Project SNOWstorm https://www.projectsnowstorm.org Contribute to research on Snowy Owls! Fri, 06 Jul 2018 18:56:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A Postcard from Churchill, and an Old Friend Gone https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/a-postcard-from-churchill-and-an-old-friend-gone/ https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/a-postcard-from-churchill-and-an-old-friend-gone/#comments Fri, 06 Jul 2018 18:56:21 +0000 https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/?p=4445 The growing number of cell towers in the subarctic and Arctic means that summer is no longer a time of complete radio blackout for our GSM-tagged owls — though it’s still a pretty rare (and therefore exciting) occasion when we hear from one on the breeding grounds. On June 27 Bancroft — a young male tagged near Coddington, Wisconsin, in ... Read More

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A few of Bancroft’s new neighbors. (©Scott Weidensaul)

The growing number of cell towers in the subarctic and Arctic means that summer is no longer a time of complete radio blackout for our GSM-tagged owls — though it’s still a pretty rare (and therefore exciting) occasion when we hear from one on the breeding grounds.

On June 27 Bancroft — a young male tagged near Coddington, Wisconsin, in January — checked in the western shore of Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba, home of the famed autumn gathering of polar bears. It was a poor cell connection; he was about 23 km (15 miles) from the two cell towers that service the town, so we only got part of his northbound tracking data, but we did get his current location.

There are a few towers even farther north along the bay, so if he keeps moving we may get lucky again. On the other hand, he may settle down for the summer there — watching as the polar bears come in off the melting summer ice and begin their months-long “walking hibernation,” not feeding again until the sea ice forms in November and they can return to the ice to hunt seals.

(No further transmissions from Austin, who was last heard from June 8 on Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories.)

Churchill just out into the western shore of Hudson Bay, and a number of our tagged owls from the western Great Lakes have flown through or past it. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

*  * *  *  *

Anytime we lose an owl it’s tough, but last month we lost one of our very first — Erie, the fourth bird we ever tagged, and one that gave us some incredible insights into snowy owl behavior and ecology.

Erie was captured the night of Jan. 19, 2014, at the Erie (PA) International Airport, along with a second owl, also an immature male, that we nicknamed Millcreek. Tom McDonald and CTT founder Mike Lanzone fitted Erie with a transmitter sponsored by the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology, and after their release, Erie and Millcreek spent most of the winter out on the frozen surface of Lake Erie, moving for weeks at a time many miles offshore, apparently hunting waterbirds in transient openings in the ice pack. It was the first time anyone had documented this behavior in snowy owls on the Great Lakes — a mirror of behavior that had only been recently shown in some adult snowies that spend the winter on Arctic sea ice, hunting waterbird-rich openings called polynyas.

Erie summered in 2014 along the southern edge of Hudson Bay — at one point, apparently riding on wind- and tide-drifted icebergs — and in the winter of 2014-15 came south again, mostly haunting the southern shores of Lake Huron.

In February 2016 Erie checked in from southern Ontario, but his transmitter malfunctioned later that winter, and attempts to trap him and remove it were unsuccessful. That was the last we knew of him, until last month, when we were contacted by Joe Valentine, a wildlife staffer with the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources.

Around June 1, farmer in the northeast corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, near Presque Isle, noticed a snowy owl acting ill, and when he discovered it dead two days later called DNR. They saw the transmitter (which has our contact information on the side) and got in touch with us. Erie was frozen and sent to the DNR Wildlife Disease Lab in Lansing, where a necropsy was preformed this month. The findings weren’t definitive; he was emaciated, with parasitic worms in his abdominal cavity, and his lungs were heavily congested with fluid. I had initially assumed he might have been struck by a vehicle, because Joe said the transmitter appeared to have been damaged, but X-rays showed no broken bones. Dr. Erica Miller, who is part of Project SNOWstorm’s veterinary and pathology team and reviewed DNR’s, thinks Erie was suffering from a chronic illness, possibly due to a toxin. (The DNR lab was unable to perform lab tests on Erie’s tissues, so we’ll never know for sure.)

The transmitter has been shipped back to CTT, and while there is a chance that it may contain stored data, the fact that it was damaged at some point in the past makes that unlikely — in fact, that damage may be the reason it stopped sending data in 2016. If we’re able to add more to this story, we will. But we feel we’ve lost an old friend, one who showed us in dramatic fashion how little we knew about snowy owls. As a five-year-old Erie should have been old enough to breed the past summer or two, so we hope he left some offspring up on the tundra to continue his line.

We deeply appreciate the cooperation of DNR biologist Joe Valentine and the Michigan DNR Wildlife Disease Lab in Lansing for their cooperation and assistance. We’d also like to acknowledge again the support of the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology, which sponsored Erie’s transmitter, and all the PSO members who followed eagerly Erie’s movements in the years since then.

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On the Shores of Great Slave https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/on-the-shores-of-great-slave/ https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/on-the-shores-of-great-slave/#comments Fri, 15 Jun 2018 00:17:25 +0000 https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/?p=4439 Chances are that wherever you’re reading this it feels like summer, but we’re still tracking the last of this past winter’s owls — Austin, who was moved in January from the Green Bay, WI, airport for his safety and spent the rest of the winter on the Buena Vista grasslands in central Wisconsin. He’s now 2,500 km (1,500 miles) northwest ... Read More

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Still finding cell towers in the North, Austin checked in twice last week from the Northwest Territories on Great Slave Lake. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Chances are that wherever you’re reading this it feels like summer, but we’re still tracking the last of this past winter’s owls — Austin, who was moved in January from the Green Bay, WI, airport for his safety and spent the rest of the winter on the Buena Vista grasslands in central Wisconsin.

He’s now 2,500 km (1,500 miles) northwest of there, having checked in June 5 and 8 from the shores of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, more than 670 km (416 miles) from where he last connected in northeastern Saskatchewan on May 28.

In fact, Austin has now gone much farther northwest than any of the 69 other owls we’ve tagged — not entirely surprising, given the Northeastern and Midwestern focus of our work thus far, but still an impressive change. Most of our Great Lakes region snowies have moved pretty much due north around the western side of Hudson Bay, not gone shooting off at a 45-degree angle like this.

He hasn’t wasted time. Austin flew steadily around the eastern side of Lake Athabaska June 1, nicked the extreme northeastern corner of Alberta and then skirted the northern boundary of Wood Buffalo National Park, the summer nesting home of the wild whooping crane flock that migrates each autumn to Texas. He crossed the Slave River June 5 and reached Great Slave Lake at Fort Resolution, then swung west along the lakeshore and hung out for few days around McKay Island.

June 8 Austin was near the former site of Pine Point, NWT, which was demolished when the lead and zinc mine closed. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

June 8 he came back to shore near the former townsite of Pine Point — once a community of 2,000 people supporting the Pine Point lead and zinc mine, but now a flat expanse of empty streets since the mine closed in 1988 and the town was demolished thereafter.

It’s been five days since we’ve heard from him, and odds are he won’t hit a cell tower again at the right time until he comes south in autumn — but Austin has shown a remarkable knack for being in the right place at the right time, so don’t count him out entirely. While cell towers are scarce (to put it mildly) in the subarctic and Arctic, he’s picked a route through about the densest concentration in the Canadian North. There are bunch around the north side of Great Slave, near Yellowknife, and a few at bush communities all the way up to Banks Island in the Arctic.

Will he find them and give us a midsummer report? At this point, I’m not inclined to bet against him.

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Austin, Flin Flon and Uranium https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/austin-flin-flon-and-uranium/ https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/austin-flin-flon-and-uranium/#respond Tue, 29 May 2018 17:56:38 +0000 https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/?p=4432 Although we suspected the season was over, last night (May 28) we got a great surprise when Austin checked in for the first time in almost three weeks — with almost 900 backlogged data points, a real treasure-trove. The last time we heard from this juvenile male, who wintered in central Wisconsin, he was just over the Canadian border in ... Read More

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After being off the grid for almost three weeks, Austin checked in in northern Saskatchewan this week. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Although we suspected the season was over, last night (May 28) we got a great surprise when Austin checked in for the first time in almost three weeks — with almost 900 backlogged data points, a real treasure-trove.

The last time we heard from this juvenile male, who wintered in central Wisconsin, he was just over the Canadian border in southern Manitoba. Since then, we now know, he’s continued to move northwest, traveling 1,183 km (735 miles) — along and across Lake Manitoba and Cedar Lake May 15-20, and on May 23 overflying the mining center of Flin Flon, which sits astride a weird little dogleg in the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border.

Austin’s track through Flin Flon, past the technicolor waste ponds at the huge mine west of town. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

(The town’s odd name has two equally odd explanations. The popular one: In 1914 a prospector named Tom Creighton — having read a science fiction dime novel about a character named Josiah Flinabbatey Flonatin, who pilots a submarine through a bottomless cave full of gold — named the mine he and his partners had just established “Flin Flon’s Mine,” and the name stuck. The more likely factual: In 1929, according to the town’s official website, the Canadian National Railroad telegraphed the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company, which ran the huge open-pit mine, to ask for an official name for the town. “They say they will call it Flin Flon if they don’t hear from us,” the diary of the telegraph operator noted. The mining company never responded, and the CNR carried through on their promise. Frankly, though, both stories could be true.*)

Monday night, Austin was not far from the McArthur River uranium mine, among the largest such mines in the world. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Along the way, Austin has passed a number of other small communities and mines, but was apparently never in cell range at the times his transmitter was programmed to phone home — until Monday evening. He happened to be almost equidistant between Reindeer, Wollaston and Creek lakes in northeastern Saskatchewan, and only 20 km (12 miles) from the McArthur River uranium mine, the world’s largest deposit of high-grade uranium and the largest-producing such mine in the world. Sasktel has a few cell towers in the region, and Austin’s unit was able to connect to one of them.

If he keeps on his current heading, Austin is only about 270 km (165 miles) from the Northwest Territories. There are plenty of small settlements and mines between here and there, but as with this latest transmission, any further news is going to be a matter of luck. And of course, he’s not the only owl out there — we have more than two dozen others moving north, and we might get lucky with any one or more of them. If we do, we’ll be sure to let you know.

*Completely random personal aside: In 1997, I was heading to Churchill, Manitoba, to spend a month leading polar bear-watching trips, when my flight was diverted by bad weather — to Flin Flon. We spent a couple of hours knocking around the small airfield, watching ravens and magpies, and chatting with locals who were happy to share the fact that their town in one of just two in the world (along with Tarzana, California) named for a science fiction character. Sadly, we never made it into town to see the statue of “Flinty,” the intrepid undersea explorer, designed by cartoonist Al Capp. Maybe Austin did a low fly-by on his passage through Flin Flon and got a glimpse.

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The End? https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/the-end/ https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/the-end/#comments Mon, 21 May 2018 01:23:01 +0000 https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/?p=4424 All good things must come to an end, and we may be at the finale of the 2017-18 winter season. This past week only a single snowy owl checked in, and it’s been anywhere from eight to 10 days since we’ve heard from any of the others of this winter’s crew. The one communicative bird was Island Beach, one of ... Read More

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Island Beach (yellow) was the only tagged owl to check in during the past week, suggesting we may be at the end of the 2017-18 season. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

All good things must come to an end, and we may be at the finale of the 2017-18 winter season. This past week only a single snowy owl checked in, and it’s been anywhere from eight to 10 days since we’ve heard from any of the others of this winter’s crew.

The one communicative bird was Island Beach, one of the New Jersey boys, who on May 16 was 1,014 km (630 miles) north of his tagging location in southcentral Quebec close to — well, nowhere in particular. He was deep in boreal forest on the border between Domaine-du-Roy and Eeyou Istchee James Bay Territory; the closest landmark is the one-time mining town of Chapais, QC, about 55 km (34 miles) to the northwest.

His location isn’t far from Rt. 167, though, which is critical to our story because there are a handful of cell towers along Rt. 167 in that area, allowing Island Beach to check in.

Island Beach’s signal happened to find one of the few cell towers along Rt. 167 southeast of Chapais, QC. (Map: https://www.ertyu.org/steven_nikkel/cancellsites.html)

As you can see from this wider map of Canadian cell tower locations…

Once north of southern Quebec, the cell network is extremely limited. (Map: https://www.ertyu.org/steven_nikkel/cancellsites.html)

…there’s not a lot north of there, except for a few towers at small towns along the eastern shore of James Bay. Last spring, Hardscrabble happened to hit one of those communities just right, coming within cell range on evenings when his transmitter was scheduled to check in. Whether we get similarly lucky with any of this year’s owls is an open question, but given the scarcity of cell towers it’s always a bit of a long shot.

So assuming this is the end, we’re looking back at our busiest season since we started SNOWstorm in 2013. We tagged 22 new owls and tracked five returning owls from previous seasons, a new record, and reached a remarkable milestone with our 70th tagged snowy owl.

We also set a somber new record, with five confirmed and one presumed mortality. We lost three owls (Higbee, Hereford and Arlington) to vehicle collisions. York was electrocuted on a badly designed power pole. Gichigami’s telemetry data strongly suggests she died on the ice on Lake Superior at the end of February, though we have no idea of the cause and obviously were unable to recover her. Finally, Manisses was found dead on Block Island and we’re awaiting necropsy results for her; we’ll have a wrap-up of all the pathology work from our very busy veterinary team this season, which handled dozens of snowy owls in our continuing effort to learn more about the health and environmental threats facing this species. The situation on Block Island has been especially interesting, and we’ll have more on that with that report. Difficult as those losses are, they provide important information about the dangers facing this species.

Thank you all for a terrific season — for your financial support (without which none of this would be possible) but especially for your enthusiasm, interest, comments, photos and emails, all of which make this such a productive collaboration. If there’s more news on any of our owls, we’ll be back in touch — and in the meantime, there’s this summer’s Arctic field work to look forward to. More on that in a couple of months!

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Catching Up https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/catching-up/ https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/catching-up/#comments Sun, 13 May 2018 13:12:14 +0000 https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/?p=4414 Sorry for the silence the past two weeks — as we’ve said before, all of us at Project SNOWstorm do this in our spare time, and this is a busy season for wildlife folks. I just got back from a 10-day writing and research trip to China focusing on shorebirds, while webmaster Drew Weber was with the Cornell Lab’s Sapsuckers ... Read More

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Arlington’s movements through April 29, when he was apparently struck by a vehicle in Minnesota. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Sorry for the silence the past two weeks — as we’ve said before, all of us at Project SNOWstorm do this in our spare time, and this is a busy season for wildlife folks. I just got back from a 10-day writing and research trip to China focusing on shorebirds, while webmaster Drew Weber was with the Cornell Lab’s Sapsuckers birding team in Colombia for the Global Big Day. SNOWstorm co-founder Dave Brinker has been chasing goshawks in the Allegheny National Forest of northwestern Pennsylvania — just to give a couple of examples.

But there’s been a lot going on, so let’s bring everyone up to speed. Unfortunately, the biggest news is also the saddest. Arlington, who was tagged Jan. 4 at Madison Audubon’s Goose Pond Preserve near Arlington, Wisconsin, was found dead along a roadside in Benton County, Minnesota, on April 29. Although we’ll conduct a necropsy to be sure, it appears he was killed by a vehicle collision — our third such loss this winter. A passerby saw a snowy owl sitting along a country road, not moving, and when they returned half an hour later, the owl — Arlington — was lying dead.

We’re deeply grateful to Carroll Henderson and the other folks at Minnesota DNR, who recovered Arlington, for reaching out to us immediately and making arrangements to have him and his transmitter shipped to us — just another example of the terrific cooperation we’ve enjoyed over the years from state, provincial and national wildlife agencies.  And we’d like to again extend our thanks to Madison Audubon for sponsoring Arlington’s transmitter — this is a hard loss for them as well as us, but Arlington’s movement data is and will remain a valuable legacy.

As for the rest of the avian crew, quite a few of this winter’s cadre of owls seem to have moved out of regular cell range, and are likely off the grid for the rest of the season. For example, we haven’t heard from our prairie owls, Pettibone and Ashtabula, since early and late April, respectively. Hardscrabble last checked in April 20 from Georgian Bay, while Stella, Emerald, Hilton and Wells were moving north through southern Quebec late last month, at the edge of the main cell network. Chickatawbut last transmitted April 20 from her winter territory along the St. Lawrence, but she could easily pass through and beyond the sparse cell network in southern Quebec between one transmission cycle and the next.

Logan, not far away along the river near Baie-Saint-Paul, QC, was moving north into the forest May 1, the last day we heard from her. Brunswick, over by Prince Edward Island, has also been silent since April 26 and may also be out of range.

Island Beach was in southern Quebec May 7, on the Taureau Reservoir near the town of Saint-Michel-des-Saints. Lenape, meanwhile, was just a bit east of him on May 3, north of Lac-aux-Sables, Quebec. May 1 is the last time we’ve heard from Sinepuxent, who was on Grenadier Island, New York, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario.

Crisscrossing paths on Lake Superior from Sterling (purple), Pennington (blue) and Pickford (red). (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

The western Great Lakes region has been interesting. There’s very little ice left on Lake Superior, just a couple hundred square miles of broken floes on the eastern reaches of Whitefish Bay by this weekend, but three of our tagged owls were crisscrossing each other’s paths there in recent weeks when the ice cover was a bit more extensive. Sterling, Pennington and Pickford all moved around Whitefish Point, with Sterling last heard from May 3 and Pennington on May 7, while Pickford had moved onto the Ontario shore the evening of May 11. Given the extremely limited cell coverage on the north shore, these may be the last times we hear from these owls this spring.

Badger and Bancroft have been looping around the western end of Lake Superior in the past week. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

After holding tight to her farm near Freedom, WI, all winter, Badger took off May 5 and flew up to Lake Superior, and two days later had reached the Keweenaw Peninsula, the “mouth” of Lake Superior’s headlike shape. At the same time, Bancroft was crossing the western nose of Lake Superior from the Apostle Islands to the northern shore, a 36-mile (58-km) overwater flight, and by May 11 was northeast of Atikokan, Ontario.

Straubel and Austin both aimed northwest from their wintering grounds in Wisconsin, and were in southern Manitoba at last report. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Straubel and Austin had both moved well to the northwest and crossed into Manitoba. On May 10 Straubel was at the southern tip of Lake Winnipeg, while the same evening Austin was just north of the North Dakota border near the town of Altona, Manitoba.

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Stampede https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/stampede/ https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/stampede/#comments Sun, 29 Apr 2018 11:04:42 +0000 https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/?p=4399 The movement north is in full swing, and by last week we only had a handful of owls still on their winter territories. Everyone else was on the move, or (maybe) already out of cell range. The movements have been especially strong in the East, where spring has finally started to make itself felt — but migration timing is only ... Read More

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All roads lead north in spring: Stella (purple), Emerald (red), Hilton (blue), Lenape (green) and Island Beach (yellow) have been passing through southern Ontario and Quebec recently. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

The movement north is in full swing, and by last week we only had a handful of owls still on their winter territories. Everyone else was on the move, or (maybe) already out of cell range.

The movements have been especially strong in the East, where spring has finally started to make itself felt — but migration timing is only partially controlled by weather and temperature. Even more important, from a big-picture perspective, is the growing length of daylight, which triggers hormonal changes in a migratory bird’s body and turns the migratory itch into an overriding command.

Brunswick has come in off the ice to the northwestern tip of Prince Edward Island. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

As of April 26, Brunswick had come in off the ocean and made landfall again on the northwestern tip of Prince Edward Island, just north of the village of Miminegash. She’d been drifting (presumably on an ice floe) for a while, midway between PEI and New Brunswick, before coming to shore.

A creature of habit: Wells’ northward paths in 2017 (blue) and 2018 (purple). (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Logan remains near Montmagny, QC, on the southern shore of the St. Lawrence, where she’s been since April 10. But just across the river, Wells took off north on April 21, and on April 23 was on Lac Saint-Jean, about 205 km (128 miles) north of Quebec City, where she’d spent the winter. This is exactly the same route she took last year, and almost exactly the same timing — she arrived on Lac Saint-Jean last year on April 21.

During a brief stop at Sandy Hook, NJ, Lenape put on a show for birders and photographers. (Both ©Randy Lubischer)

At last report (April 18) Chickatawbut was still on territory near Louiseville, QC, but she’s had some company. Lenape left the mid-Atlantic coast April 20, stopping briefly at Sandy Hook, NJ, where photographers got some great photos of him, then flying across Long Island and up through eastern New York, passing rapidly over the Adirondacks on the 24th. After giving Chickatawbut a fly-by, by the 27th Lenape was north of Trois-Rivieres, QC, on the edge of the cultivated lands of the St. Lawrence Valley.

The other Jersey Boy of this winter, Island Beach, wasn’t too far behind. He’d left the New Jersey coast earlier than Lenape, making it to several large, uninhabited islands in the St. Lawrence just downstream from Montreal by April 24, where he’s remained.

Emerald left Amherst Island April 21 and roughly paralleled the track that Stella had taken from Amherst more than a week earlier. Emerald flew through Hardscrabble’s and Baltimore’s old territories near Kinburn, ON, and by April 24 she was 45 km (28 miles) north of Maniwaki, QC, just west of Reservoir Baskatong. (Stella’s last connection was April 20, but she was already getting to the edge of regular cell service near Lake Abitibi. Likewise, the last transmission we had from Hilton was April 9, when she was 107 km [66 miles] northwest of Montreal, near Amherst, QC. Both birds may be north of the cell network by now, or just lingering in a coverage dead zone.)

This composite image shows how Pennington is using the last remaining ice on Lake Superior, which fills Whitefish Bay. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth; satellite imagery courtesy NOAA CoastWatch)

Speaking of Hardscrabble, this old male has been working his way north along Georgian Bay, and April 23 was on the ice on North Channel at the upper reaches of Lake Huron, not far from Thessalon, ON. And just west of him, both Pickford and Pennington have been on the move on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Pennington left the sand quarry along Lake Michigan, crossed the U.P. and on April 25 was on the fast-receding ice of Lake Superior in Whitefish Bay. Pickford didn’t go as far, but for the first time on April 27 she left her winter territory, and that evening was close to the Lake Superior shore.

There remains no word from Gichigami, whom we now believe came to a bad end out on Lake Superior sometime around the end of February, the point of her last transmission. A day or two before her transmitter checked in, her accelerometer data (which monitors movement) flat-lined, and her on-board temperature sensor dropped to ambient levels, suggesting she had died — though why or how, we obviously can’t know, and likely never will.

On the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, Sterling moved north a bit to Muskegon, where she was sitting on rooftops in residential neighborhoods on April 24. Over in Wisconsin, Badger is still hunkered down near Freedom, as is Bancroft up in the Buena Vista grasslands. But Straubel has been moving more widely around the area, and Austin lit out April 21 and by the 27th he’d migrated 243 miles (392 km) northwest into Aitkin Count, MN, on Big Sandy Lake. Arlington is also still in Minnesota, checking in April 25 from Isanti County farmland.

Arlington (purple) and Austion (green) are currently both in Minnesota, Austin having made a very strong push northwest. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

We haven’t heard from Pettibone since April 10; he may have moved into an area with no coverage, or he may have made a fast getaway to the north, through the sparse cell network in southern Canada. Ashtabula was still in Burleigh County, ND, on April 23.

Whew — a lot of ground and owls to cover, and the next weeks should be interesting, as birds move deeper into Canada and drop off and on the cell network. We could have some surprises, though, both during migration and this summer, since more and more bush communities are getting cell service, raising the odds of hearing from our birds off-season, as it were.

*  *  *  *  *

We try to keep our map updates and blog summaries coming regularly every week, but the next 10 days or so may be a little erratic, as several of us will be out of the office or the country — including Drew Weber, who handles a lot of our web and social media stuff. Drew will be part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Global Big Day team in Colombia. No snowy owls for Drew, but lots of other amazing birds, we’re sure. Good luck, Sapsuckers!

 

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Stops and Starts https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/stops-and-starts/ https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/stops-and-starts/#comments Fri, 20 Apr 2018 16:55:00 +0000 https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/?p=4384 The past week was a wild one for weather across much of the terrain our tagged owls are inhabiting. Some places went from summerlike tee-shirt weather one day to whiteout snow squalls the next, while blizzards and ice storms raked still other regions. So it’s not surprising that some owls that had been moving north hung back –but others pushed ... Read More

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Stella has moved into far western Quebec northwest of Val-d’Or, very close to where Hardscrabble was April 2. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

The past week was a wild one for weather across much of the terrain our tagged owls are inhabiting. Some places went from summerlike tee-shirt weather one day to whiteout snow squalls the next, while blizzards and ice storms raked still other regions.

So it’s not surprising that some owls that had been moving north hung back –but others pushed on regardless, while quite a few haven’t started to budge yet.

The biggest movements have come from Stella, who left her shoreline territory on Amherst Island April 11, and has moved almost 500 km (300 miles) north to western Quebec. As have a number of our tagged owls over the years, she stopped off near Val-d’Or (fortunately avoiding the huge open-pit gold mine just west of there at Malartic, where we lost Oswegatchie to unknown causes in 2014). As of April 18, she was north of Lac Preissac and Lac Malartic in an area of boggy forest. Meanwhile, her island chum Emerald remains on her Amherst territory, showing no signs of restlessness — yet.

Ashtabula continues his ambling tour of central North Dakota — when will he head north for real? (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Out west, Ashtabula is still meandering around southcentral North Dakota, in Burleigh County, about 25 miles (40 km) east of Bismark; he’s been on the move since the middle of February, and as an adult male, he ought to be seriously thinking about turning his beak north and heading back to stake out a territory. Pettibone, on the other hand, is still a juvenile, and he remains on his winter haunts, the core of which is just 4.5 square miles (12 sq. km). [Oops — After this was posted Matt Solensky, who banded both of these males, corrected my faulty memory — Pettibone’s the adult, and Ashtabula is the juvenile. Thanks, Matt.]

With Straubel out of the picture, Bancroft (purple tracks) has reoccupied areas Straubel (orange tracks) had taken over the past two months, while Austin (green) maintains his distance. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

After making his own wide-ranging moves out of central Wisconsin last month, Arlington has been holding tight in eastern Minnesota since the beginning of April. Lately he’s been using the Southeast Industrial Park in Cambridge, MN, about 40 miles (65 km) north of Minneapolis. Back in Wisconsin, Straubel is moving around the prairie/ag/cranberry bog complex east of the Wisconsin River. That means that Bancroft and Austin — whom she’d elbowed out of parts of their winter territories — have been free to move back, and indeed Bancroft has shifted right back into what had been the core of his activity area before the larger female Straubel moved in in late February.

An island of sorts in a sea of trees, a sand quarry and port facility have been Pennington’s home the past few days. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Badger, near Freedom, WI, and Pickford in the U.P. of Michigan, haven’t shown any wanderlust yet, but Pennington has left his spot near Pickford and moved to the northern edge of Lake Michigan, where he’s hanging out at the huge sand quarry and shipping port at Manitou Payment Point — some of the only open land in that otherwise heavily wooded area. Farther south on the same lake, Sterling remains just north of Holland, in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. No word from Hilton this week.

Hardscrabble — who on April 2 was only a few kilometers from where Stella is now — has moved northwest along the coast of Georgian Bay in recent days, but it’s too soon to say whether he’s ready to resume his aborted flight north again.

Brunswick has moved from the coasts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to — and now beyond — Prince Edward Island. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Along the St. Lawrence in Quebec, there are no changes to report with Wells or Chickatawbut, while Logan remains where she’s been since April 9, along the south shore of the river near the town of Montmagny. We continue to get periodic transmissions from Brunswick, who moved from Cap-Pelé on the coast of New Brunswick to near Fox Harbour on the north shore of Nova Scotia, then across the Northumberland Strait to Prince Edward Island. At last contact on April 13, she was 8.5 km (5 miles) off the northwest tip of PEI, presumably on ice. She’s our most easterly-ever owl; from her location to Ashtabula is about 2,600 km (1,700 miles).

Island Beach keeps moving north through New York, and is almost to Lake Champlain. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Island Beach is moving steadily north through New York state. Having left Long Island, he moved to just northwest of Albany on April 14, and to Great Sacandaga Lake in Fulton County by April 17. That’s been a popular lake with other tagged snowies, most notably Century, who spent some time there in March 2014. Thursday night (April 19) he’d crossed the densely forested and decidedly hostile (to a snowy owl) Adirondack Mountains and was near Plattsburgh, NY, just west of Lake Champlain.

Finally, down on the New Jersey coast Lenape has been relatively sedentary, at least for him, moving about on Long Beach Island and Holgate. We haven’t heard from Sinepuxent in a few days; her transmitter had developed an inexplicable lack of solar voltage, which we’ve been trying to figure out, but likely has dipped below transmission level.

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North (and South) – but Mostly North https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/north-and-south-but-mostly-north/ https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/north-and-south-but-mostly-north/#comments Fri, 13 Apr 2018 00:25:44 +0000 https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/?p=4376 Spring is supposed to be when snowy owls head north. Tell that to Hardscrabble. This veteran owl, now wrapping up his third year of being tracked, took off last week as he’s done in previous winters, heading up through southwestern Quebec…until he reversed course. April 2 he was northwest of Val-d’Or, but two evenings later he’d flown 326 km (202 ... Read More

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North, then not: Hardscrabble (in red) makes a loop across Quebec and Ontario. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Spring is supposed to be when snowy owls head north. Tell that to Hardscrabble.

This veteran owl, now wrapping up his third year of being tracked, took off last week as he’s done in previous winters, heading up through southwestern Quebec…until he reversed course. April 2 he was northwest of Val-d’Or, but two evenings later he’d flown 326 km (202 miles) southwest to the shore of Georgian Bay, and two nights after that he was on Lake Simcoe, in the pinch of southwestern Ontario that lies between the Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario — farther south than he’s been all winter!

Why? Well, we can make some guesses; maybe the weather (especially contrary winds) turned him back. But the fact is, we don’t know a lot about a lot, so to speak, when it comes to these birds. Hardscrabble’s really the only one who knows why he swapped ends and headed south again. But it’s surprises like that that make this work so interesting.

Still, we’re seeing more and more movement by owls that have been sedentary all winter. On Amherst Island, Stella has been all but locked into her territory on the south shore, where she became a local celebrity with birders, photographers and locals. Except for days spent offshore on ice, she never left the 43 ha (107 acre) swath of island shore. But on April 10 she headed out, and the next evening she was 73 km (46 miles) north, halfway between Lake Ontario and Hardscrabble’s former territory on the Ottawa River. (Emerald hasn’t made similar moves — yet.)

Logan made a big sweep across the emptier quarters of Maine last week and into the St. Lawrence valley, not far from Wells. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Logan had started north last week, and since then this adult female carved a curving route through some of the emptier parts of Maine. After making a brief stop at the Millenocket airport, she looped north and then west across “the County,” as Mainers refer to enormous Aroostook County, over the Allagash and St. Johns rivers, and into southern Quebec. Since April 9 she’s been on the south shore of the St. Lawrence by Montmagny, QC.

Just upstream from Logan, Wells had briefly shifted off her winter territory in Quebec City out to L’île d’Orléans, but then left the island and scooted back to her bailiwick again. And still farther up the St. Lawrence, Chickatawbut remains snug in her wintering spot.

Hilton, however, has also been on the move. Since April 4 she’s left Lake Erie, flown back to the south shore of Lake Ontario, then flown northeast across the Ottawa River valley. By April 8 she was in southern Quebec near the town of Amherst — a flight of some 540 km (340 miles).

Away from the Jersey Shore, Island Beach stopped at JFK Airport today, but by evening was along the Long Island Railroad. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Down along the Atlantic coast, Sinepuxent is still near Atlantic City, NJ, but Island Beach has finally left the Jersey Shore and earlier today was perched on a hanger at JFK Airport on Long Island. By evening, though, he’d left those big, dangerous birds for the tracks of the Long Island Railroad. Lenape flew way back north again from Virginia and Maryland, crossing Delaware Bay and moving halfway up the New Jersey coast to Barnegat before turning around and flying south to Holgate. All that bird has done, all winter, is roam, and it will be fascinating to finally calculate how many hundreds and hundreds of miles he will have accumulated under his wings before he leaves. In 70 birds and four winters, we’ve never had one as relentlessly restless as Lenape.

In the Upper Peninsula, Pickford is holding tight but Pennington has been showing some restlessness, though no major moves. We’ve heard nothing from Gichigami since the end of February, when she was out on Lake Superior ice; that doesn’t bode well, but we’ll have to see if she reappears. Sterling is still north of Holland, MI, but we’re not getting a lot of data from his transmitter, which hasn’t been getting much solar recharge.

In Wisconsin, Straubel has made the first move out of her territory since she was relocated there from her namesake airport in mid-January. She didn’t move far — just 19 miles (30 km) north of Stevens Point, and she flew partway south again — but it’s another sign of growing restlessness. Meanwhile, her neighbors Austin and Bancroft are sitting tight, as is Badger southwest of Green Bay. Arlington, on the other hand, is wandering around eastern Minnesota, and on April 11 was in the town of Cambridge, about 40 miles (65 km) north of the Twin Cities.

In North Dakota, Pettibone hasn’t shown any signs of wanderlust, while Ashtabula continues to meander over the prairie. As of April 4 he was near Linton, ND, having come within a few miles of the South Dakota line.

*  *  *  *  *

Finally, for some fun, here’s a great video that PBS in Boston did about our good friend and SNOWstorm co-founder Norman Smith — enjoy! (And, um, ignore the bit about snowy owls eating insects…anyone can make a mistake.)

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More Heading North https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/more-heading-north/ https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/more-heading-north/#comments Tue, 03 Apr 2018 20:55:39 +0000 https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/?p=4360 Last week, we saw the first signs of northbound migration, but over the weekend we had several owls making major movements north in New England, Quebec and the Midwest. Arlington, who began moving a couple weeks ago, actually stopped and reversed course a bit in recent days in Pine County, Minnesota, not far from the “snout” of Lake Superior, and ... Read More

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Straubel is framed by a newly risen full moon on March 31, as she watches her territory on the Buena Vista grasslands of Wisconsin. (©Tom Koch)

Last week, we saw the first signs of northbound migration, but over the weekend we had several owls making major movements north in New England, Quebec and the Midwest.

Arlington, who began moving a couple weeks ago, actually stopped and reversed course a bit in recent days in Pine County, Minnesota, not far from the “snout” of Lake Superior, and some 475 miles (765 km) from where he wintered in southern Wisconsin. On April 2 he was not far from the St. Croix River on the Minnesota side, near St. Croix State Park.

Hardscrabble has made a big push north in recent days (yellow track), along a route he’s generally followed in the past — spring 2016 (purple), fall 2016 (orange) and spring 2017 (green). (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Hardscrabble, who had spent his third winter in the Ottawa River valley of southern Ontario, made a huge push across Quebec in just a couple of days. Although we’re not getting constant GPS locations from him because of battery issues, we do get a current location when he checks in every day or two. On March 28 he was on his longtime territory near Kinburn, ON, but two nights later he had moved 193 km (119 miles) due north, south of Maniwaki, QC, near the Lac Blue Sea complex of lakes. By April 2 he was another 306 km (190) miles to the northwest, midway between Val-d’Or and Lake Abitibi. That’s pretty much right along the same route that he took when he headed north in 2016, south that fall, and north again in 2017.

At the same time, he’s continuing to give us backlogged data while still storing fresh GPS locations — the trouble is, his battery browns out after just sending a few dozen data points, so we keep falling farther and farther behind. The solution would be to remove and replace the faulty unit, which we tried repeatedly to do this winter without success. For now, we can just hope to find him again next winter and have more success trapping him.

We’ve recovered enough of Hardscrabble’s backlogged 2017 data to see that by late May 2017 he’d set up a small territory in northern Quebec — perhaps a nest? (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

But with his old data uploaded through May 23, 2017, it seems pretty clear that he had again settled down on a very limited territory in northern Quebec — likely a nesting territory, though the data signature for a male like Hardscrabble is less clear-cut than for a female that spends a lot of time incubating. Still, it certainly seems as though he was beginning the nesting process.

If Hardscrabble was nesting last summer, it was well north of his presumed nest site in 2016. (The orange tracks over land represent post-breeding movements July-Dec. 2016.) (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Over in New England, Norman Smith’s been increasingly concerned about Logan, who after Norman relocated her from Logan Airport has spent the last two months in heavily urban areas just a few miles from downtown Boston. At least four other snowy owls have been picked up dead in that region, and toxicology tests suggest they died from rodenticides. While there were plenty of ducks on the nearby Mystic River, there was no sign from Logan’s tracking data that this adult female was hunting them regularly.

Logan picked up stakes in Massachusetts and made a quick flight north to Bangor, Maine, over the weekend. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

So we all breathed a little sigh of relief when Logan picked up March 31 and began a rapid flight up the coast. In one night of travel she moved 170 miles (275 km) from northern Massachusetts to the midcoast of Maine, finally stopping north of Belfast. On April 2 she was a bit further inland, at the Bangor Airport. When I contacted our colleague Adam Vashon at Maine Wildlife Services to let him know, he said they’d gotten a call earlier in the day about an owl at the airport, and a WS agent had tried to catch it without success. No wonder; Logan’s been trapped at least twice in the past by Norman, and may be getting wise. Hopefully she’ll push on from the airport soon — as a breeding-age adult, she has a powerful pull to the north at this time of year.

None of the other owls — most of which are juveniles, several years away from breeding age — have shown a lot of northward movement. On the mid-Atlantic coast, Lenape has moved north out of Virginia into Maryland on the Eastern Shore, but this bird has basically never stopped flying all winter, so it’s hard to say if this was migration or more of the same. Farther north, Island Beach has been back and forth again across the mouth of Delaware Bay, and last weekend was up on the huge saltmarshes along the northern bayshore on the New Jersey side, as well the town of Fortescue. Sinepuxent is still in the Atlantic City/Margate area, mostly way back in the marshes.

Hilton had better enjoy the ice of Lake Erie while she can, because it’s disappearing fast, as this composite of tracking data and ice imagery shows.  (©Project SNOWstorm, Google Earth and NOAA CoastWatch)

At last report on April 2, Hilton was about 6.5 miles (10 km) off the southern shore of Lake Erie, near Dunkirk, NY. Sterling was off the grid this week, as was Gichigami. Stella and Emerald are still in place on Amherst Island, although Emerald made her first flight across to the mainland all winter, which may portend growing restlessness. No movement from Wells or Chickatawbut in Quebec, or Pickford and Pennington in the Michigan Upper Peninsula. Austin, Bancroft and Straubel are still divvying up their 8-square-mile (20.5-sq.-km) area in central Wisconsin, where photographer Tom Koch got a great shot of Straubel framed by a full moon the other night.

Out in the Dakotas, Pettibone is hanging tough on his winter territory, while Ashtabula looped south a fair bit into Emmons County, North Dakota, about 30 miles (50 km) east of the Missouri River.

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Let the Race Begin https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/let-the-race-begin/ https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/let-the-race-begin/#comments Wed, 28 Mar 2018 19:18:58 +0000 https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/?p=4342 Arlington isn’t waiting for spring. This juvenile male is making serious tracks to the north — the first of this winter’s class of tagged owls to show more than just some late-winter wanderlust. In just the past week he’s moved more than 120 miles (200 km) from south of Eu Claire, Wisconsin, northwest into Kanabec County, Minnesota — and more ... Read More

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Arlington is making tracks north and west, having moved into eastern Minnesota in the past week. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Arlington isn’t waiting for spring. This juvenile male is making serious tracks to the north — the first of this winter’s class of tagged owls to show more than just some late-winter wanderlust.

In just the past week he’s moved more than 120 miles (200 km) from south of Eu Claire, Wisconsin, northwest into Kanabec County, Minnesota — and more than 260 miles (420 km) from where he was tagged Jan. 4 near his namesake town in southern Wisconsin.

There’s lots of ground to cover this week, so we’ll move from west to east, starting with Pettibone, who checked in for the first time in a few weeks, still on his 10-square mile (25-square-km) territory straddling Stutsman and Kidder counties in North Dakota. That area has spotty cell coverage, which is why we hear from him only irregularly — and likely why we haven’t heard from Ashtabula, who last was just to Pettibone’s northeast, since March 19.

Bancroft (purple) seems to have displaced Austin (green) from the latter’s area, while Straubel (yellow) holds the middle ground. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Our Wisconsin trio of Austin, Bancroft and Straubel continue their dance around each other, providing a really rich and fascinating look at how snowies using the same patch of land respond to each other (and likely to other, untagged owls in the same area). All three juveniles are using a patch of the Buena Vista grasslands about 7 square miles (20 square km) in extent, with the larger female Straubel occupying the center and, until recently, the two males keeping to the margins.

Straubel glides through late-day light in central Wisconsin. (©Tom Koch)

This past week, though, Austin shifted southeast, to another area of commercial cranberry bog, while Bancroft — who had first staked out this territory early in the winter — moved close to Straubel and into what had been Austin’s bailiwick to the northwest. The proximity of Bancroft and Straubel prompted one commenter to ask if the two might be pairing up. Fun as that might be to contemplate, it’s unlikely — snowy owls require a number of years to mature, and both of these birds are less than a year old. There’s also little evidence that snowies pair on the wintering grounds; it seems more typical for adults to pair up once the male has established a territory on the breeding grounds.

Rounding out our Wisconsin owls, Badger remains a homebody on her farmland territory northeast of the town of Freedom, WI. And up in the U.P. of Michigan, there have been no changes for Pickford and Pennington — this juvenile female and adult male remain where they’ve been all winter, in farmland about 50 miles (81 km) south of Sault Ste. Marie. No word since Feb. 28 from Gichigami, when she was out on Lake Superior’s ice.

Hilton’s been on and off Lake Erie on the Pennsylvania and New York shores… (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

…which is understandable when you see the small, fairly broken area of ice still remaining on the eastern end of Lake Erie. (NOAA CoastWatch imagery)

We have been hearing only intermittently from Sterling, whose transmitter has been struggling to maintain power; he’s likely one of those birds that likes to preen the unit way down into his back feathers. But he remains near Holland and Zeeland, MI, on the east shore of Lake Michigan.  Meanwhile on Lake Erie, the rapidly disappearing ice there has pushed Hilton onto land with increasing frequency, and lately she’s been on and off the lake between Presque Isle and the town of Northeast, Pennsylvania, and farmland between Ripley and Westfield, New York.

Chased off Lake Ontario now that most of the ice is gone, Stella has been spending her time along the south shore of Amherst Island. (©Donald Munro)

On Amherst Island, Stella and Emerald are still holding tight to their routines. Stella has lost all the remaining ice on the Lake Ontario side of the island, and now spends all her time on shore, where she’s a favorite with photographers and visiting birders. Emerald has taken advantage of the limited ice remaining on the channel to the mainland, and spent much of the day March 27 out there.

With all the turbine construction this winter, Amherst has been a noisy place, but both it and neighboring Wolfe Island have seen large influxes of owls in the past week or two — possibly from early migration, possibly owls chased off the melting ice onto land. Local photographer Dale MacNair reported finding 21 owls on Amherst this week, and our friends Daniel and Patricia Lafortune counted an astounding 40 snowies on Amherst last weekend.

Daily locations for Hardscrabble paint a fairly complete picture of his overall activity area this winter in southern Ontario. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Having shifted to his 2016-17 territory near Cobden, ON, for a few days, Hardscrabble is back where he’d been most of the winter, near Kinburn, ON, in the Ottawa River valley. As we’ve noted previously, his transmitter battery is unable to maintain a charge when trying to transmit backlogged data, which we get in dribs and drabs every time he connects. So while his map data only goes up to May 2017, we’re at least able to get GPS fixes on his current location each time he connects, which has allowed us to build an almost-daily map of his evening locations, and thus his basic activity area. (You’ll recall that we’ve tried a number of times to retrap Hardscrabble and remove the faulty unit, as we did earlier this winter with Baltimore, but so far we’ve had no success.)

Farther east along the St. Lawrence, Chickatawbut remains where she’s been all winter, near the town of Louiseville, Quebec, while Wells remains in the thick of things in Quebec City, roosting on a large shopping mall, hunting the margins and medians of several very busy highways, and occasionally escaping the hubbub out on the river (presumably on floating ice).

Speaking of urban owls, Logan continues to hunt Boston’s outer reaches in Revere and Chelsea, just across the Mystic River from the downtown. Norman Smith, who tagged her and moved her from Logan Airport, is concerned about what she might be eating in such an urban environment, since he knows of a number of snowy owls in the Boston area that suffered from rodenticide exposure this winter, having eaten poisoned rodents.

Lenape has been spending most of his time (save for a quick detour inland) on the secluded and protected barrier islands of the Virginia Coast Reserve. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Moving down the coast, Sinepuxent is still using the salt marshes just inland of Atlantic City, while Island Beach continues to bop around south Jersey, from Stone Harbor and Avalon down to Wildwood. Finally, Lenape seems to have found some peace and quiet at long last on the Virginia barrier islands on the Eastern Shore’s Atlantic coast, most of which are part of the Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve. Unlike some of the beaches farther north, which are accessible by vehicle and where snowy owls are continually flushed by overly enthusiastic (or simply careless) humans, Lenape has been able to rest out on these out-of-the-way islands where people are fairly rare visitors.

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