A Whole Lotta News

Scott WeidensaulUpdates28 Comments

By comparing Redwood’s flight feather molt pattern a year after he was originally banded, we get a better sense of the molt sequence in adult snowies — and thus improve our ability to age them in the hand. (©Steph Boardman)

Whew! Where to start?

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks, and we have a lot of news to cover since the calendar flipped over to 2021. One owl has gone AWOL, one has been recaptured and relieved of his transmitter, and another old friend unexpectedly sent up a signal flare.

Let’s start with Dorval, who had been wintering in and around Ottawa, including periodic visits to the airport. The folks at Predator Bird Services, who provide avian control at the airport, trapped her on Christmas Eve on the airfield, holding her overnight until bander Marcel Gahbauer was able to check her out, take measurements and then get her relocated. (Marcel is an old colleague of ours from his years of banding northern saw-whet owls.)

Unfortunately, they did not realize that the voltage on Dorval’s battery was about to tap out; she’s one of those birds who likes to bury her transmitter down in her back feathers, and we’re entering what we think of as the annual “valley of death” for solar recharge — short northern days, low sun angle, and a lot of winter clouds in the Ottawa River valley. Once her transmitter voltage dropped below about 3.6v the unit went into normal hibernation, and it will take some sustained sun to bring it back — but it should do so before long.

Freed from his faulty harness, Redwood is ready to go back to the farmland east of Ottawa. (All those dark flecks on his head and face are feather lice, which are common to all birds but especially obvious on a snowy owl.) (©Steph Boardman)

Fortunately, the connections we made with Marcel and Predator Bird came in very handy this past week, when we realized we had an issue with Redwood. He’s the adult male that Tom McDonald tagged last winter in New York, and who was wintering just east of Ottawa this year. Last weekend, a birder posted a photo on eBird of Redwood, which showed that he had somehow (presumably) bitten through one of the shoulder straps on his transmitter — quite a feat, since we and other raptor biologists have used woven Teflon for harnesses for decades because of its terrific strength and wear resistance.

While the transmitter was still reasonably secure, we didn’t want to risk further problems. Marcel, Steph Boardman at Predator Bird and her boss, Stephen Bucciarelli, immediately offered to help trap him — and if we could get an emergency permit from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Rebecca McCabe could race over from Québec and fit Redwood with a fresh harness. The ministry was extremely helpful, and we had the permit within 24 hours.

Tuesday evening Redwood checked in, and Wednesday Steph headed out to search for him, armed with his latest tracking data. Easier said than done; by early afternoon not only had she not found him, but worse, the province had issued another COVID-19 lockdown order, set to take affect at midnight. Because Redwood’s unit wouldn’t check in again until Thursday at 7 p.m., we had no way of knowing just where he was.

By luck, just at dusk Steph and one of her colleagues found Redwood. Although there was big female snowy in the area — and the larger females often chase away smaller males like Redwood — they were able to catch her first, then Redwood.

Because of both the impending Ontario lockdown, and a COVID-imposed curfew in Québec, Rebecca was unable to meet them to swap harnesses. So we had Steph and the crew simply remove Redwood’s transmitter, and after fully processing him (weighing and measuring him, assessing his overall condition — excellent — and making careful note of how his wing molt has changed since he was first captured) he was released back where he’d been caught.

Obviously, we would have preferred to continue tracking this stunningly white adult male, but our first responsibility was to his welfare. Better to have him untracked than wearing a bad harness. We’re deeply grateful to the Predator Bird Services folks for their help, and we look forward to working with them and with Marcel in the future. We also plan to switch our harnesses to a new, even stronger synthetic material, Spectra, with which we’ve been experimenting.

Wells, photographed last winter in Québec City. (©Simon Villenueve)

The other big surprise last week was the briefest of signals from Wells, one of our oldest veteran owls — an adult female first tagged four years ago in Maine, and who has wintered every year since in Québec City. We last heard from her in early April 2020 as she was heading north through southern Québec, but on Jan. 11 we got a single blip from her transmitter — no current location, and only a few stored data points from last April as she was heading north. Her battery was so low that even sending those few dozen points shut it down again.

Andy McGann at CTT was able to look under the hood, so to speak, at the raw metadata coming into their server, and he confirmed that the signal was picked up at a Canadian cell tower — and fairly close to a tower, based on signal strength. (Cell privacy restrictions prevented him from knowing just which tower it was, or where.) We’re betting she’s back in Québec City again, but her battery is now getting pretty old, and it may not be holding a charge as well as we’d like. The past two years it took until mid-winter for the charge to build up and for Wells to start communicating regularly. Our fingers are crossed that’s the case again this year, but we’ll have to see.

As for the rest of the 2020-21 crew, they are fine and have been hanging tight since our last report. Stella remains on the Cheyenne River Reservation near Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Columbia is southeast of Spirit Lake and Milford in northwestern Iowa, and Simcoe is patrolling the farmland of Amherst Island and the nearshore waters of Lake Ontario, including occasional trips to Wolfe Island, Pigeon Rock and the Brother Islands. In Québec, both Yul and Alderbrooke have settled down nicely in the farmland east of Montréal, south of the St. Lawrence River.

Stella’s winter hangout, northwest of Lake Oahe on the Missouri River, in the Cheyenne River Reservation of South Dakota. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Alderbrooke’s and Yul’s winter territories in southern Québec; Alderbrooke is commuting about 28 km (17 miles) back and forth between two areas. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

A Long, Long Way from a Mickey D
A Yul-etide Visit

28 Comments on “A Whole Lotta News”

  1. My name is Shawn Reamer and I live in WI. We have had some sightings here. The one I have seen is in Fox Lake county. They are very beautiful. Although I have not got that once in a life time shot I still enjoy seeing them.

    1. Glad to hear you’ve been seeing some snowies this winter, Shawn. The Fox River Valley is usually a hotspot.

    1. Thanks again for help in checking on her last winter, Simon! We’ll keep our fingers crossed that she’s back and starts checking in regularly.

  2. Wow… That is a lot of news. Keep up the good work and such a STUD Redwood is. (Swoon)

    Be good ladies. We don’t want to hear about any Airport Rave Parties you got invited to. Besides, airport voles aren’t as tender and juicy, you should know this by now.

    1. And here’s some more news — Sunday evening Dorval checked in, still using the old Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, and a couple of other sites to the south, including farmland east of Goulbourn. Best of all, she’s staying away from the airport, at least in this limited number of locations from the previous few days when her battery voltage improved.

    1. Lauri, looks like your email address came though on this end, though it doesn’t show on the public comments.

  3. Redwood looks stunning! Good to hear the Predator Bird guys could trap him to remove his transmitter. Maybe there’ll be a chance to refit him with a new one later.
    That’s great news about Dorval!!! Thanks for all the updates and the hard work to better understand and protect these wonderful birds.

  4. Hey Scott,

    We always have a few Snowies in Cleveland, Ohio every winter. This winter at least two are hanging out just North of Downtown Cleveland on the outer break walls and Burke Lakefront Airport on Lake Erie. Do you have any plans of trying to tag any Snowies in Cleveland?

    1. Because of COVID restrictions and precautions, we don’t plan on doing any tagging in Ohio this winter, unfortunately. It’s upended a lot of our plans.

  5. My son is turning 9 years old February 7th and he’s infatuated with owls. Is there a place we can go to try to spot an owl?

      1. Amy,

        If you are living in/near Sault Ste Marie, MI (not sure if that is the same city), then there have been multiple Snowy Owl sightings in the last month in the Rudyard area (about 20 miles SSW of you), and also a few in Pickford (about 22 miles south of you).

        Good luck in finding some owls!

        1. Thanks for the suggestions on Amy’s behalf, Dan. The Pickford area has long been a snowy hotspot on the UP, and we’ve tagged several owls in years past there, though none this winter.

    1. Well, you might have to wait a long while, David — there aren’t even any historical records of snowy owls that far south in CA, I’m afraid. But then, you never know…

    1. Actually, we never did offer tee-shirts, back in the day when we were providing perks for various levels of support. There were SNOWstorm logo winter toques from PRBY Apparel (whose founder, Paul Riss, allowed us to adapt his SNOW design for our logo), and I know some folks had their own long-sleeved tees and sweatshirts made with our logo, but we never got into it ourselves.

  6. Beautiful story! We have had several sightings in Dane County, Wisconsin this winter. Thank you for your work.

  7. Hi Scott,
    Is anyone doing any tracking of the snowy outside of Carlisle, PA. As M wrote, it is a pretty vulnerable spot with all the attention it is being paid in a field just off a main road between Carlisle and Mechanicsburg. We live a few miles away now.

    1. We’ve been following the situation there, with conflicting reports about how well or badly some folks have been behaving. Our recommendation has been for folks nearby to report harassing behavior to the PA Game Commission, in the hopes that they will have the local game warden or deputies monitor the situation.

  8. Hello,
    My name is Larry and I am an avid outdoor person and love owls… We have two snowies that I’m aware of on a windmill farm in Fenner NY. We too have a number people that trespass along with harass these beautiful birds. The local Conservation Officer is aware of the problem and hopefully will stop the bad behavior!

    Thank you for all you do for the owls!
    happy birding!

    1. It’s always a great idea to alert your local conservation officer if someone’s exhibiting bad behavior around snowies (or any sensitive wildlife). Thanks for reaching out to NY DEC.

  9. I saw two large birds in a bare tree in Warren MI yesterday. I tried taking pictures and video but I couldn’t zoom enough to see many details.
    These were large birds, in the same tree. Tail feathers lie an owls, darker at the bottom, and not always spread out. The heads looked to be more rounded than flat, like an owls. Belly was white. I said out loud,”what are you” to prompt them to repeat the single sound that made me look up. It wasn’t a ‘hoo, hoo-,hoo” but one single note. Could there have been snowy owls?

    1. Sue, it’s possible, but the fact that these birds were perching in trees makes me suspect they were red-tailed hawks. Redtails have a behavior called “high-perching,” a territorial display in which they face the sun and flare the upper chest feathers — from even a short distance, the impression one gets is of a huge, all-white bird. That said, snowies certainly will occasionally tree-perch, especially at dawn and dusk when they’re actively hunting.

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