More than 30 people gathered Sunday morning to watch a snowy owl take flight over the marshes of Salisbury Beach, hoping that the owl would stay far away from the winter home it had previously chosen just yards away from the path of jets taking off and landing at Logan Airport.
Officials with Mass Audubon say they have now relocated 17 snowy owls from the airport this winter.
Many of the birds find the travel hub comfortingly similar to wide-open spaces where they spend much of their year, but airport officials and conservationists say the owls are not safe near the whirring engines of planes — and can even endanger those aboard.
“If you take away the buildings, planes, and terminals at Logan, it looks very much like the arctic tundra,” said Norman Smith, director for Mass Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Milton.
But the owls are far safer in less populated areas like Salisbury Beach State Reservation, where Smith brought along his two granddaughters to watch the bird take flight.
Smith said Mass Audubon is seeing an unusually high volume of owls this winter. Normally, about 10 show up at Logan for the entire season, he said. Two winters ago, however, Logan saw 120 owls — an event described as the “historic snowy owl irruption.”
Snowy owls are typically found in the open tundra all around the Arctic Circle during their breeding season, which begins in May. During the winter months, snowy owls are regular visitors to parts of New York and New England.
Greater numbers of snowy owls in New England can be attributed to a larger food supply of small rodents, like the lemmings they eat when they are breeding in the Arctic during the summer months.
“When they have a lot to eat, they have a lot of babies,” Smith said.
Smith said Mass Audubon members caught the Salisbury owl on Saturday using a bow net, which is attached to a small wire cage, with a mouse in it. The net itself is attached to a string, which the operator holds with a trigger about 150 feet away on the airfield.
As soon as the owl gets close to the mouse cage, the operator pulls the trigger and the net captures the owl.
The owl caught Saturday was special. Officials spotted a tag in its feathers indicating that it had been captured at Logan two years ago. Mass Audubon fitted the owl with a new cellular transmitter, which will monitor its travels.
Those who want to keep tabs on Sunday’s snowy owl can look on Project SNOWstorm’s website, www.projectsnowstorm.org, to see where it has been tracked, according to Smith. These owls are named by the location where they are released, so this owl will be found under the name “Salisbury.”
On Feb. 13, Mass Audubon will showcase its 35 years of research on the snowy owl with a special program at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum.