A Last Hurrah on the Prairie

Scott WeidensaulUpdates11 Comments

Matt Solensky in 2016 with Dakota, the first snowy owl he tagged for Project SNOWstorm.

Working with snowy owls is not for the faint of heart; you’re outside for long hours in weather that sends most people scurrying for the warmth of a wood stove and a mug of hot chocolate.

And in a winter like this, when there’s been no appreciable irruption and the owls are thin on the land, those hours and days can seem even longer. But the folks who help with Project SNOWstorm keep plugging anyway.

Matt Solensky out in North Dakota is a good example. We got connected to Matt, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Prairie Research Center, in the winter of 2015-16, though his nephew back in Pennsylvania, who was a volunteer on a northern saw-whet owl banding project I oversee. Matt was an experienced raptor bander, and after my SNOWstorm colleague Dave Brinker went out to North Dakota to train him on our specific harnessing techniques, he’s proven to be a terrific partner, tagging 11 snowies over the years, including Salyer earlier this winter.

Matt’s made a number of trips into northern North Dakota this winter, despite some seriously cold and snowy weather, devoting his free time to our project. (We do reimburse folks like Matt for gas and lodging expenses, but no one on the SNOWstorm team gets any kind of salary or stipend — we all volunteer our time.) He was at it again the last weekend of January, and the first weekend of February.

“We gave it a really solid effort the past two weekends,” Matt reported recently.  “The weekend of Jan. 28-29 I had planned to go to Bottineau [near the Canadian border] again, but the weather forecast was for bitter temperatures so I stayed closer to home and looked around the Woodworth area. We saw at least a couple birds, but didn’t even get a pass. It was -22F on Sunday morning the 29th, perhaps that had something to do with it.” (Yes, perhaps it did!)

“This past weekend [Feb. 4-5] we saw five different owls on Saturday and only the last one made a couple of timid, half-hearted approaches at the bait just at the last few moments of light. Sunday was extremely foggy most of the day and we didn’t find an owl until late in the day. It never made a pass at the bait. Most of the owls we saw were very white, certainly the adults we would have hoped for, but alas it was not to be.”

Time to call it a season on the Great Plains. Matt explained he had family obligations in the coming weeks — you shouldn’t miss too many of your high school senior’s final sporting events, even for snowy owls. And we’re coming up on the point in the season after which we are increasingly reluctant to tag new owls, barring some unusual circumstance, since by early to mid-March the adults may start moving north. As with all of our partners out in the field, we appreciate all the hard work and long miles Matt put into the season. And we hope his son sweeps those last few swim meets.

*  *  *  *  *

Things are pretty quiet on the tracking front, as they’ve been most of the winter. Of the five owls we’re tracking, only Salyer out in North Dakota has been moving much the past few weeks. Since Feb. 3 he pushed out of Ward County, ND, down in McLean County, only to reverse course and loop back north again to an area he’d been hunting at the tail end of January.

Huron, who had made some long shifts south into extreme southern Ontario in the weeks after being tagged, has been pretty sedentary on the Essex/Chatham-Kent municipal line, while to the northeast, Newton keeps using the same small area of farmland on the Perth/Wellington county border. No changes either for Columbia, up near Carman in Manitoba, or Otter just south of Alfred, ON.

I expect within the month, though, we’ll see some springtime restless start to manifest itself, because the days are getting longer, and for the adult males in particular, the urge to start north and prospect for plentiful lemmings and a possible breeding territory is going to become ever more insistent.

A Big (Pleasant) Surprise
What Game?

11 Comments on “A Last Hurrah on the Prairie”

    1. In an average season, I’d be able to find 6 or more Snowies in a two-hour loop north of the Fargo area, but not this year. We’ve only had a few birds nearby, and their appearances have been intermittent. Best I’ve been able to do is locate two birds in one afternoon, with one of those being in MN (and both were south of town, not north). Definitely a slow season.

  1. Rickie Bohn commented on A Last Hurrah on the Prairie.

    “I saw 9 snowies last Saturday, Medina, Woodworth ND area.”

    Seeing and catching are two completely differnet things.

  2. Just wanted to thank all the researchers for the outstanding work they have done over the years to further our understanding of Snowy Owls. Often in extreme weather conditions!

  3. Just wanted to thank all the researchers for the outstanding job they have done over the years to further our knowledge of Snowy Owls. Often under severe weather conditions!

  4. Matt is a pleasant professional who really knows his stuff. I helped him locate a few birds in eastern ND several years ago, and after that brief interaction, I knew any birds he ended up working with were in good hands.

    As Jeannie and Paul said above, thanks to Matt and the other researchers for all they do.

  5. It certainly has been a slow year in Ohio, too, Typically we get a few here in Cleveland (on average 3- 5) each winter along the lakefront and local airports but this year only one was reported in the northwest part of the state in total so far.

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