Wampum’s Gone 3


Norman Smith -- with help from his granddaughters Alexa and Carmella -- release Wampatuck, the latest Project SNOWstorm owl. (©Ray McDonald)

Norman Smith — with help from his granddaughters — release Wampum a few days after Christmas. The adult female snowy was found dead last week at Logan Airport, where she was originally captured. (©Ray McDonald)

Dancing around bad news never makes it any easier to give or receive, so I’ll simply say that we lost an owl last week, and it still feels like a punch to the gut.

It was Wampum, the adult female who had been playing with fire much of the winter at several New England airports. She was found dead Thursday morning at Logan in Boston, where she’d been since March 18.

Norman Smith — who trapped, tagged and relocated Wampum from Logan back in late December — says she didn’t appear to have been struck by a plane. Rather, Norman suspects she was hit with a blast from a jet engine, which can easily be fatal to even a large bird. (If you doubt the power of such blasts, check out this eye-popping video of an experiment involving a jet and a small car.)

Norman said Wampum’s transmitter appeared to be intact, although it did not check in Thursday night. We’ll ship it back to CTT for an exam, and if it’s undamaged we’ll likely deploy it again next winter. Wampum herself, along with other snowy owls salvaged this winter in the East and Midwest, will be necropsied by our SNOWstorm team at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. In that way, she can help us better understand the kinds of contaminants snowy owls are being exposed to, among many other things.

This was the outcome we’d been worrying about for weeks with Wampum; you’ll recall that she spent much of February and early March at two smaller airports in Rhode Island, before moving back to Logan. Unlike Salisbury, who had been roosting along the edge of the airfield and hunting across the river, Wampum was right in the thick of things at Logan, hunting birds like killdeer and woodcock on the grassy median strips between runways and taxiways

The rest of the news is less dramatic, fortunately. Each of the last few weeks, the number of owls still in cell range here in the south has dwindled, as more of them migrate north beyond the cellular network in southern Canada. This past week, just four of our tagged owls checked in.

From west to east, Dakota remained in southern Saskatchewan, hanging around (and sometimes on the ice of) McDonald Lake, a huge impoundment on the Souris River west of Estevan, SK, set among big-sky prairie and wheat farms.

Dakota's current haunts on and around McDonald Lake, in the wheat-and-prairie country of southern Saskatchewan. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Dakota’s current haunts on and around McDonald Lake, in the wheat-and-prairie country of southern Saskatchewan. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Buckeye had been sticking tight to the north shore of Lake Erie, near Shrewsbury and Erieau, Ontario, but around midnight Friday she started moving northeast along the lakeshore to Port Stanley, ON. The next night she turned more northerly, away from the lake, and by dusk Sunday evening she was near Arthur, ON, about 77 km (48 miles) south of Georgian Bay.

We’ve had other owls take a similar route in years past, usually then tracking up the frozen surface of the Lake Huron or Georgian Bay, but this year there’s essentially no ice, so she’s going to be landlocked as she migrates.

Over on the New England coast, Casco checked in Thursday night, still using Parker River NWR near Newburyport, Mass. — although we received a photo fof a tagged owl that sure looks like Casco, taken the next day near Sanford, Maine, so she may have wandering feet, too. And Brunswick remained out on the Isle of Shoals, moving back and forth across the Maine/New Hampshire line using three of the islands in that archipelago.

Salisbury and Merrimack didn’t check in, but the weather has been lousy in the Northeast lately; their batteries were both very low on April 1 when they last checked in, and might not have been at a sufficient level to permit transmission. (The units are programmed to save as much of their juice as possible for recording GPS locations, versus transmitting data.) Some sunshine would be a help for everyone, since Casco’s and Brunswick’s voltage levels need a boost, too.

Hardscrabble, who was last heard from April 1, has been off the grid — no surprise, since he was already nearing James Bay, about as far north as we could reasonably expect to get a signal. Of course, he and the rest of this winter’s tagged birds are carrying third-generation CTT transmitters, which will communicate with 3G and 4G cell towers — more and more of which are going in at small villages across the subarctic and Arctic in Canada. So who knows — we may hear from him again a whole lot sooner than we expect.

  • Mitsue

    I am just heart broken hearing what happened to Wampum. But it must be much harder for someone like Norman who actually trapped and tagged her to deal with her death. Looking at the photo of Norman and his ground children made me cry. What a beautiful bird she was! The photo captured the moment of joy. I hope this beautiful memory will last forever in his heart. Thanks for all the good work you do. I wish there were a way to prevent snowy owls from getting killed at the airport.

  • Mitsue Thanks — these losses are never easy. That said, one of the things we’re increasingly focused on through Project SNOWstorm is how best to minimize the risks to both owls and humans when snowies show up at airports. Norman has been working on this for more than 30 years at Logan, not only by trapping and relocating owls, but banding and for many years color-marking them to track return rates. With the new transmitter technology we’re deploying, we can get tremendously detailed information on how relocated owls respond, and we’re working with USDA APHIS’s Wildlife Services (the federal agency with significant responsibility for minimizing plane-strike hazards from wildlife) to explore what works best and most consistently. Our goal is to provide the data that will help craft best-practice approaches to keeping snowy owls off airports, and making sure they stay away when removed.

  • Patricia

    It’s always a sad day when we learn that one of the snowy owls is gone. Poor Wampum, that jet blast from an engine seems terrible! As Mitsue says, she was a beautiful bird… they all are.  Thanks Scott for letting us know that all the data collected by Norman over so many years along with the newer one provided by Project SNOWstorm’s research will one day help to come-up with ways to keep snowies away from airports.