Monday, December 8, 2014

Citizen Science: Snowy Owl Irruption, Winter 2015?

If you don't live and teach in the northern half of the United States, this post may not have the same utility for you as for those that do. If you do live and teach in these regions, you may or may not be aware of the snowy owl "irruption" that occurred in North America last winter. 

Photo by Mary Ann Cappiello,
taken in Hampton, NH, Dcc. 2013
During the 2013 nesting season, there was an increase in the availability of lemmings in the arctic. This led to an increase in the snowy owl population, since more young got fed and survived. When winter arrived in the arctic, there was not enough food to sustain this larger population, and so many young owls began to fly further and further south, creating the 2013-2014 irruption. In coastal New Hampshire, where I live, people were viewing snowy owls along the coast with regularity. Included here is my own picture of a snowy owl on a picnic table. 

Will another irruption take place in 2014-2015? It's too early to tell, although snowy owls have been spotted in various locations in the northeast and midwest, including here in New Hampshire. What's wonderful is that the owls are not landing only in rural areas or coastal areas. They can be anywhere, so if you live in a city like Boston or New York or Philadelphia, there's still a chance for you to spot them this winter. They tend to like flat, open space that resembles the terrain of the arctic (like Logan, Kennedy, and Philadelphia airports, unfortunately). You won't find them high up in trees or on buildings like eagles and hawks. 

Elementary, middle, and high school teachers alike can take advantage of this great citizen science opportunity. Project Snowstorm is a new organization that shares data about snowy owl behavior in real time. Last winter, ornithologists from different organizations were able to place GPS tracking devices on snowy owls. The Project Snowstorm website allows you to track their travels. It also provides an opportunity for you to upload your own photos of snowy owls and share location information with scientists.

Below are some print and digital resources to help you and your students learn more about these beautiful creatures. Before you go out owl watching, prepare students by having them watch videos and read print and digital texts about the owls. Use your local Audubon society or the Project Snowstorm website to locate where snowy owls have been spotted in your area (this year or last). Then bundle up, and head outdoors with binoculars, clipboards, cell phones, digital cameras, or tablet computers! Bring along some bird apps or bird guides so that you can identify the other birds you are bound to see. Are there parents or grandparents who are birding enthusiasts? Local Audubon volunteers who can come along? 

To document their learning, students may create their own birding journals or research reports, write digital books about the birds of your area or winter birds in particular, or may even write some winter bird poems. If you're interested in critical literacy, you can read about some of the ways that airports have handled snowy birds in the past (some of it shocking) and what sort of stance your students might take from an advocacy perspective. 

The last few weeks before the winter holiday break are always busy, and often filled with interruptions to your regular teaching schedule. Time spent absorbed in the natural world within the context of a purposeful, real-world learning experience may be just the antidote to all of the jitters, fears, exhaustion, expectations, etc. that your students may be feeling at this time of year. 

If you do try this out, or are already studying snowy owls where you live, please let us know in the comments section below! 

Primary Grade
Frost, H. 2006. Snowy Owls. Minneapolis: Capstone Publishing. 
Patrick, R. 2011. Snowy Owls. New York: Gareth Stevens. 

Intermediate Grades
Landeau, E. 2010. Snowy Owls hunters of the snow and ice. Berkley Heights, NJ: Enslow. 
Murray J. 2014. Snowy Owls. Edina, MN: ABDO Publishing. 
Zieger, J. 2014. Snowy Owls. New York: Children's Press. 

Citizen Science 

Burns, L.G. Citizen science: Be a part of scientific discovery from your own backyard. Ill. by E. Harasimowicz. New York: Square Fish. 

Project Snowstorm

Cornell Lab

National Geographic

National Geographic Video

Audubon Society

NPR Story on Snowy Owls 2014

Arctic Snowy Owl Nesting Cam (it will be live again in spring - follow up then!)

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