To our friends in the U.S., we hope you had a happy Thanksgiving this week, and here’s hoping everyone in the SNOWstorm community, everywhere, is remaining safe and healthy during this trying and difficult time. For all of us at Project SNOWstorm — and we suspect for many of you as well — the natural world has been a source of solace and refuge during the pandemic.
When we launched Project SNOWstorm in 2013, we scarcely imagined it would quickly grow into one of the largest and most ambitious studies of snowy owl ecology in the world — but thanks to our dedicated crew of biologists, banders and veterinarians, backed by thousands of supporters around the globe, it has.
The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously forced us to alter our plans. For example, we had hoped to deploy half a dozen or more satellite transmitters this past summer on fledgling snowies in the Canadian Arctic. However, that field work (and, in fact, most scientific work in the North) was canceled to prevent the spread of the virus to isolated bush communities, many of which know firsthand from the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 how devastating such outbreaks can be.
That said, we are proceeding with some opportunities as we can, especially since this is shaping up to be an excellent flight year in the Northeast and Great Lakes, with a few snowy owls sighted as far south as the Eastern Shore of Maryland in early November — an exceptionally early movement that far south.
One of our highest priorities remains working with airport managers to study the best ways to relocate snowy owls away from airfields so they stay away. Over the years we’ve tagged more than 40 such relocation owls at 13 airports in the U.S. and Canada. Doctoral candidate Rebecca McCabe at McGill University in Montréal is heading up the analysis of all that data. Our hope is to tag additional snowies this winter at airports in the St. Lawrence Valley and Midwest, to balance our geographic sample, which is heavy on New England locations.
The other big news is that some of our previously tagged owls are coming back into cell range and uploading all their data from the past seven or eight months. So far we’ve heard from three of our veteran owls. Simcoe, an adult female tagged last February on Amherst Island, ON, as part of our examination of how the construction of wind turbines on the island may affect snowy owl behavior, sent a brief “I’m here!” signal on Nov. 1, but wasn’t in a spot with enough cell service to transmit her location, much less any of her backlogged data. We’ll have to wait to see if she comes farther south to an area with good cell reception.
On the other hand, we got full data uploads from Stella and Columbia, both of whom checked in for the first time within minutes of each other on Nov. 12. Columbia, you may recall, was an adult female tagged in January by Gene Jacobs at Madison (WI) Audubon’s Goose Pond Sanctuary. She headed north in April, following the western edge of Hudson Bay to the Melville Peninsula, crossing to Baffin Island, then veering west and eventually reaching Prince of Wales Island in the central Canadian Arctic of Nunavut by mid-June.
There’s no indication from the tracking data that Columbia nested, though as a two-and-a-half-year-old bird, she might still have been a little young to breed. (The age at which snowy owls usually become sexually mature is still unclear.) She had several areas where she spent weeks at a time, but never showed the singular focus on one spot for six or seven weeks that would indicate a nest.
Columbia began moving south in mid-September, again following the western coast of Hudson Bay to Cape Churchill, where she headed southwest across Manitoba. By Nov. 19 she was near Canora, in extreme southeastern Saskatchewan.
Stella is another Amherst Island bird, a female tagged there in January 2018 as a first-winter bird. Her first migration north she, like, Columbia, took a westerly route, and has remained west of Hudson Bay ever since. In 2018-19 she wintered in northeastern Montana, while last winter she was in southern Manitoba just north of the U.S. line, at Whitewater Lake near Boissevain.
Her new data shows Stella migrated north through Nunavut, though not going quite as far as Columbia; instead, she fetched up on King William Island in the Beaufort Sea. Here again, there is no evidence that she nested, and likely for the same reason — she just turned three this summer, which may or may not be old enough to nest. Stella also began moving south in mid-September, and she appeared to be making a beeline back to Whitewater Lake, where she wintered last year.
Instead, this past week she continued on to the south, through Stutsman County, ND, an area where longtime SNOWstorm team member Matt Solensky does a lot of his snowy owl banding. Matt might be feeling a little paranoid these days, as Stella flew almost directly over Matt’s house on her way to her last location on Nov. 27, in Barnes Co., ND.
Thanks to his hybrid GSM/satellite transmitter, we were also were able to keep track over the summer of Otter, the adult male tagged a couple of years ago in New York, and who wintered last year near Montréal. He spent the summer on the Foxe Peninsula of southern Baffin Island, just across Hudson Strait from the Ungava Peninsula. When the unit is out of cell range we only get a few locations once a week, just enough to see where the bird is, but not enough to say if, for example, it was nesting. If Otter comes back south to cell range, as we expect he will, we should get a full data dump of all his stored GPS locations, which will give us a very clear picture of his summer. (Until then, his interactive map does not include his summer Argos satellite data.)
So, lots of exciting developments already, and the season is just getting started. As always, we’ll be updating you all regularly — and as always, none of the work we do would be possible without your donations, which provide 100 percent of the support we receive for Project SNOWstorm. We realize this year is very difficult for a lot of our friends. If you’re able to make a contribution this season, we’re even more grateful than usual. If not, no worries — we’re still glad you’re along for the ride, and you can help by sharing the work we’re doing with your friends and families.
Stay safe and well, everyone.