A group of volunteers banded a snowy owl at Island Beach State Park on Wednesday, as part of Project SNOWstorm.
It’s an effort to learn more about the birds, which are rare visitors to New Jersey, by putting electronic transmitters on them and following their movements.
Snowy owls spend most of their lives in the Arctic, only rarely flying as far south as New Jersey. But New Jersey Audubon, which had volunteers at the banding, predicts 2017 will be a big year for snowy owls in New Jersey.
A strong Arctic breeding season will force more birds to head south for food, an organization spokesman said.
Project SNOWstorm partners had heard about the snowy owl at Island Beach State Park in Berkeley Township, north across the inlet from Barnegat Light.
They headed there early Wednesday. They trapped the bird in a net, quickly banded and fitted it with a transmitter, then released it back into the wild by 7:55 a.m., a New Jersey Audubon spokesman said.
The bird has been nicknamed Island Beach.
Project SNOWstorm is a national, all-volunteer snowy owl research and conservation organization, of which New Jersey Audubon is a partner. The group was founded in 2013, when an unusually high number of snowy owls spent part of the winter in the United States. Some birds traveled as far as Florida and Bermuda, according to New Jersey Audubon.
“These birds are like little gifts from nature, and no matter whether it’s your first or your 50th, you always get goosebumps when you’re fortunate enough to encounter a snowy owl,” said David La Puma, director of New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory, who was there for the banding.
The bird was caught by Mike Lanzone, president and CEO of Cellular Tracking Technologies, which is donating the transmitter, New Jersey Audubon said.
This bird was large enough to handle the transmitter, which weighs about 40 grams — as much as seven U.S. quarters. It must be less than 3 percent of the bird’s weight or it could adversely affect the animal, New Jersey Audubon said.
La Puma said people must keep their distance from the owls, to avoid stressing them. He suggested they remain in their cars, use a spotting scope and a telephoto lens, and watch from a safe distance.
“A good rule of thumb is an owl at rest is an unstressed owl,” he said. “Alert eyes and/or an upright posture are signs that you are too close.”
Transmitters cost about $3,000 each and New Jersey Audubon is raising money to purchase one. The goal of Project SNOWstorm is to install 15 transmitters nationally, and two in New Jersey. Learn more at njaudubon.org and ProjectSNOWstorm.org.