Curt and Columbia

Raptor expert Gene Jacobs holds “Columbia” immediately after her capture in January.

On Dec. 11, Mike Bertram, Arlington Research Station UW — Madison, Manager reported the first snowy owl sighting for the winter on Badger Lane at the station. On Jan. 16, Madison Audubon owl volunteers assembled with high hopes of locating and trapping a snowy owl.

Gene Jacobs set up a trap on Ramsey Road at the Otteson family residence near Highway 51. Steve Otteson had reported that for the past week a snowy owl had been seen perched on the electric pole at the corner of their yard in late afternoon. This owl was probably the 2.5 year-old female that first arrived on Dec. 11. Snowy owls like the openness of the Ramsey Road area.

The owl searchers drove a large area before and during the trapping operation and only found three short-eared owls. People were disappointed that the snowy did not appear that night, especially because Richard Armstrong from DeForest stated that he’d “bet $100 we that we would see the owl.” However, on Jan. 24, our neighbor Judi Benade, sent us an email titled “Owl” along with a photo of the bird and this comment “Still owls around ... this one on Kampen Road on the 4th phone pole west of County I.” This pole is near the northwest corner of Goose Pond Sanctuary’s Browne Prairie.

Jan. 28 — Today’s the day

The owl was also seen on the 26th and 27th in the same area, so plans were made to trap on the 28th. That afternoon searchers again worked in vain before Gene arrived. With no owls spotted in our area, Gene and all our volunteers except Mark and Fred Dike headed to the Dane County Airport to try and help Lowell Wright who works on wildlife issues at the airport, capture and remove a snowy owl from the airport. Vice President Pence was visiting Madison that day and Lowell informed us that we could not drive around the airport area searching for owls until the Vice President left. During this time Mark and Fred continued searching for an owl and finally spotted one along Highway I about one-half mile south of Arlington. Trapper Gene and the volunteers were called back and within 25 minutes had a trap set up.

And then the tense waiting. Five cars facing the space between the owl and the cage lined up like at an outdoor movie…for 30 minutes. Was she hungry? Interested in the pigeon? Too smart for us? Waiting for dark? At 5:07 p.m. she swooped down and landed near the cage. And for about eight minutes she hopped, walked, bounced, and danced around the cage. She puffed up her feathers and lifted her wings to move close in and out, looking in all directions, obviously cautious and assessing the situation. We didn’t want to blink for fear of missing something. Suddenly she leaped up above the cage and began flapping as the snare caught hold of her, but only by a single toe. In a second, Gene and Richard Armstrong were out of the car and running up the hill to the trap. A minute later the owl was freed, calmed, and safe heading back in Gene’s arms. What a beautiful owl and what a heart-thumping experience this was. Lucky us!”

Everyone returned to the Audubon Kampen Road residence to the laundry room to help process, photograph, and observe the banding and attachment of the transmitter. She weighed in at a healthy five and a quarter pounds. After processing the owl, she was released at the capture location by Graham Steinhauer. We named her “Columbia” since she was caught in Columbia County. Owl researcher examined flight photos taken by Arlene Koziol, showing her wing molt and on examining her feathers that night she aged as a 2.5 year old female from a nest in 2017, the same bird that was first seen and photographed on Dec. 11. Everyone wished her good luck.

We are close partners with Project SNOWstorm, which is a non-profit organization that studies snowy owls’ ecology and migration each year. Dave Brinker, co-founder and Wisconsin native, will give a presentation for Madison Audubon on April 21 at the Middleton Library. Project SNOWstorm studies owls by outfitting owls with backpack transmitters that contain a GPS unit and cell phone that collects hourly data on their locations. Transmitted owls call three times a week when they are in range of a cell tower. The transmitters are feather-light, solar powered, and do not impact the owls’ flight or behavior.

Columbia’s winter vacation

Columbia, like other snowy owls, spends the summers roaming or raising a family in the high arctic. People sometimes ask us why some snowy owls come south for the winter while others stay in the arctic. Maybe some owls are like some people from Wisconsin that go south for the winter. This winter she probably thought why not head south for a vacation?

Studies have found that in years of low lemming populations, owls move south to find more food. In a season of high lemming numbers a large number of owl young are produced, and some of those individuals likely fly south during the winter to avoid competition from other owls. The owls that venture south mostly feed on meadow voles in short grassy fields, pastures, and alfalfa fields along with an occasional pigeon. These birds might enjoy the sunlight instead of spending winter with 24 hours of darkness.

Columbia likes to spend daylight hours roosting in two major areas, one southwest of Arlington and another east of DeForest (west of Portage Road and south of Muller Road). However, during the night, she likes to hunt alfalfa fields or grassy fields east of DeForest or at the Arlington Research Station. In the first week of March Columbia has been spending most of her time in the Ramsey Road area west of Highway 51 where she was in the first half of January.

We assume that she will stay around for a couple more weeks but may get the inclination to head north with the recent above normal temperatures. We hope you get to see her or track her movements north on the Project SNOWstorm website.

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