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Rescued snowy owl set free at Jones Beach

Wildlife Center Supervisor Lauren Schulz releases a snowy

Wildlife Center Supervisor Lauren Schulz releases a snowy owl with Jim Jones of Volunteers for Wildlife at the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center at Jones Beach State Park Friday, March 28, 2014. Credit: Barry Sloan

White feathered, yellow-eyed and ready to take to the skies, he spread his wings, soared into the wind and was last seen sitting on a dune near the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center.

The snowy owl -- trapped over the weekend in a cooling tower at a Kennedy Airport power plant -- was rescued Sunday, then hydrated, nourished with morsels of mouse and set free Friday morning at Jones Beach State Park.

One of a bumper crop to have flown south late last year from their Arctic homes, this owl will likely soon begin his long journey home, said Jim Jones, a wildlife rehabilitator. This is the second endangered snowy to cross his path.

The newly freed owl probably flew into the cooling tower, about three stories high, got scared and could not "generate enough lift" to get out, said Jones, board member for Volunteers for Wildlife, a rescue, rehabilitation and education center in Lattingtown.

Called in by power plant workers, Jones headed to Kennedy on Sunday and squiggled into the tower through an opening that he figures to be about 2 feet by 2 feet. At that point the owl dropped to the ground from where he was perched, Jones netted and wrapped him in a towel and placed him in a carrier just outside the opening.

"It was amazing," he said.

Adept at swooping down on prey in the Arctic's wide open spaces, snowies have favored similar areas here, such as airports and beaches, with Jones' earlier owl, unofficially called Tundra, brought to the center in December with a broken wing by LaGuardia Airport staffers, he said. Recuperating in the center's outdoor aviary, Tundra can no longer survive in the wild and is waiting to be transported to his new home at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, Jones said.

An owl type popularized by Hedwig, companion to the fictional wizard Harry Potter, snowies "were flooding across the border in numbers that hadn't been seen in perhaps half a century," wrote Scott Weidensaul in the March-April issue of Audubon magazine. Weidensaul is co-director of Project Snowstorm, which is studying some of these Arctic visitors.

Sightings this winter on Long Island were up by "an estimated 200 percent," Jones said.

In December, with the large influx of snowies underway, Port Authority officials pulled back from an extermination approach to one of trapping and relocating the owls, with an eye to "humanely controlling bird populations" at area airports, while safeguarding passengers.

The owl numbers can be traced back to last summer's large population of northern Quebec's lemmings, small rodents that are the snowies' staple meal. That led to a "high density of breeding owls," said Jean-Francois Therrien, senior research biologist at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Orwigsburg, Pa. But with lemmings moving under snow cover in the winter, making them hard to hunt, "lots of fledglings seeking a wintering territory" went south, he said.

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