[Narrator] Field researcher Denver Holt is heading to his summer job. The only way to get to the office is to head out of town on gravel roads and over the wind-swept tundra around Barrow, Alaska, located more than 300 miles above the Arctic Circle. 

Holt has been coming here for more than two decades to study Snowy Owls on their breeding grounds. He is monitoring 20 nests during this summer of 2014, in a study area that covers 100 square miles. On this late July day, he’s looking for chicks at a nest about 10 miles from town. The trick is to keep moving, scanning the wide open spaces. Another clue: the parents are watching closely. There must be a nest or young nearby. 

[Holt] He was just sound asleep, his head down. 

[Narrator] Each owlet Holt finds is banded when it’s large enough. This nest started with seven eggs. They all hatched, but this small chick is the only survivor. 

[Holt] Well, it’s not biting at my fingers, and usually they’re biting fingers because they’re hungry. 

[Denver Holt, Owl Research Institute] 

It still looks a little stunted in its growth, it’s about 25, 26 days old, probably should be a little further from the nest about now. 

[Narrator] Information for each nest is kept in its own booklet: egg-laying dates, hatching, and other details about each nest visit. Holt checks back on each nest every few days. At other nests farther out on the tundra, Holt finds chicks that are even younger. These are only about 14 days old. 

By looking at the remains of prey scattered nearby Holt can tell what the owls are eating. Right now it seems to be mostly other birds, rather than the brown lemmings that usually make up 90% of the snowy owl diet in any given year. 

[Holt] We’ve also been monitoring the lemmings for 23 years as well. So your typical winter nest looks like this, it’s a pretty good-sized one and you can see here, here’s a nest chamber and apparently this keeps them warm enough with good snow cover during the winter time. 

Given the clutch sizes of the owls this year, ranging from three to nine, but probably in that six range, that’s a pretty good number, that probably indicated that lemmings, at least in April and May, were relatively high, and for reasons I don’t know, they either didn’t stay high or they didn’t keep going. 

[Narrator] With fewer lemmings to eat, mortality at the nests is high this summer. Anywhere from 40% to 100% of the chicks in each nest have died so far, most likely because of starvation. 

At another nest Holt finds two older chicks, about 35 and 36 days old. They become especially beautiful at this stage, as white feathers begin replacing their fluffy gray down. They look like they’re wearing goggles. These birds will be flying in another couple of weeks. Holt has clearly never lost his appreciation for these magnificent owls. 

[Holt] Whoa, she’s exercising! Beautiful, beautiful young bird. Absolutely gorgeous bird. Look at this. Number one is I just enjoy the heck out of it, and then the other thing is, too, you enjoy the owls, and you enjoy the lemmings, and you enjoy the ecology of the tundra, and you want to maybe do things that you can provide some valuable and reliable information for the conservation of the whole system. 

[More information: www.owlinstitute.org; www.allaboutbirds.org]

End of transcript

For many birds, it’s a real success to survive beyond the first two weeks. Meet a beautiful Snowy Owl chick, the only survivor from a nest that started with seven eggs. Field researcher Denver Holt from the Owl Research Institute has been checking in nests in the Arctic tundra for more than two decades. See what it’s like to monitor Snowy Owl nests and chicks on the Arctic tundra outside Barrow, Alaska.