H Fish Camp, organized by MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant and Project F.I.S.H. held in the Saginaw Bay region.

For those attending the training at MSU, painting with fish forms was a fun – and somewhat messy — way to practice handling rubbery fish before learning how to filet a real one. Participants decorated t-shirts and towels with fish prints, but students have also fish printed no sew t-shirt bags, which is a great way to refuse to single use and protect our Great Lakes from marine debris

Learn more about Project F.I.S.H.

To learn more about upcoming Project F.I.S.H opportunities, visit the events page or contact Mark Stephens, Project F.I.S.H. director, at steph143@msu.edu or (517) 432-2700. Project F.I.S.H. is currently supported by financial donations. If you would like to assist the program financially, please donate online at www.projectfish.org.

Northeast Michigan explores project-based learning, place-based education connections

School, community partners from the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative learn and grow together.

Teachers gather to dicuss common interests in place-based education during a recent professional development session. Photo: Brandon Schroeder, Michigan Sea Grant

Teachers gather to discuss common interests in place-based education during a recent professional development session. Photo: Brandon Schroeder, Michigan Sea Grant

A community of practice represents an opportunity for a group of people to learn and grow together – a community with shared interests and together a wealth of shared expertise and experiences.

The Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (NEMIGLSI) is a regional community network of schools and educators, communities and partners who are invested in connecting youth, through their learning, in caring for natural resources. This network and partnership regionally supports place-based education (PBE) and works together to engage youth seeking to enhance their learning through Great Lakes and natural resource stewardship projects.

Celebrating successes

Last month, more than 60 educators and community partners celebrated the network’s successes during the 13thannual regional NEMIGLSI network meeting held in Alpena, Mich. Facilitated by Michigan State University Extension (Michigan Sea Grant and 4-H Youth), NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Huron Pines AmeriCorps and others, this meeting serves to strengthen school-community partnerships across the region. Educators from ten area schools joined in sharing educational presentations, trade resources and exploring new ideas together with community partners.

This year’s meeting offered an opportunity to explore connections between project-based learning and place-based education experiences and opportunities for youth. Keynote speaker, Mary Whitmore, serves as director for the statewide Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative and champions PBE as an effective strategy to better connect youth learning with their communities while caring for the Great Lakes and natural resources. Whitmore shared a reflection on the idea of ‘Powerful Learning,’ describing the types of attributes we often seek in youth learners – and the types of educational strategies we often deploy to accomplish these outcomes. Through this lens, she illustrated how project-based learning and place-based educationstrategies serve together in complementary ways. For example, a student project that inspires greater learning opportunities can also serve as a place-based education experience when connected with local environment and a local community context.

An educational panel shared additional perspectives about project-based learning experiences that have also successfully served in growing place-based education opportunities, including:

  • Expanding through community connections: Monarch Watch and Salmon in the Classroom: Gail Gombos and Jen Inglis are elementary teachers at Alcona Community Schools, where students participate in the Monarch Watch and Salmon in the Classroom projects. Their school team has made strides in recent years to connect these student projects with broader community place-based education partnerships. Students who participate in the Monarch Watch project not only contribute important citizen science data, but are also contributing to a pollinator garden project at the local library. On the aquatic side, their Salmon in the Classroom project partnership engages students in broader watershed science and studies connected with their local marina.
  • iNaturalist, Schoolyard Bio-Blitz and Biodiversity Conservation: Gabi Likavec joined the panel from Central Michigan University and Michigan Geographic Alliance. Across Michigan, she inspires citizen science opportunities through Schoolyard Bioblitz’s and the iNaturalist digital reporting and mapping tool. Likavec shared examples of how iNaturalist has been used to conduct schoolyard and community bioblitz’s, how student-collected data is being used by scientists around the world, and how educators can leverage this project to accomplish learning goals.
  • Projects, inquiry, and place-based successes: Bob Thomson is a veteran elementary teacher from Alpena Public Schools, who serves on the NEMIGLSI leadership team and as a Center for Great Lakes Literacy mentor teacher. Through a watershed science and stewardship model, Thomson engages his students in a wide diversity of projects, ranging from building underwater robots to rearing native fish in his classroom. Thomson leverages these projects to connect his students with scientists and their local communities, and through inquiry-driven processes he challenges students to translate their projects into local science and stewardship projects that result in deeper, richer learning experiences for youth involved.

Impact felt by many

In 2017, supported by Great Lakes Fishery Trust’s Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative funding, the NEMIGLSI network:

  • served more than 30 schools,
  • supported 167 educators,
  • and engaged 4,483 youth in place-based stewardship education experiences.

At its core, the network and partnership is guided by a set of Principles for Exemplary Place-Based Stewardship Education (PBSE) co-developed with the Great Lakes Fishery Trust and nine statewide GLSI network hubs (including NEMIGLSI). This regional meeting reflected on these place-based education principles, examples in local practice, and regional network accomplishments. As a networking meeting participants also discussed upcoming opportunities, and engaged participants in exploring new ideas and planning future opportunities for the NEMIGLSI network.

Nigerian fish farmers are turning to production of smoked fish to prevent economic losses

Attending training in Michigan helps representatives develop plans for smoked fish processing to deal with food safety hazards unique to the product.

Representatives from Nigeria attended the Seafood HACCP course in Michigan to learn how to deal with food safety hazards in smoked fish production. Photo: Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

Representatives from Nigeria attended the Seafood HACCP course in Michigan to learn how to deal with food safety hazards in smoked fish production. Photo: Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

A Seafood Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) Training Course coordinated by Michigan Sea GrantMichigan State University Extension, and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission was recently conducted at Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. Three of those attending traveled from Nigeria to learn how to develop HACCP plans for smoked fish processing to deal with food safety hazards unique to this product. Two of them represented the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) that regulates processed and semi-processed food. The need for value-added and preservation of fish in Nigeria is in dire need because many fish farmers are faced with losses due to poor infrastructure.

Fish farming potential

The fish production sector of Nigeria’s economy is in a developmental phase and it currently contributes about 6 percent to the nation’s economy. Nigeria depends on imported fish to meet domestic demand. Currently almost 2 billion pounds of fish is produced locally while the annual demand for fish is around 6 billion pounds. This leads to a shortfall of more than 4 billion pounds that must be imported. However, recent developments in the agricultural sector of the economy has brought to light the potential of domestic fish farming. This has led to the continued rise in the production of freshwater fish with a focus on catfish and tilapia.

With the increase in fish production in Nigeria because of fish farming the need for fish preservation, including both dried and wet smoked, is becoming an urgent alternative for fish farmers to prevent economic losses. Most of the smoked fish in the open markets are currently being processed using traditional methods which are not regulated in any form. The commercial production, labeling, and marketing of smoked fish continues to evolve there.

Planning for the future

In preparation for future challenges NAFDAC embarked on capacity building for effective regulation and planning for the need to export smoke fish. The directorate of Veterinary Medicine and Allied Products (VMAP) participated in the Seafood HACCP course two years ago to acquire information on recent developments in Seafood HACCP applications to fish smoking, to understand the global prerequisite in fish preservation especially related fish smoking, and to develop detailed training from the training materials and knowledge acquired at the course. As a result they are committed to sending more people from Nigeria to Michigan for Seafood HACCP training.

The Seafood HACCP training has added value to the regulatory documents being developed for fish smoking on a commercial level. The Nigerian national agency looks forward to future participation in such training as a regulatory body and recommending the same for major stakeholders in Nigeria.

New video features Michigan’s largest fully aquatic salamander – the mudpuppy

Mudpuppies act as an early warning system for environmental problems but are often misunderstood.

New video features Michigan’s largest fully aquatic salamander - the mudpuppy

Michigan Sea Grant in partnership with Herpetological Resource and ManagementEastern Michigan UniversityUnited States Geological SurveyUnited States Fish and Wildlife ServiceDepartment of Natural Resources Fisheries DivisionBelle Isle Aquarium, and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has produced a new video featuring mudpuppies.

Mudpuppies are Michigan’s largest, fully aquatic salamander. Often referred to as ‘bio-indicators’ because they are sensitive to pollutants and water quality, these salamanders act as an early warning system for environmental problems but are often misunderstood.

Some common myths that the video seeks to dispel are noted below: 

                                    FICTION         VS.            FACT

Mudpuppies are a type of  fish. Mudpuppies are actually an amphibian and although they have lungs and can gulp air they rely on their feathery red external gills for oxygen.
Mudpuppies that are thrown on the ice by anglers will revive in the spring when the ice melts. Unfortunately if a mudpuppy freezes it will die. When thrown on the ice mudpuppies will eventually suffocate or freeze to death.
Mudpuppies eat so many fish eggs that they decrease sport fish populations. Their diet is mostly crayfish, insect larvae, snails and small fish (including invasive round gobies). There is no evidence that they impact fish populations, and they more likely benefit them by helping control non-native species.
Mudpuppies are not protected in Michigan and can be collected all year round. In 2016, the mudpuppy was elevated to a species of special concern and is now protected by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. When you catch them, please put them back.
Mudpuppies compete with game species for food. While mudpuppies do eat some of the same species as game fish, they also play an important role in controlling invasive species such as the round goby and they help keep water clean by feeding on sick or dead animals.
Anglers who hook them should cut the line because they are poisonous. Although slimy, mudpuppies are not poisonous. Anglers should gently remove the hook and return them to the water.

Other interesting facts about mudpuppies

  • Mudpuppies mate in late fall but the females do not lay their eggs until the following spring.
  • Mudpuppies have no scales and their skin is very slimy.
  • Females usually lay 50-100 eggs in cavities or under rocks.
  • Eggs hatch 1-2 months after being laid.
  • Mudpuppies can live for more than 20 years and can take up to 10 years to reach sexual maturity.
  • Mudpuppies are also called waterdogs because of the barking sound they sometimes make.

Video viewers are also encouraged to help conserve mudpuppies and other amphibians and reptiles by reporting sightings in the Michigan Herp Atlas to help better protect and conserve Michigan’s biodiversity! You can also learn more about Mudpuppies and their conservation at the Mudpuppy Conservation page on Facebook.

Bay Mills Community College to partner with MSU Extension to perform Great Lakes research

College to use $216K grant to study contaminants, biodiversity in their local waters.

Bay Mills Community College was awarded $216K to help fund research of Waishkey Bay. Photo: Bay Mills Community College

Bay Mills Community College was awarded $216K to help fund research of Waishkey Bay. Photo: Bay Mills Community College

Looking out over the pristine headwaters of the Upper Saint Mary’s River, the main campus of the Bay Mills Community College (BMCC) is located between the sole outlet of Lake Superior and Waishkey (Waiska) Bay in the heart of the Bay Mills Indian Community. The Bay is an important recreational and cultural resource for members of the Bay Mills Indian Community and its neighbors, as well as for the many tourists who visit the area.

BMCC recently was awarded $216K to help fund research of Waishkey Bay. BMCC’s project will study contaminants in the Bay, including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, personal care products and micro plastics. The project will also study the biodiversity of the bay including surveying all mussel species present. Mussels, like clams and oysters, are good indicators of a water bodies health and many mussels in Michigan are threatened or endangered. ­­­

The project will engage the students at BMCC in assisting with the research as well as several partner organizations. These partners include Lake Superior State University’s Environmental Analysis Lab and Wayne State University’s Lumigen Instrument Center, which will be performing chemical analysis on samples collected. Bay Mills Indian Community’s Biological Services Department will assist with training and sample collection and Michigan Sea Grant, a program of Michigan State University Extension and the University of Michigan will serve as coordinators for education and outreach to the local community.

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.