Tom McDonald – BBRR Snowy Owl guru

5 04 2014
Tom McDonald - Daena Ford

Tom McDonald – Daena Ford

Being involved at BBRR I am lucky enough to get to hang out with some really cool and fascinating people. One of the coolest is Tom McDonald, BBRR bander, Snowy Owl expert extraordinaire and all around nice guy. I remember being blown away by our first chat about how misunderstood these irruptive owls were by the average birder. This year it’s been amazing to see so many of the things that Tom told me about these amazing owls being borne out by the latest research conducted by Project SNOWstorm (of which he is a part) and others. I was lucky enough to hang out with him the other day and talk a little bit about his interest in birds, involvement in BBRR, Snowy Owls and this years irruption…
Me: What got you interested in birds?
Tom: My interest in birds started with a sleep over with my Grandma “Yanny” when I was about 8 years old. She was the female equivalent of St. Francis of Assisi. The first thing in the morning, I can remember all kinds of birds coming to her outstretched hand full of seeds and other goodies. She also fed deer and other animals by hand in the back yard of her home in Perinton, NY.
Me: How did you get into banding?
Tom: Getting into banding was a spin off from hanging out at the hawk watch and helping BBRR in the early years with clearing trails in the owl woods and helping to build hawk blinds and hawk traps. Dave Tetlow nudged me into the process and Kevin Griffith took me on as a sub-permittee.
'Braddock' from Project SNOWstorm - Daena Ford

‘Braddock’ from Project SNOWstorm – Daena Ford

Me: What was the first bird you banded?
Tom: My first hawk was a road trapped Red Tail. I used a borrowed Bal Chatri trap and a  white footed mouse for a lure.
Me:How did you end up being involved in BBRR?
Tom: I saw an article about Frank Nicoletti in the local newspaper back in the early 1980’s highlighting his hawk counting skills. I went out to the platform the next day and got a royal education in hawk identification. I learned more from Frank in one day than I had in the ten years leading up to our meeting.
Me: When did you decide to focus on Snowy Owls? 
Tom: In the late 80’s, I was reading about how snowy owls would irrupt into our region once every 3 to 5 years and that most of them were destined to starve to death. The more I read, the more that things just didn’t add up. If a snowy owl was in poor shape when it left the tundra, why on earth would it fly 1500 miles to die here? Do you want me to believe that the poor thing couldn’t find a meadow vole or a rabbit somewhere between the arctic circle and New York State? Where did it get the energy to fly this far? My search for a sensible answer to this mystery became an obsession with me and ultimately led to my project SnowyWatch.
Snowy Owl release - Daena Ford

Snowy Owl release – Daena Ford

Me: Is there a difference between banding Snowy Owls and other diurnal raptors?
Tom: Snowy owls hunt during the day only if it’s absolutely necessary or if something detectable makes itself irresistibly and easily catch-able. Most of them make best use of low light conditions. The first few hours of true darkness are the busiest hunting hours, followed by the couple of hours before first light.

Me: How did you get involved with Project SNOWstorm?
Tom: Joining project SNOWstorm was a no-brainer. The concept of following snowy owl movements during the winter was something that I have pursued my entire adult life and was the bread and butter of my studies. Transmitters could bring confirmation and validation to the many theories and questions that I pondered for 25 years.
Me: It’s amazing the kind if things we’ve learned as birders this year about Snowy Owls. Have you been surprised by anything you’ve learned from this big irruption year?
Tom: One of the biggest surprises for me was to see just how high some of these owls were flying on a few of their longer journeys. Some of them were maintaining altitudes of 2000 feet or more for many miles.
Snowy Owl - Catherine Hamilton

Snowy Owl – Catherine Hamilton

Me:I know you have put GPS transmitters on three birds, but how many Snowy Owls have you banded in total this winter?
Tom: I’ve banded 60 owls and also recaptured two of my own birds along with capturing two foreign recoveries from Canada. If I hadn’t spent the entire month of February vacationing in New Zealand, the total would be closer to 80 individuals.
Thanks to Tom for the time and Daena and Catherine for the pictures. Tom will be appearing at the HMANA conference and talking about his Snowy Owl experiences. You find out more about booking for the event here: (link). Link to project SNOWstorm (here).
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