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Population of snowy owls at airport drawing birders and researchers from throughout the region

By Howard B. Owens

Snowy owls have become Batavia's latest tourist attraction. Birders are driving out to the Genesee County Airport from miles around to see the majestic raptors.

"It's very special to come out and see such an unusual bird," said Leslie Phillips, a Rochester resident who read about the "irruption" of snowy owls in Batavia through an e-mail discussion list for birders.

Irruptions are the irregular southern migrations exhibited by bird species that typically winter in Canada and the extreme northern United States, according to Cornell University's Project Feederwatch.

She was among six or seven birders who were on State Street Road this afternoon with scopes and binoculars watching the owls perched on snow banks or fence posts.

David Genesky, a conservationist who specializes in raptors, spent much of the day trapping the owls on behalf of a national snowy owl research program.

By 5 p.m. he had caught eight and believed there were at least two more in the airport area. (CORRECTION: It's eight for the season, three on Tuesday.)

Genesky collected a feather, for a DNA sample, and weighed each bird before banding it and releasing it. The whole process took about five minutes per bird.

"Personally, I just want to make sure the species is OK," Genesky said. "There's a lot of talk about global warming and climate change and how it would effect their nesting areas, and for me personally, that's what I'm concerned about."

Genesky said the collection of snowy owls at the airport is a great opportunity for the public to see one of the great birds of the wild up close.

"They've been as steady as can be for the last month," Genesky said. "People have come from miles away and gotten good looks at them."

Sharon Leising hasn't had to travel far this winter to see the owls. She lives on State Street Road, and when she heard about the trapping project today, she had to meet up with Genesky and learn about what he was doing. She was at the Emergency Training Center when Genesky brought one of the birds in for cataloging (inset photo; photo courtesy Sharon Leising).

"This is so exciting, to have something like this happen in our area," Leising said. "They're such beautiful birds."

Typically, snowy owls make their homes in the Arctic and don't often congregate in such numbers in the northeast.

"This year is probably is biggest number in 40 years," Genesky said. "It's very rare to get this many birds in the Northeastern United States.  The Western states have fewer birds. They seem to have concentrated here."

Genesky said the local snowy owl population seems to be in good shape.

"Believe me, these birds are all healthy," he said. "They're not starving."

While there may be as many as a dozen snowy owls in the airport area, that number will thin soon to one or two as the birds establish their territories for the rest of the winter. Grenesky said anybody interested in seeing the birds should get out to the airport soon.

Leslie Phillips

Bill McDonald

If anyone has any info, just curious as to what was done to our tourist owls after they were trapped by Mr Geneseky, start to finish please...

Dec 31, 2013, 11:00am Permalink
Mardell Lamb

"Genesky collected a feather, for a DNA sample, and weighed each bird before banding it and releasing it. The whole process took about five minutes per bird."

Dec 31, 2013, 11:36am Permalink
Bea McManis

Bill, they were captured; taken to a warm garage; weighed, banded; then released. I believe all but two were banded. Additional pictures on Facebok along with a first hand story.
According to Genesky, they usually do all of this in their vehicle. They were happy to have a warm place to work.

Dec 31, 2013, 11:42am Permalink
Robert Tretter

They have been out at the ponds at the waste water plant for weeks. I walk out there almost every day. My wife and I saw one this morning while walking out there.

Dec 31, 2013, 1:15pm Permalink
Bill McDonald

Thanks Mardell, Bea and Bob for your info...... Checked facebook with not much more offered... Looked on the batavian site but may be missing something... Also, if anyone knows, where and how were they captured and where were they released?

Dec 31, 2013, 1:22pm Permalink
Bill McDonald

Just got home from the airport. Most traffic I've seen there since the airshow.. Oh yes, two owl sightings and visible from Saile and State St ext... One full white, other white head-grey body. Very cool!!! Have pic of grey one on phone and will post it in a minute on facebook.. Hard to see detail but a body for sure...

Dec 31, 2013, 2:36pm Permalink
Jay Terkel

I too just returned from the Genesee County Airport. It reminded me of driving through Lion Country Safari, with so many car slowly driving around. I got a few decent images, before the 15 degree temp and high winds encouraged me to leave.
I posted one image on my blog. Check it out.

Dec 31, 2013, 3:38pm Permalink
Tom Klotzbach

"'m surprised to see that Mr. Genesky isn't wearing gloves while he's holding the owl - that big beak could really do some damage."

I do banding of owls (Eastern Screech Owl during the winter, and Great-horned Owls prior to release by wildlife rehabbers), and the thing to watch for are the talons. On a Great-horned Owl, they could easily puncture your hand. Even on a small Eastern Screech Owl they will hook your hand.

I've only had one owl (a male Eastern Screech Owl) bite. He bit when he was initially banded in 2011 and again when he was re-encountered last weekend.

Dec 31, 2013, 7:54pm Permalink
Tom Klotzbach

This has been a busy fall and winter for owls. For winter monitoring (11/01-04/01) on some state land, 12 Eastern Screech Owls have already been banded, which is 1 more than last year's total.

Additionally, the number of red-phase (most Eastern Screech Owls are gray-phase) Eastern Screech Owls encountered has increased each of the last three years and have occurred throughout the monitoring area.

There's been a Snowy Owl spotted in a couple locations in Orleans County (break wall at Point Breeze, etc.), but they seem to be a bit sparse up north as compared to a couple of years ago when their last irruption took place.

While they're here, Snowy Owls for the most part "rule the roost"; there's not much that can prey on a Snowy Owl in this area - they are pretty close to if not an apex predator. Great-horned Owls will make their presence known if a Snowy Owl enters the Great-horned's territory. I read that a couple of Red-tailed Hawks were harassing a Snowy Owl at the airport.

Unfortunately, some of the Snowy Owls will not survive the winter. One (a Hatch Year female) was recently brought in to a wildlife rehabber but did not survive some injuries she sustained in a unknown previous altercation.

Hopefully, we'll hear some Boreal Owls in New York in a few weeks, as they sometimes follow an irruptive year of Northern Saw-whet Owl fall migration (which occurred in 2012).

Dec 31, 2013, 8:20pm Permalink
Bob Price

The week before Christmas I was driving on Albion Rd. just before the curve by Fisher Rd(it was before 6am)-I heard a "whump" on my drivers side rear fender-turned around,and it was a little owl!! S/He was just sitting in the road -about 8" tall-looked brown,and as I approached the owl,it flew toward a tree by the road,so I hope it wasn't injured.That's the first owl I ever recall seeing around here in my years-I'll have to cruise by the airport tomorrow and see if I can get a glimpse of one....

Dec 31, 2013, 8:33pm Permalink

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