A Long, Long Way from a Mickey D

Scott WeidensaulUpdates15 Comments

There are no Covid-19 restrictions on snowy owls crossing the U.S.-Canadian border, as Dorval demonstrated. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

If you were anywhere near a news feed last week, you know that the biggest snowy owl news didn’t involve one of our tagged birds, but rather the first snowy to appear in New York’s Central Park in 130 years. The owl made a brief appearance on the park’s North Meadows ball fields on Wednesday, Jan. 27, thrilling hordes of birders before disappearing overnight. (I had a chance to talk with CBS News about snowy owls and the risk that climate change poses to them, here.)

While a snowy in Central Park is a rarity, the species is actually regular most winters along the coast in Queens, Staten Island and Long Island, and at metro-area airports like JFK, La Guardia and Newark. And we know of at least one other snowy that visited downtown Manhattan — Baltimore, a young male we tagged in 2015, who on his migration north from the coast of New Jersey that year stopped off on the roof of a 58-story skyscraper next to Madison Square Garden. (It was two in the morning, though, so no one saw him — we only learned of his visit from his tracking data.) Baltimore must not have liked the view, because he quickly pushed on north out of the city.

Dorval has been regularly visiting the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, but almost always under cover of darkness. (©Project SNOWstorm and CTT)

None of our owls made the evening news, but we have some great updates to share regardless. Our last post noted that we hadn’t heard from Dorval in Ottawa in many weeks, her transmitter having slipped into hibernation because of its low voltage — the “valley of death” for solar recharge at this dark and often cloudy time of year. But shortly after we posted that update, Dorval checked in, and she’s been back on the grid ever since, moving regularly between the Central Experimental Farm in the north, and the former Greenbelt Research Farm 9.5 km (6 miles) to the southwest.

What’s interesting about this commute is that, generally speaking, she’s spending her days at Greenbelt and hunting at night at the Central Experimental Farm, a dichotomy that is most easily seen in our interactive map for Dorval, which color-codes each location by daylight, dusk or night. Almost all the GPS fixes for the Central farm are ink-black nighttime dots.

Most intriguingly, between Jan. 18-21 Dorval made a long foray southeast, across the St. Lawrence and into upstate New York near Potsdam and Ogdensburg — a one-way trip of 88 km (54 miles) before returning to Ottawa. Why leave? And why return? There was a decent snowstorm in Ottawa Jan. 16, followed by windy, much colder weather; that may have prodded her to do a little exploring, and such out-and-back flights aren’t uncommon among our tagged owls.

The Potsdam region has an abundance of voles this winter, which one would think would be attractive to a hungry owl. But there might have been too much competition. SNOWstorm team member Tom McDonald was in that area last week and reported large numbers of rough-legged hawks and northern harriers, to such an extent that they made it hard for him to catch snowies for banding. Whatever the reason, Dorval hightailed it back to Ottawa.

Yul has really burrowed into a small area on the south shore of the St. Lawrence. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Yul is another owl that had been out of touch for a week and a half, but she checked in again last week, and has settled into a very small area in the farming region near Baie-du-Fabvre, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence in Nicolet-Yamaska Regional County Municipality, Québec.  A bit farther south, also on the south shore of the river, Alderbrooke remains near Saint-Hyacinthe, although she, too, took a short walk-about the night of Jan. 25-26, flying 34 km (21 miles) southwest and then returning before daybreak.

Straight as the fence rows on which she’s perching. Simcoe’s GPS locations show where she’s making life miserable for Amherst Island’s rodents. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

On Lake Ontario, Simcoe has been shuffling around a bit — staying mostly on Amherst Island, but with occasional forays out to some of the small islands northeast of Amherst (the Brother Islands, Snake and Salmon islands) and to huge Wolfe Island to the east. But the bulk of her time has been spent on the south shore of Amherst, especially one farm where she has (judging from the tracking locations) visited just about every fencepost along both sides of a couple of long tractor lanes. Heaven help the local vole population.

Same old, same old: Columbia has apparently settled in for the winter. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Jumping far to the west, Columbia appears very content in Dickson and Clay counties, Iowa, just southeast of Spirit Lake and Milford. (And speaking of Iowa, I had a great time yesterday discussing Project SNOWstorm and Columbia with members of the Iowa Young Birders and their executive director, Tyler Harms — thanks again for the invitation, folks!)

Scribing a big loop across northwestern South Dakota, Stella was in Grand River National Grassland. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Finally, Stella is the one exception to the rule this winter. While the rest of our birds have found their wintering spots, she has been moving restlessly all winter — unlike previous years, when she, too, found a spot and stuck like a tick. It might be that she hasn’t found a place with a reliably easy food supply, or it may be simple wanderlust. Whatever the reason, after several weeks of stop-and-start movement south and west through the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations in South Dakota, on Jan. 25 she started moving northwest, and for the past few days has been in Perkins County, SD, in the Grand River National Grassland.

The Hugh Glass historical marker near Grand River.

There are two facts about Perkins County that caught my eye. About 15 miles (25 km) due east of her is the site along the Forks of the Grand River (now drowned beneath Shadehill Reservoir) where, in 1823, fur trapper and scout Hugh Glass was mauled by a grizzly and left for dead by his companions on the Ashley Expedition. Glass survived, barely, and literally crawled much of the 190 miles to Fort Kiowa. (A highly fictionalized version of Glass’ story was the basis of the book and movie, “The Revenant.”)

And finally, a couple of days ago Stella was just outside the village of Meadow — which, according to some sources, is the farthest point in the Lower 48 states from a McDonald’s. If Stella has a hankering for a Big Mac, she’s going to have to fly at least 145 miles (233 km). Let’s hope the rabbits and rodents are plentiful there in Perkins County instead.

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15 Comments on “A Long, Long Way from a Mickey D”

  1. Sparkling!! The image of a snowy perched atop a Manhattan skyscraper, the city unaware…and then to fall down the wormhole of Hugh Glass’ story…this is pure Weidensaul!! LOVE IT!

    You’re en fuego, my friend. Keep going.


  2. Great update Scott! Simcoe is loving the menu in that farm. Dorval made it to Ogdensburg? very interesting, that’s where Tom McDonald tagged Oswegatchie years ago!

  3. My first thought about the Central Park Snowy Owl was, why has it not been seen there more often? As you point out, Scott, they are regularly seen all around there. I have only birded at Central Park once, so perhaps there aren’t that many open spaces for them? We have a somewhat similar park here in Michigan, Belle Isle, which was actually designed by the same person who designed Central Park. We have had a few Snowies there over the past few decades.

    1. Good question, and I suspect the answer is that most snowies moving into NYC are going to hang up first on the coastal areas, waterfronts or airports rather than in the city proper — but as our tracking data from Baltimore showed, some certainly make it into the heart of Manhattan without being detected.

    2. The lack of suitable open spaces in the park itself and the presence of superior habitat at multiple sites in the vicinity combine to make Central Park relatively unappealing for the many Snowies that visit the NYC and Long Island region. While the ballfields where this bird roosted for a day are hardly appropriate hunting grounds, I had apparently underestimated the draw of the nearby Reservoir, which is rich with a variety of tasty waterfowl and surrounded by perches with good vantage points. The appearance of the Snowy in Manhattan was a wonderful experience for the many observers, but I hope that this individual continues to stay out of trouble and moves on from the area safely.

  4. I live just blocks from Central Park where the snowy owl was spotted, unfortunately I did not see him, but some of my avid birder friends did. This snowy is smart bird and stayed in a grassy area fenced off for seeding. Park rangers were immediately dispatched to keep him separated from loving fans, although I have to say that Central Park has so many passionate birders that there is almost always someone near to remind you of “best practices” or explain what you are seeing and why. All of us – whether we saw him first hand or through the (long-range) images and story of others were thrilled!

    1. Could be one of our tagged birds — both Alderbrooke and Yul are near there, the former close to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. Look for the black solar panel of the transmitter, high in the middle of the bird’s back.

  5. We’ve had an adult female Snowy Owl at Stephen Gregg Hudson County Park here in Bayonne NJ for a week now. I spotted it along the shoreline of the park, apparently keeping a hungry eye on the ducks that hang out in Newark Bay during the winter. You can see photos on our Bayonne Nature Club Facebook page. Many people are coming and taking pictures from a respectable distance.

    1. Thanks for the report! One of our tagged owls, Monocacy, was in Bayonne a few years back. We don’t know what happened to her, but her transmitter was later found on the ground near the water, with no sign of her (or the transmitter’s Teflon ribbon harness, which was stranger still). We’re not sure if she somehow removed the harness herself, met a bad end at human hands, or just what happened. But she loved urban environments. She’d spent the previous winter in downtown Baltimore, and earlier in her last winter was trapped and moved from La Guardia airport.

  6. If I remember correctly from my Wildlife Bio course most Snowys come down here due to a lack of food in their normal range , J curve pattern of predator prey relationship. The ones that do rarely survive and they are as such an anomaly in this area.

    1. Well, that was long assumed to be the case, but in this case the old received wisdom is incorrect. The truth is almost completely the reverse. (And I’m not picking on you — until recently a lot of professional ornithologists believed many of these old assumptions, too, which as you say made it into textbooks without ever being tested or confirmed.)

      Research in the past 30 years or so has shown that most major winter incursions, like this year’s, are actually the result of a bountiful breeding season in the Arctic or subarctic, coinciding with a lemming peak, and most of the irrupting owls are plump, healthy young of the year. Our work since 2013, necropsying close to 300 snowy owls that were accidentally killed in winter, confirms that most are fat and healthy (until they get hit by a car, plane, etc., or pick up toxins like rodenticides). And our tracking data for many snowies show adults in particular return quite faithfully year after year to the same wintering sites — that old assumption that few of them survive is a myth.

      It appears there was a lot of snowy owl nesting activity in the northern Ungava, the eastern Canadian Arctic and parts of Greenland last summer, although a Covid-related lack of field work last year made it hard to get a good handle on just where they did and did not breed. But to take one example, our colleague Norman Smith in Boston has trapped and moved 23 snowies thus far from Logan Airport, all of them juveniles, all but one (which appears to have gotten a poisoned rodent) fat and healthy, and most of them females.

  7. I find it so interesting Stella has continued to wander this winter compared to her past history of staying put. You mentioned it could be because of the food supply being inadequate or too much competition. I wonder is it possible she looking for one of the places she spent previous winters? Or could it be she be looking for a mate?

    I see that yesterday she was on an island in Lake Sakakawea,. That’s about 60 miles south of me. We’ve got some seriously cold weather starting here. Temperatures this weekend are expected to fall to -27F.

    1. Thanks for raising some interesting questions, Diana. One thing we can say with some certainty is that she’s not looking for a mate — all the evidence shows that snowy owls pair up on the Arctic nesting grounds, not on the wintering area or in migration. The males tend to arrive north first, set up a territory and begin to court passing females, engaging in display flights and bouts of hooting while sitting on prominent perches. Nor do snowy owls maintain pair bonds from one year to the next — because they are so nomadic, mated owls from one season my find themselves thousands of kilometers apart the next nesting season.

      I have no doubt that if Stella wanted to return to a previous wintering site, she could do so quickly and with pinpoint accuracy; many snowies zero in unerringly on their previous territories. And in fact, back in late November, Stella flew right through her 2019-20 wintering site at Whitewater Lake, MB, but kept heading south.

      I suspect she’s been on the hunt for areas with good, accessible prey populations. Because rodent populations are often cyclical, it could be that what was good hunting last year at Whitewater Lake is not this year. Persistent drought across many parts of the Plains may also be having an effect. Snow depth and, especially, snow cover type (deep and fluffy, crusted with ice, etc.) also may play a role — it’s hard to catch food if it’s safely shielded beneath an icy layer. Snowy owls will eat a wide variety of prey in winter, from small mammals to birds like pheasant, prairie-chickens and even large songbirds. (The deep freeze means that open water is probably no longer available, though, and thus no more waterfowl or gulls, which are common prey where present.)

      As long as she’s getting plenty to eat, the Arctic blast hitting the northern Plains shouldn’t be an issue for her — snowies are among the most supremely insulated birds on the planet.

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