Project SNOWstorm https://www.projectsnowstorm.org Contribute to research on Snowy Owls! Sat, 17 Nov 2018 14:55:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Snowies on the Move https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/snowies-on-the-move/ https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/snowies-on-the-move/#comments Thu, 08 Nov 2018 20:28:44 +0000 https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/?p=4478 It’s very early in the season, but there is a lot happening on the snowy owl front already. Significant numbers of snowies have been showing up as far south as Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the East, and southern Michigan and Wisconsin in the Midwest. Amherst Island in Lake Ontario had as many as 10 in recent days, and there ... Read More

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It’s very early in the season, but there is a lot happening on the snowy owl front already.

Significant numbers of snowies have been showing up as far south as Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the East, and southern Michigan and Wisconsin in the Midwest. Amherst Island in Lake Ontario had as many as 10 in recent days, and there are many more along the St. Lawrence/Ottawa river valleys, always a good area for them.

We’re gearing up for a new winter of field work, and waiting to hear from previously tagged owls moving back into cell range, but first, we have an update from the new project we started with colleagues in Alaska. Here’s the latest from SNOWstorm team member Jean-François Therrien at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania.

*   *   *

The first movements away from Utqiaġvik (Barrow) Alaska by two of the three young snowy owls we tagged this summer. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Back in early August, with the help of our colleague Denver Holt from the Owl Research Institute in Montana, we deployed satellite transmitters on three snowy owl chicks on their natal (birth) grounds in Utqiaġvik, Alaska — formerly known as Barrow. One of the main aims of this tracking project is to assess dispersal movements of young snowy owls, while another very important aspect is to determine their survival rate, from the moment they are born through their first year and beyond.

The survival rate is crucial to any population of wild animals, but often overlooked by researchers, especially for younger age classes. However, measuring survival also means learning when and where birds expire, and — especially with species like snowy owls that inhabit remote locations — that is never easy to document. With that in mind, our network of collaborators has engaged in this break-through project, hoping to shed light on these critical aspects of snowy owl conservation biology.

The three young snowy owls have been transmitting their locations ever since they were banded in early August. After showing some very limited movements around their respective nest sites, two of the birds have now travelled more than 62 and 137 miles (100 and 220 km)respectively. All three birds are still in Alaska, and the map shows where they were last located. This project has already allowed us to determine an approximate departure date when the young snowies leave their natal grounds.

The coming months are going to be exciting, and we’re eager to see where these young owls head and potentially settle for the winter. We will, of course, keep an eye out to see if the transmitters become stationary (a sign that mortality might have occurred), but we’re hoping for the best for them.

Stay tuned for another exciting winter season!

 

 

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A Shout-out from James Bay https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/a-shout-out-from-james-bay/ https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/a-shout-out-from-james-bay/#respond Tue, 02 Oct 2018 12:08:04 +0000 https://www.projectsnowstorm.org?p=4456&preview=true&preview_id=4456 Here at Project SNOWstorm, we usually expect to start hearing from tagged owls around the middle of November, when the first snowies reach the northern edge of the Canadian cell phone network. But that edge keeps moving north, as more and more bush communities get cell service. That’s why we heard from Bancroft in late June near Churchill, Manitoba. So ... Read More

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Pickford headed north this spring along the western shore of James Bay (purple) and checked in Sept. 26 from the east shore (green icon). Meanwhile, we recovered 2015 data from Erie’s old transmitter (yellow). (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Here at Project SNOWstorm, we usually expect to start hearing from tagged owls around the middle of November, when the first snowies reach the northern edge of the Canadian cell phone network. But that edge keeps moving north, as more and more bush communities get cell service. That’s why we heard from Bancroft in late June near Churchill, Manitoba.

So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to get a text message on Sept. 26 that said, “CTT Data Update: Unit #46855274 (Pickford SY Female) has checked in.” But nevertheless I was — and so was Dave Brinker, who called me literally 30 seconds later, equally excited as he looked at his phone.

Pickford, you’ll recall, was the juvenile female tagged on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula last winter by Nova Mackentley and Chris Neri, wintering in Chippewa’s old territory. The last we’d heard from her was May 11, as she moved away from the easternmost shores of Lake Superior.

Now she was on the eastern side of James Bay, about 21 km (13 miles) north of the Cree village of Wemindji (also shown as Nouveau-Comptoir on some maps, and whose origins date to a 17th century trading post) — just close enough to connect to the village’s cellular network, apparently. Her transmitter uploaded almost 800 location points from her northbound migration in late May before the connection dropped; the last point we have is from May 29, when she was directly across James Bay on the west shore. We’ll have to wait for her to reconnect and continue to send her backlogged data in order to learn if she continued north to Hudson Bay or beyond, or if she spent the summer loafing around James Bay. (As a juvenile, she was almost certainly too young to breed this year.)

The good news is that her battery is in great shape, even as the days get dramatically shorter up there in the northern boreal zone. So if she stays near Wemindji, or continues farther south as winter comes on, we’re hopeful we’ll get her full summer travel history.

* * * * *

The Belcher Islands, looking like twisted taffy, are where Erie spent the summer and early autumn of 2015. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

You’ll also recall that in June we lost one of our original owls — Erie, tagged in 2014 in Pennsylvania, and found dead in Michigan four months ago. The necropsy showed no clear sign of death but suggested head trauma, and his transmitter had a big, recent hole in its plastic shell, further suggesting he’d suffered an accident of some sort.

Because of the damage, we really didn’t expect to recover any additional data from his unit — but over the summer, the wizards at CTT were able to pull most of Erie’s 2015 summer data from the damaged innards of the transmitter.

The data show that in the spring of 2015 Erie migrated north along the west shore of James Bay, crossing southern Hudson Bay to the northeast and spending the rest of the summer and early autumn in the Belcher Islands, perhaps the most bizarrely shaped archipelago in the world, looking from space like stretched and twisted taffy. The islands are home to walrus, caribou and of course snowy owls — along with the Inuit village of Sanikiluaq, which once supported an eider down factory, collecting feathers from the abundant nests of common eider.

To judge from his GPS tracks, Erie was a common sight in Sanikiluaq that summer. Although he tended to stay just west of the village, he often came into town and perched on rooftops and utility poles.

It would have been great to recover more data from Erie’s transmitter, of course, but given the level of damage it had sustained, we’re delighted to have gotten such a big, additional chunk of his history — an important part of Project SNOWstorm’s past as well.

Sanikiluaq’s 900 or so residents would have seen Erie on a fairly regular basis in the summer of 2015, as his GPS tracks make clear. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

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Tracking Young Snowies in the Arctic https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/tracking-young-snowies-in-the-arctic/ https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/tracking-young-snowies-in-the-arctic/#comments Mon, 01 Oct 2018 01:18:04 +0000 https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/?p=4465 In this blog post Jean-François Therrien at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, who has been part of Project SNOWstorm’s leadership team since our beginning, shares some exciting news about a new venture for SNOWstorm. —————– Snowy owl enthusiasts ask the same question every summer: Where will snowy owls be breeding this year, and how good a reproductive season will it ... Read More

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Jean-François Therrien makes the final adjustments to a satellite transmitter on one of three snowy owl chicks in Alaska, the first time anyone has attempted to track fledgling snowies after they leave their nests. (©J.F. Therrien)

In this blog post Jean-François Therrien at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, who has been part of Project SNOWstorm’s leadership team since our beginning, shares some exciting news about a new venture for SNOWstorm.

—————–

Snowy owl enthusiasts ask the same question every summer: Where will snowy owls be breeding this year, and how good a reproductive season will it be? Indeed, because their summer diet is so specialized on one type of prey, lemmings — and because lemmings show tremendous fluctuations in numbers annually — snowy owls are known to invade a region to raise large clutches where conditions are opportune, while deserting the same region when conditions are less suitable.

We here at Project SNOWstorm, working with colleagues elsewhere in North America and Europe in the International Snowy Owl Working Group (see list below), had high hopes this summer of equipping several young snowy owls in Canada and Norway with satellite transmitters around the time they would be leaving their nests. This project should provide, for the first time, precise natal dispersal movements and first-year survival rate for the species, two aspects of basic biology that are essentially unknown and crucially needed. (SNOWstorm supporters made our participation possible by donating funds to help cover transmitter costs.)

By June, though, reports from various places across the Arctic slowly reached us, suggesting that it was going to be a low year for lemmings — and thus for breeding snowy owls — across most of the Canadian Arctic. Our Norwegian colleagues echoed the same story. The only exciting news came from a short video displayed by the Owl Research Institute showing biologist Matt Larson at a snowy owl nest in Utqiagvik, (formerly Barrow), Alaska, where the institute’s founder and leader Denver Holt has been monitoring breeding snowy owls for 27 years.

As with most research projects with a global reach, studying snowy owls has always been a partnership endeavor. Indeed, teaming up with efficient, reliable and capable colleagues and experts from around the world only increases our capacities. That is why I contacted Holt for a potential collaboration — we had the transmitters, and his team had owls. He agreed and welcomed me warmly at his study site.

Ready to go! The project is a joint venture among a number of collaborating researchers, with major support from the Owl Research Institute and Project Snowstorm. (J.F. Therrien)

In early August, Denver and I equipped three juvenile snowy owls from as many nests with satellite transmitters on their natal grounds in Alaska. We now aim to track these birds for at least two years, and we are hoping they will provide us with new insights into their dispersal behavior from the nest site. The transmitters we are using are much smaller than we’ve ever used on snowy owls (only 17 grams including harness material, which represents less than 1% of the bird body mass) and will report their location once every 5 days. Unlike the cell-based GPS transmitters we use on adult owls, these satellite transmitters won’t need to be within range of cell tower to transmit, but they are not solar powered, so the long intervals between transmissions is a compromise to squeeze out as much battery life as we can, while keeping track of the weekly movements and survival rate.

As it is the case with most raptor species, we expect the survival rate to be somewhat low in these young birds, compared with adults. But there is simply no empirical data existing on this aspect of snowy owl biology. So we hope these tiny transmitters will fill a major and significant gap in knowledge of the basic ecology of snowy owls, and possibly reveal new and surprising information, but we need to bear in mind that tracking the movements of young raptors may also reveal some unfortunate endings, because young birds are vulnerable during their first year.

So please join us in welcoming our three newest friends (Ookpik, Tundra, and Blanche) as we discover in almost real-time where they go and how well they make it on their own during the upcoming autumn and winter seasons. As of now, the three transmitters are working but the birds haven’t moved much from around their nests, in the northern tip of Alaska. We’ll be updating you regularly this fall about their movements. And this season was a test — depending on how we make out with these owls, we hope to tag additional juvenile snowy owls in Canada and Norway next summer, assuming the birds nest there.

Researchers and organizations involved in this project include:

J.F. Therrien (Hawk Mountain Sanctuary), Denver Holt (Owl Research Institute), Scott Weidensaul, David Brinker et al. (Project SNOWstorm), Karl-Otto Jacobsen (Norwegian Institute for Nature Research), Ingar Jostein Oien and Tomas Aarvak (Norwegian Ornithological Society / Birdlife Norway), Roar Solheim (Agder Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden), Karen Wiebe (University of Saskatchewan), Nicolas Lecomte (Université de Moncton) and Gilles Gauthier (Université Laval).

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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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