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Owls of the Arctic Circle

Text and Images by James Maxwell Lowe

A fellow of the explorers club since 2019, James Maxwell lowe is known for his ability to capture stories in the most remote corners of the world, having honed his skill as a director and photographer in his search for adventure and narratives unheard. From his home in the mountains of Montana to now countless countries, landscapes, and cultures across the globe, Max has been a witness to stories spanning the gap of human experience. His owls of the arctic documentary project is supported by The Explorers Club through its Discovery Expedition Grant Program.

Documenting one man’s quest to preserve a fragile ecosystem

Even though the summer sun is high in the sky and the landscape around us is vibrant green with the 24-hour light afforded here beyond the Arctic Circle in mid-July, the wind cuts deep as it blows in off the Chukchi Sea, which is still covered in thick sea ice on the distant horizon. The old, ruffed hood of Denver Holt’s Army surplus parka sits up over his head, shielding him from the cold as he studies the little pile of gray fluff that is the only brood of snowy owl chicks to have hatched in the 400-square-kilometer study area that he has been monitoring for more than three decades. Muttering measurement details under his breath, which he records in his field notebook, Holt inspects each tiny owlet as he pulls it from the pile to clicks and chirps of protest. The father owl, perched on a distant knoll, heartedly hoots his disapproval of our presence—his mate, sitting atop a telephone pole beyond, is observably anxious for us to leave.

After measuring and inspecting each of the chicks, Holt places tiny little metallic bands on them so that months or years from now they might be identified and provide a window into the lives they have led, the places they have been, and what brought them to the end of their lives. From this tiny mound of grass, the owls may one day find their way across the Arctic Circle, or even down to America’s Lower 48, as many of them scatter south during the winter months, beautiful white ambassadors of the Arctic.

Snowy owls are certainly seen as denizens of the frozen far north, but more important, they sit atop a fragile ecosystem as an apex species, representing in their strength and numbers the health of the very world of which they are a part. Unfortunately, from Holt’s decades of study, it is clear snowy owl numbers have dwindled in recent years in the areas he observes, raising the question of what becomes of the Arctic in the face of our changing climate—a proverbial canary in the coal mine.

For now, at least, Holt isn’t much concerned with possible future outcomes, but rather about whether these six little chicks will make it through the summer, hopefully to the point of fledging. We slowly step away from the nest, stopping every hundred meters to check on the nest and the two adults. Peering through binoculars, Holt confirms the mother has returned to her brood, while the father continues to assess whether or not we remain a threat, before resuming his hunt for lemmings to feed a hungry family.

The tiny outpost once known as Barrow, Alaska, has changed little since Holt first stepped off the plane in the spring of 1991, with hopes of studying this iconic Arctic species that he had become fascinated by years before. In 2016, in a narrow referendum, the city was returned to its original Iñupiaq name, Utqia vik, which means “a place to gather wild roots”—although there seems to be some contention around whether or not it was actually called Ukpia vik, which means
“the place where snowy owls are hunted.” What was once a city defined by the oil extraction that has come to be synonymous with the North Slope, and the military base established near Point Barrow at the turn of the century, it has taken a turn back toward the wild appeal of the Iñupiat people who have called this northernmost spit of land in the continental United States home for more than 1,500 years. With this renewed focus on wildlife, conservation, and climate science, this outpost has become a beacon for ecotourists who fly in from across the globe on one of two daily flights from Anchorage, and a cadre of scientists, who, like Holt, have found what was once known as Barrow to be an ideal laboratory for studying the impacts of climate change on just about everything, from the melting permafrost to the fauna that thrives in this extreme of environment—from tiny lemmings, to polar bears, walruses, whales, and snowy owls.

Yet, unlike many of the other scientists drawn to the tundra surrounding Utqia vik, Holt is here not under the banner of a university or government, but rather of his own volition with resources provided by the Owl Research Institute, which he founded 33 years ago. In a jovial manner, he chides his peers in the field of wildlife biology who come out to study the natural world for a few field seasons, only to return to labs and offices to pen papers for publication, building academic careers after but a brief residence in the wild upon which they muse for the remainder of their lives.

While Holt has certainly spent his fair share of time compiling his years of field research for publication—not only on the snowy owl, but also nine other species of owls across North America—he sees his work in a different light, hoping that it goes far beyond the pages of academic journals, which is why he has devoted so much time to public outreach. Seated in an empty classroom in the Barrow Arctic Research Center at the edge of town, rain and wind buffeting the tundra outside, Holt works to freshen a speech that he has given hundreds of times around the globe. He looks up for a moment and chuckles to himself, “Those little chicks are probably hunkered down under their mom in this weather, just trying to stay warm.” As he flips through years of photographs, piecing together a new PowerPoint, he pulls me in to look closer at some of the amazing pictures of owls he has collected from the many photographers who have joined him in the field over the years. Living a life dedicated to something that will never reciprocate your love may seem lonely at first glance, yet for Holt it is the most beautiful existence he can imagine. Packing up his bag and donning his parka for the cold, wet drive back into town, he jovially exclaims, “Not everyone is getting to do this today!” I can’t help but agree.

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