Back in December, when the magnitude of the winter snowy owl irruption was becoming clear and we conceived the outlines of Project SNOWstorm, we set a pretty audacious goal — to tag more than 20 snowy owls this winter with GPS/GSM transmitters. Given that we had no funding and about a week’s planning, it may have seemed more foolhardy than audacious.
But three months later, we can finally take a breath and celebrate. Thanks to incredible public support — from hundreds of individuals and dozens of organizations and agencies who contributed money, and dozens of collaborators contributing their time and expertise — we marked the end of our tagging operation this weekend with our 21st and 22nd transmittered owls.
In Massachusetts, the 21st bird was herself a milestone. “Century” was the 100th snowy owl that SNOWstorm collaborator Norman Smith, of Mass Audubon, trapped and safely relocated away from Logan Airport in Boston. An immature female, she was also the biggest owl he’s caught this winter, weighing 2,627 grams, or nearly six pounds.
With a crowd of onlookers to mark the occasion, Norman released Century Saturday afternoon at Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Massachusetts, well north of the airport. Photographer Raymond MacDonald was on hand for the event, and we’re grateful for his photos.
To put this winter’s irruption in context, Norman has been studying the snowy owls for 33 years, and his previous record year for the most snowy owls he’d caught was 53. Adding those he’s banded this winter away from Logan, his total exceeds 135, and he may end up tripling his previous record.
Our final tagged owl of the winter was released Sunday. “Monocacy” was trapped, along with another snowy owl, at the Martin State Airport near Baltimore by Dave Brinker and Steve Huy. Monocacy was relocated to private farmland in northcentral Maryland where there’s good grassland habitat.
Meanwhile, the owls we’ve been monitoring are showing some signs that the lengthening days and melting snow are having an effect. We’ve seen the first indications of northbound movement over the weekend, which given the immense flights of geese and swans through the mid-Atlantic, wasn’t a surprise.
One bird — Wiconisco, just tagged last week — made a 94-mile overnight flight almost due north, from central Pennsylvania to near the New York border. And Ramsey, who had been bunked down in his namesake town in Minnesota for months, suddenly has a case of wandering wings — although he’s not moving north. And Erie, still on the frozen lake of the same name, is shifting his activity area to take advantage of the widening margin of open water along the northern shore.
Watch for these and other map updates on Tuesday. As always, we’re delaying release of the specific movement data by three days for the safety of the birds.