Academics

Meet Alma, the Snowy Owl

Students and faculty at Alma College are tracking the movements of “Alma,” a snowy owl outfitted with a satellite transmitter that was purchased with funds from the e-STEM grant.

Students and faculty at Alma College are tracking the movements of “Alma,” a snowy owl outfitted with a satellite transmitter that was purchased with funds from the e-STEM grant. Biology faculty member Mike Bishop also tags kestrels — a small American falcon — as part of his on-going research on bird populations.

“Alma” was captured at the Gerald R. Ford Airport in Grand Rapids by one of the founders of Project SNOWstorm, a group of owl experts who are tracking the owls to learn more about their movements and behavior. “Alma” was the first owl in Michigan to be fitted with a satellite tag. The transmitter will log the owl’s location and the data sent to researchers.

Snowy owls spend their summers in the Arctic but sometimes fly south in the winter. Most years, a few dozen snowy owls visit the Great Lakes region. The last two winters, however, have seen hundreds of snowy owls in Michigan — providing an opportunity for researchers to capture and tag them.

Alma students will map “Alma’s” movements through the data collected at the Dow Digital Science Center, says Bishop.

In his research on kestrels, Bishop and his students have for the past nine years attached battery-powered VHF transmitters to the birds. But the devices were short-lived, and finding the kestrels meant tracking them in the field.

This past winter, Bishop was able to purchase a more advanced solar-powered satellite transmitter with funds from the Dow grant.

“With a satellite transmitter, you can observe data from a computer,” says Bishop. “We use a harness, like a backpack, to attach the transmitter to the kestrel. Because it is solar powered, the transmitter can last three to four years. The goal is to track the birds in winter and during their breeding seasons.”

Kestrels nest in Michigan in the summers. While a majority of the birds migrate to the Gulf States in the winter, some stay in Michigan.

“We are at the northern edge of their winter territory range,” says Bishop. “The breeding range for kestrels is very extensive, extending from South America to Canada.”

Bishop has noticed behavior differences between kestrels that winter in the south vs. those that remain in northern regions. He wants to research why those differences exist.

“Here, they are more nomadic because prey resources are depleted quickly, and the birds move on,” says Bishop. “They also are more tolerant of one another here than in the south. With the data transmitters, we want to document their behavior and see why there are differences.

“The data we collect is primarily their location,” he says. “How much time do the kestrels stay in one place? The information from the satellite transmitters will be downloaded to the Dow Digital Science Center. We will use mapping software to determine locations and dates for the birds.”

Story published on June 17, 2015