Saturday, December 9, 2017

Winter Storm: Snowy Owl

by Anna Autilio
Lead, Environmental Educator

VINS Ambassador "Snowy" - Allegra Boverman
Winter has barely begun, and it is already shaping up to be another Snowy Owl irruption year! These stunning, mysterious arctic visitors will find themselves looking farther than usual for a wide, expanse of hunting ground to pass the winter, delighting those of us who may get a chance to glimpse them before they return to the tundra.

But what is an irruption? The word means an abrupt increase in the natural population of an animal in one area (not to be confused with eruption, and abrupt increase in the amount of lava in an area).

Many animal populations go through cycles of high and low numbers, and the arctic ecosystem is no exception. The lemming, a medium-sized rodent that thrives in the tundra, is also known as the “pacemaker” of the arctic, because of how much their abundance affects other species. In years of high lemming abundance, Snowy Owls tend to lay larger clutches of eggs (he difference between 2 eggs per clutch, and 14), which leads to higher populations of Snowy Owls the following winter.

These owls can’t all inhabit the Arctic together, so some pack a few lemmings for a long journey south, wandering into southern Canada, east and west to Russia and Asia, and very occasionally, as far south as Florida.

A Snowy Owl nest stocked with 70+ lemmings - Christine Blais-Soucy
Scientists used to believe that these irruptions of lemmings and owls followed a fairly regular cycle, of every 5-8 years. Seeing as the last noticeable Snowy Owl irruption occurred in the winter of 2013-2014, this seems to hold up, but irruptions don’t occur at the same time everywhere in the country, and there may be no predictable pattern.

According to Project SNOWstorm, which tracks Snowy Owls in the US, most Snowys seen during an irruption year are healthy, efficient hunters; some of them are even fat. This is the general trend, but of course not all of them are so lucky. VINS’s Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation has already seen two Snowy Owl patients this year, both suffering from severe malnutrition.

Snowy Owls have been popping up all across the landscape of Vermont already, since the end of November: one at the Vermont Technical College in Randolph, another on a bridge in Colchester, a few at Chimney Point, Grand Isle, and even at the Burlington Airport. This individual probably should have chosen a better spot to hunt, and was luckily relocated by VT Fish andWildlife.

VINS Ambassador "LaGuardia" - Allegra Boverman
The last major irruption in 2013-2014 saw the arrival of one of VINS’s resident raptors, LaGuardia. This young male owl was found at the airport of the same name, and had broken both of his wings by getting to close to the exhaust from a jet engine. Snowy Owls seem to choose airports as foraging grounds, as they may resemble the treeless expanse of the arctic they are used to.

LaGuardia is now an ambassador for his species, and you can come meet him and his neighbor, Snowy, at VINS next weekend! Join us at VINS on Saturday, December 16th for Snowy Owl Appreciation Day, when you can enjoy owl-themed crafts, meet our flock of education owls, and warm up with hot cocoa and while watching a documentary about Snowy Owls!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Fab Five: Meet Our New Birds!

by Anna Autilio
Lead, Environmental Educator

This summer, VINS was fortunate to welcome a whopping five new birds to the education team. We are excited to introduce you to them, and look forward to your meeting them eye-to-eye as raptor ambassadors!

Miami, the Eastern Screech Owl

When next you come to VINS, keep your eyes peeled for our tiniest educator yet! Miami arrived this summer all the way from Florida, where his nest tree was cut down by a logger and he arrived at a rehabilitation center blind in one eye. He is a “gray morph” Eastern Screech Owl, the same species as our “red morph” Screeches on exhibit, Virginia and Kentucky, just a radically different color. All the same, Miami is a tiny treasure, already getting quite used to the gigantic humans that move about his space and blinking at them incredulously.

Los Angeles, the Black Vulture

Despite traveling from so far away, Los Angeles has quickly become part of the VINS family. Found in Georgia in 2015 with injuries to her eye and other scrapes, she was treated and her eye was removed, leaving her unable to navigate to fly. That doesn’t stop her from searching your hands and pockets for any scrap of meat! We are so excited to introduce her to Ogden, our resident Turkey Vulture, and compare these two incredible species!

Ithaca, the Red-shouldered Hawk

The Red-shouldered Hawk is a species of Special Concern in New York state, meaning their population has been in decline but not so drastically as to warrant an Endangered status. But, as naturalist Rosalie Edge put it, “The time to protect a species is while it is still common”. Bred in captivity at the Cornell Raptor Program, some of Ithaca’s siblings were released into the wild to help bolster the New York population. She and one of her brothers were sent off to be education ambassadors, to help raise awareness of this fascinating and beautiful species. Ithaca is an energetic youngster, big even for a female hawk, and she loves sitting in the sun and watching chipmunks on the trail.

Hawaii, the Peregrine Falcon

Hawaii was part of another educational raptor program in northern California before joining our flock. In 2008, he was found at a power plant in Nanakuli, Hawaii, having collided with something leaving permanent damage to his beak. Unable to feed himself properly, Hawaii was fitted with an artificial beak, but eventually grew back enough of his own beak to tear at meat - though he’s still a messy eater! Hawaii may look a bit like a bulldog with his massive underbite, but he is eager for food, playful, and fond of a bath.
Westford, the American Kestrel

Back in September, Carol Winfield, a wildlife rehabilitator near Burlington, found a box on her front porch. Inside was an adult American Kestrel--with jesses on. These leather straps around a bird’s legs are put on to help train and restrain captive birds, so this little guy had obviously been in someone’s care. The trouble is, it is illegal to raise raptors in captivity without a special permit, and Westford is otherwise healthy, but has no chance of being returned to the wild. Because of his strong familiarity with people, he will make a great educator, and will be a wonderful help in teaching visitors of VINS the importance of letting wild birds be - to fly free.

Who are you most excited to meet and learn about?