"Alaska’s Absent Snowy Owls"

"The only reliable snowy owl breeding site in the United States has a conspicuous shortage of owls."

"A male snowy owl hovers briefly, aloft in the breezy Arctic air, before diving at field researcher Denver Holt. The bright-white bird descends within a meter of the man, making short, loud barks before retreating and swooping again. Holt is undeterred. In a few more strides, he reaches the owl’s nest—a bowl-shaped depression scraped out of the top of a mound—and crouches on his knees to quickly count the eggs and chicks inside. After decades on this landscape, he isn’t rattled by incoming talons. “I get hit on the head, the shoulders, the neck, all the time,” he says, his brown hair, accented with gray, tucked under a baseball cap with an owl on it. “One time a female ripped right through my Carhartt [pants], right through my long johns, and left four punctures on my butt. She got me good.”

This nest is particularly important. At the end of June, two of its young inhabitants are downy and chirping with eyes squeezed shut, and the remaining three are still in shells, soon to hatch. It’s one of only three active nests Holt has found after weeks crisscrossing a peninsula squeezed between the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas outside Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow), Alaska, and the only one where chicks hatched. Before the summer is out, he’ll find just one more nest. It fails, too.

This past summer marked the 30th year that Holt has studied the snowy owls of Alaska, operating through the Owl Research Institute, a nonprofit he founded in Montana. He and his colleagues spend much of their time working on owl projects in the state. But each June, he migrates north, just as snowy owls do earlier in the spring, relocating to Utqiaġvik, the largest city in Alaska’s North Slope Borough, with about 4,400 residents, as well as numerous visiting researchers and the occasional gaggle of birdwatchers. Some owls are known to overwinter here, where they spend the majority of their lives, but most relocate for the coldest months of the year to southeastern Canada; the United States as far south as Texas and Florida; and Russia."

Kylie Mohr reports for Hakai magazine December 7, 2021.

Source: Hakai, 12/09/2021