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Snowy Owl 'Baltimore' Provides Best Migration Data Ever

The pale hunter gives watchers at the organization Project SNOWstorm a treasure trove of information.

A banded snowy owl named Baltimore has just returned from the north to his home base in Maryland for the third year in a row, according to his watchers at the organization Project SNOWstorm, his travels providing researchers with a treasure trove of information.

Baltimore, an adult male, age uncertain, sports a high-tech GPS transmitter that has given the project scientists rare insight into the travels of snowy owls. Since first being GPS-tagged in Feb. 2015, he's logged more than 6,200 miles of flight.

"The information we've gotten from Baltimore is by far the most detailed record of the movements of any snowy owl ever tagged," said David F. Brinker, a co-founder of the project and currently a biologist with Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

"We have locations - accurate to a meter, and in three dimensions, including altitude - every 30 minutes for almost his entire migration," he added. "That's more than 14,000 GPS points, and counting. No snowy owl has ever been tracked for so long with such precision."

How Owls Spin Heads Around

And, oh, the places Baltimore's been!

According to Project SNOWstorm, he spent early 2015 wintering in Maryland and New Jersey along their coastlines, before heading north through Manhattan, up to Lake Ontario and then farther north still, ultimately reaching the northern tip of Ungava Peninsula, just 300 miles below the Arctic circle. (See the image below to glimpse an outline of his flight path.)

Last fall, Baltimore headed south, once the autumn Arctic chill became too much. By last December, he was on the shores of Lake Ontario, and now he's back in Maryland.

Snowy-Owl Migration To U.S. Among Biggest Ever

Baltimore was first captured by U.S. wildlife biologists on his first migration in 2014, at Martin State Airport just outside Baltimore. He was relocated safely away from airplane flight paths, given a leg I.D. band, and then left alone. But he came back to the airport in Feb. 2015, and on that occasion he was given his fancy GPS tracker. Ever since, Project SNOWstorm has kept an eye on his travels.

After being tagged on the coast of Maryland, Baltimore flew north (green) to the Ungava Peninsula in Quebec, where he spent the summer wandering more than 1,500 miles (orange). On Halloween, 2015, he began heading south (red), and spent the past winter on Lake Ontario in Canada. | Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth

Snowy owls have roughly 5-foot wingspans and can weigh up to 6 pounds. They're the second-heaviest owls in the world (after the Eurasian eagle owl) and make their living across the northern polar landscape. They'll hunt birds, ducks, gulls, and small mammals.

Baltimore won't be around his home turf for long. Project biologists think he will soon head north again. They suspect he may be old enough now to breed, so perhaps starting a family is in his future.

Project SNOWstorm, funded largely by donations, has tagged more than 40 snowy owls since 2013, when it was founded following the greatest migration of snowy owls to the U.S. in more than 80 years. Visitors to its site can track owls interactively and even volunteer to help track the animals themselves.

Baltimore is shown just before his release on Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland.

Birds in flight often arrange themselves in aerodynamically optimum positions, according to a new paper in the

journal Nature

that helps to explain how birds fly in such impressive formations. Lead researcher Steven Portugal and his colleagues focused their study on northern bald ibises, but many bird species also exhibit the amazing flight behavior. Portugal, a University of London Royal Veterinary College researcher, told Discovery News that birds could be using three things to achieve their flying precision: "(1) vision – watching the bird in flight to get all the information they need, (2) feathers – sensing the changes in pressure, wind etc. through their flight feathers, and (3) positive feedback – i.e. they just fly around and when it feels easier/better they stay in that position."

The researchers determined that birds try to find "good air," meaning airflows (not just wind, but even the air created by other flapping wings) that minimize their energy expenditure and help them to get where they plan to go. Conversely, birds avoid regions of "bad air" that could work against them.

Many birds fly in distinctive V-formations. Portugal said, "The intricate mechanisms involved in V formation flight indicate remarkable awareness and ability of birds to respond to the wing path of nearby flock-mates. Birds in V formation seem to have developed complex phasing strategies to cope with the dynamic wakes (turbulent air) produced by flapping wings."

Military planes sometimes fly in what is known as an "echelon formation," which mirrors nearly the exact same flight formation of many birds. This particular bird version is a variation of the "V," only with a rounded edge.

The U.S. Navy's famous flight demonstration squadron The Blue Angels often flies in a trademark "diamond formation" once popularized by fighter-bomber pilots. In it, the pilots maintain an 18-inch wing tip to canopy separation. Birds can fly even more tightly together.

The term "murmuration" refers to a flock of starlings. These birds can create dramatic patterns in the sky, such as this one over marshlands near Tønder, Denmark. Other small birds, such as sandpipers, may also create what look to be dazzling aerial ballets in the sky as they fly en masse.

Even birds flying very close to land can do so in remarkable unison. Here, a formation was photographed as the birds flew over the beach at Camperduin in the Netherlands.

The classic "V" formation has all sorts of variations. In this case, three separate -- yet united -- groups create an arrow-like effect in the sky.

Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror film "The Birds" included many scenes where numerous birds blanketed the sky. Up close, these starlings look small and harmless but, as a huge murmuration, their power becomes evident.

From the earliest planes to those in design today, aircraft have been modeled after birds. It's no wonder. Every inch of this sleek northern bald ibis, snapped while flying over Tuscany, adds to the bird's flying prowess. Its 53-inch wingspan and powerful, synchronized wing beats must have captivated people in the ancient world too, since ancient Egyptians and other early cultures featured the birds prominently in their artwork and legends.