Monday, April 9, 2012

Game Commission Helping The World Connect With Wildlife

Live feed from a barn owl nest box is stirring excitement

HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania Game Commission this week unveiled a new “web cam” broadcast live from a Perry County barn owl nest box. Interest in this unique wildlife viewing opportunity is growing steadily on the worldwide web.

Southcentral Region Wildlife Diversity Biologist Clay Lutz helps prep the barn owl nest box for its live feed video camera.
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“The best way to get people acquainted with wildlife and to help them further appreciate its importance is to give them a front-row seat to the action,” said Carl G. Roe, Game Commission executive director. “That’s what our new web cams and live-feed broadcasts are doing, using technology to connect people with wildlife. 

“We began our ‘wild cam’ broadcasts a few weeks ago with snow geese scenes from off Willow Point at our Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. Look for more exciting locations to be wired for broadcast after the barn owls to help our website followers get more acquainted with and closer to Pennsylvania wildlife. It is part of our commitment to be the first and best source of information on Pennsylvania wildlife.” 

The “PGC Wild Cam” section of the website was created to help people develop a greater appreciation of wildlife via broadcasts from places they’d rarely – or would want to – visit throughout the Commonwealth. Partnering with Pix Controller of Murrysville, and WildEarth of South Africa, the Game Commission is stationing remote video cameras at wildlife destinations that transmit a wireless cellular data signal to a video server that, in turn, streams the live footage to the agency website at
. To watch the “PGC Wild Cam,” click on the photo button in the center of the page featuring to barn owls. 

Since it went live, the barn owl box signal has been strong, much to the satisfaction of viewers. But as well-designed as this system is, there have been and will be times when the signal is interrupted or lost. It also may take several minutes for the live feed to appear in the viewer window. These situations are an inherent part of webcasting, but hopefully will become less and less an issue for viewers as systems are perfected. This whole undertaking involves cutting-edge technology from the moment the system collects the image until it is requested by your computer. 

The team of Game Commission personnel who selected the barn and placed the gear in the barn owl box was Clay Lutz, Southcentral Region diversity biologist, and Tracy Graziano and Hal Korber, who both are wildlife conservation education specialists at the agency’s Harrisburg Headquarters. They chose the barn because it was situated where there was a strong cellular signal, direct sunlight, and, most importantly, a landowner who was kind enough to permit the intrusion. 

The remote camera placed in the nest  box is hardly noticeable to the barn owls. 

“The system used by the Game Commission employs three marine batteries, two solar panels, a charge controller and video camera,” noted Graziano. “The package has built-in self sufficiency, drawing from the sun for energy and using cellular towers to send its signal. But this technology surprises us occasionally. It’s a new frontier and we’re working to perfect ways we can use it effectively.”

The Perry County nest box, fitted with an unobtrusive camera, had seven eggs. Two more were added from another Perry County nest box that had to be removed because it was impeding storage in a silo. Two other eggs from this troubled nest went to another barn owl nest box in Juniata County. The eggs from the donor nest box were maintained by Zoo America in Hershey until they were placed in new nest boxes. 

Barn owls are found almost worldwide and have 36 subspecies. Although they are globally secure, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in North America significant population declines have occurred over the past several decades, likely from losses of grassland habitat, potential nest sites and prey species. Since the mid 1960s, barn owl numbers have dropped nearly two percent annually in North America, according to Breeding Bird Survey data. In Pennsylvania, barn owls have been associated mostly with southern tier counties and have been classified as a “maintenance concern” species in the state’s Wildlife Action Plan since 2006. 

As a maintenance concern species, barn owls are considered abundant and fairly secure in Pennsylvania, but are a species for which some level of management attention is recommended. The main focus in managing them is to ensure the continued viability of core populations, to protect key habitats, and maintain monitoring. Because they have undergone recent declines, barn owls are a maintenance species. It remains a nocturnal species that has been insufficiently studied. 

Nest boxes play an important role in stemming attrition in Pennsylvania's barn owl population.
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In 2005, the Game Commission used its regional wildlife diversity biologists to begin a Barn Owl Conservation Initiative, which seeks to study the biology and ecology of Pennsylvania’s barn owls to better understand and conserve this species. Biologists conducted site visits to determine barn owl activity, monitor active nest sites, conduct outreach to landowners, and distribute and/or install barn owl boxes. Barn owls are banded to provide information on longevity, causes of mortality, and dispersal. In 2010 (the latest year which information is available), biologists confirmed 62 active barn owl nests – 12 were new sites – bringing the total number of nest sites to 138 since searches began in 2005.

In 2010, biologists banded 254 nestlings and three adults at 52 nest sites as part of the Barn Owl Initiative. Clutch sizes ranged from 1 to 10. To date, 32 banded barn owls have been recovered; 22 dispersed from their natal site an average distance of at least 58 miles. 
For more information on barn owls and the Barn Owl Initiative, visit the Game Commission’s website and enter “barn owl” in the search engine in the right column.    

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