Tag Archives: blue hills

Action Alert: Trailside Needs Your Voice!

Norman Smith, director of Blue Hills Trailside Museum, with his granddaughter and a snowy owl.

Once again, Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Milton needs your help. Governor Baker recently cut the $500,000 committed to Trailside for its current fiscal year. On top of that, he did not propose any money for the museum to operate for the next year. 

We are not giving up  

We’re working to restore funding but we need your help to do it. Call your local state legislator and tell them what Trailside means to you. Better yet, write them a letter. We’ve been told that a handwritten letter is even more powerful than a phone call!

It can say something to the effect of: 

Dear _______, 

My name is ________ and I live in ________. I was very disappointed to hear that funding has been cut for the Blue Hills Trailside Museum. [Include personal story here, for example, My daughter went to camp for years and learned to appreciate nature because of their program. Or I remember visiting Trailside as a child, and now I look forward to bringing my children to watch the otter and see a snowy owl up close.] Please restore full funding for Trailside Museum so they can continue their important efforts. 

Sincerely, 

_______________

Once you’ve done that, we’d love it if you would share your personal connection, photograph, or drawing and tagging our Facebook and/or Twitter accounts using #fundtrailside. 

Why this matters

The museum, owned by the state of Massachusetts and managed by Mass Audubon, relies on the Commonwealth for a large portion of their operating budget. With proper funding, Trailside:

  • welcomes more than 100,000 visitors a year to the Blue Hills Reservation
  • provides environmental education to more than 200 schools
  • offers a popular summer day camp program
  • provides universally accessible nature trails, including sensory exhibits and self-guided audio tours so that everyone may enjoy the natural history exhibits
  • is the home of the Snowy Owl Project led by Norman Smith, which has become a national model for safely removing owls from airports and gaining a better understanding of these elusive birds

In response to Baker’s budget cuts, Mass Audubon has found it necessary to reduce services and personnel at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum. With your help, we hope to restore funding for the operation of Trailside. Thank you!

In Your Words: Norman Smith

In Your Words is a regular feature of Mass Audubon’s Explore member newsletter. Each issue, a Mass Audubon member, volunteer, staff member, or supporter shares his or her story—why Mass Audubon and protecting the nature of Massachusetts matters to them.


Norman Smith releasing a snowy owl photo © John Cole

Norman Smith releasing a snowy owl. Photo © John Cole

It’s been 50 years since I first started working at Blue Hills Trailside Museum—51 if you count volunteering. When I was a kid, my parents always let me pick a special outing on my birthday. And every year, I picked visiting Trailside. When I turned 13, I sent in a letter asking if there was anything I could do to help out. The staff accepted.

Every weekend and after school, I would ride my bike 10 miles each way to Trailside to empty trash barrels, pick up litter, clean cages, feed the animals—all routine stuff, but I loved it. Eventually, I got a part-time job taking care of the animals, collecting tickets, and assisting with any other task that needed attention. In 1970, after graduating high school, I started full time as an assistant naturalist. Back then, Garret VanWart was the sanctuary director—and a mentor. He took us out on field trips to Marina Bay in Quincy, and through a scope he set up, I saw my first snowy owl. I was hooked.

Everyone who knows me knows that I am not a tech person (I still use a flip phone). But I was the first person to put satellite transmitters on wintering snowy owls back in 2000 to understand their migration patterns. Our research was the first to prove that snowy owls returned to the arctic each spring. During this time, I used to take my son and daughter out with me to capture and release snowy owls. The transmitters have changed and so have my assistants—now I bring my granddaughters.

Over the last half century, there hasn’t been one day that I have thought of leaving the museum. This is more than just a job. This is my life’s work. I want to inspire as many people as I can to care about these precious resources that we have: to encourage and kindle excitement in every child that walks through the door; to get kids and adults to put down their phones and experience the wonders of nature up close; and to help embolden the next generation of stewards to carry on the legacy to help people better understand, appreciate, and care for the world around us so future generations have the same opportunities and more.

See a slideshow of photos from Norman’s 50 years with Blue Hills Trailside Museum and share your favorite Norman stories in the comments below!

The Return of Snowy Owls

Snowy owl season has officially begun. So far, three of these “white terrors of the north” have been spotted in Massachusetts, including one that was banded by Mass Audubon’s Norman Smith last year.

Will this year by anything like last year’s invasion? Let’s consider the facts.

A Look Back

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has put last year’s snowy owl event in excellent perspective. By December 5, 2011 snowy owls had been spotted in much of the northern half of the continental United States and as far south as Texas.

Here Massachusetts, they stuck mostly to the coast. Sightings came from Westport, New Bedford, Nantucket, Orleans, Duxbury Beach, and of course, Plum Island. One reporter even saw one in Central Massachusetts from atop Mt. Watatic.

But while the winter of 2011-2012 was the best recorded event of its kind, it was probably not as large as any number of historic flights. Just recent history shows that the 2008-2009 irruption was larger, when eBird input was at 44 percent of what it is today. In other words, fewer eyes reported more birds.

So, What About This Year?

Such irruptions happen every 3 to 6 years in the northeast, and, taking into account Christmas Bird Count data analyzed for the purposes of the State of the Birds report in 2011, it seems that the snowy owl population is currently holding in a stable position. Therefore, should we not expect another snowy owl invasion any time soon?

Well that gets down to the question of cause, which is currently unanswerable. It’s hard to get a grasp on the drivers that force irruptions.

That said, we do have historic numbers to consider. In 2002-03, Christmas Bird Counters in Massachusetts found 28 snowy owls; the following year, they found 4. In 2008-09, it was 40 snowy owls. The following year, 7.  While the pattern does not always hold true, and there are variables to consider (i.e. the number of counters and the affectations of the weather on the counts), there does seem to generally be a drop off in the number of snowy owls in the state the year after an irruption.

Mass Audubon’s Work with Snowy Owls

With questions still unanswered, one can see how important Blue Hills Trailside Museum Director Norman Smith’s work on snowy owls at Logan Airport has been. Norman has captured and banded nearly 500 birds at Logan—saving them from the dangers of the runways—and has tracked 14 of them through satellite telemetry.

Every year we learn a little more about these fascinating birds; perhaps someday we’ll find the key to the secrets of their unexpected mass visitations to the state.

Have you seen a snowy owl this year or in year’s past? Tell us about it in the comments. Interested in learning more? Join us for an upcoming program on snowy owls.

Photo copyright Richard Johnson