PUBLISHED: 4:52 PM on Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Snowy owl stays in Sitka before release

Photo by Forrest Wentzel, ARC
  Ivory spent 6 months in the ARC aerobic flight tube in Sitka while it awaited its trip to the North Slope.
After a six month stay in Sitka and 1,500 miles of jet travel in a dog kennel, Ivory, a two-year-old snowy owl at Prudhoe Bay, was released Saturday by staff from the Alaska Raptor Center.

A crowd gathered to watch Mark Helmericks, president of Colville, as he was honored to be the one who opened the cage door to let the wild owl free from atop a pingo, overlooking the Saganavirktok River.

Sponsored by ConocoPhillips Inc., Alaska Airlines, Ice Services, Brooks Range Supply, Colville and the Prudhoe Bay General Store, the owl release was an uplifting moment for the crowd of some 75 people, which included locals, industry workers and even some tourists from England and Japan who just happened upon the event.

"The clear arctic evening was a perfect setting for this bird to return to its summer habitat," said ARC executive director Rollo Pool, who traveled to Prudhoe Bay with ARC veterinarian Dr. Vicky Vosburg. After six months of residence in a large aerobic training tube, Ivory flew strongly out of the kennel over the banks of a river, climbing rapidly away from the crowd of onlookers and then circling downwind to settle on a tundra knoll. With the benefit of 24-hour daylight, the big white owl could be seen well into the night perching on high ground overlooking a freshwater lagoon, preening and starting to hunt, Pool said. Reports of Ivory sightings continued into the next day.

Last December the owl, which is normally found in tundra regions of the state in summer months, was spotted near the Sitka airport, weak and apparently unable to continue its winter migration.

Photo by Rollo Pool, ARC
  Dr. Vicky Vosburg and volunteer Dave Weeshoff check the Snowy owl at the ARC clinic in Sitka before it is placed in a dog kennel for its trip to the North Slope.
Dr. Vosburg and a team of handlers with the Alaska Raptor Center, which is located in Sitka, captured the owl and took it to the rehabilitation facility. After determining that the owl was starving but uninjured, it was decided to keep it captive for the winter and release the owl back into the Arctic, after spring, Dr. Vosburg said. It was fed a constant supply of rats. The timing of the release time near summer solstice was chosen to give Ivory a time when prey food, usually lemmings, is abundant. Prior to the jet trip to the North Slope, the bird was given a clinic check up and its talons and beak sharpened, she noted. Ivory is the first Snowy owl captured and released by the raptor center whose main focus is treating injured Bald eagles and other birds of prey. It was also the first time an owl was released at Prudhoe Bay. Hunting and firearms are banned in the oilfield, creating a virtual safe haven for wildlife and undisputed "new home territory" for the owl.

Adding to the festivities, Deb and Joe Bernard of PBGS donated beverages, ice cream and white owl cigars to commemorate the event. Three cakes decorated with owl motifs were made for the occasion by master baker Raven Mosher of Colville, including one that said "Free Ivory." Capping off the event was a live acoustic guitar serenade by "Tony D" Martin of Brooks Range Supply, playing and singing "Free Bird," the classic Lynard Skynrd tune. According to Deb Bernard of PBGS, "Only the caribou grazing on the other side of the "Sag" River seemed unimpressed by the event. But they've seen strange things done in the midnight sun before."