Snowy Owl #98

Thursday morning I spent a few hours out on the Duluth harbor with tugboat captain Mike Ojard as he smashed through 3 feet of ice to prepare for the upcoming shipping season.

From the tug, photographer Derek Montgomery snapped this photo of a snowy owl resting on the ice.

A seagull makes a pass at a snowy owl that took up residence near a chunk of ice close to where the tug Helen H was breaking up ice around the Presque Isle Thursday, March 20, 2014 in the Duluth-Superior Harbor near Duluth, Minn. Derek Montgomery for MPR News

What’s that “98” tag, I wondered?

Turns out it was placed there by Dave Evans, who’s studied wintering snowy owls at the western tip of Lake Superior since 1974. He’s banded about 420 owls in those 40 years.

Evans has learned that a small percentage of the owls — about 8 percent since the early 1980s — return to the Duluth-Superior area in subsequent winters. In the 1970s — when there was a burgeoning population of Norway rats near the harbor — nearly 15 percent of owls returned for at least one subsequent winter, he said.

Prior to Evans’ work researchers didn’t know that some owls returned to the same wintering areas, some year after year.  He says even today some people still don’t believe him.

Evans banded snowy owl #98 on Feb. 1. He lured it with a pigeon inside a small cage, and captured the owl in a monofilament noose to attach the tag.

Frank Nicoletti with the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth has also banded some snowy owls this winter. He’s taking part in a new national program called Project SNOWstorm in which  snowy owls were fitted with satellite transmitters to track their movements over long distances.