An Early Gift: Simcoe’s Back!

Scott WeidensaulUpdates6 Comments

Simcoe’s meandering journeys north from Amherst Island and south from the Ungava Peninsula. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Back on Nov. 1, we had tantalizing whisper from one of our 2019-20 class of snowy owls — Simcoe, an adult female we had tagged last February on Amherst Island in eastern Lake Ontario. The first of each month, all the transmitters are programmed to send a simple “I’m here!” message if they’re in cell range, even if the signal is so weak that no data can be transmitted.

That was the case with Simcoe. There was no data, just a location — 53.186905 N, -78.452179 W. That spot is halfway down the eastern side of James Bay, and apparently just close enough to the Cree community of Wemindji, 31 km (20 miles) away at the mouth of the Maquatua River, for her transmitter to send up that signal flare.

Charlotte England of the Simcoe (ON) County Banding Group preparing to release Simcoe last February. (©Rebecca McCabe)

And then silence. We expected Simcoe to show up farther south, but almost two months went by — until dusk on Dec. 22, when she checked in with nearly 11,000 stored GPS points, and the news that she was right back on Amherst Island again.

Her data from the past nine months, since she left Amherst March 30 and immediately dropped off the grid, present an interesting contrast with Dorval, another adult female tagged last winter in southern Canada. Dorval, as we discussed in a previous post, made an extraordinary beeline to the northern Ungava Peninsula, settled down to nest, and then made a very quick, equally direct flight south in November. No wandering around for her.

Simcoe was significantly more meandering in her travels. She didn’t reach the northern Ungava until the end of May, having spent more than a month at the southern tip of James Bay before angling northeast across the middle of the Ungava Peninsula, making a huge loop south again over Ungava Bay, and finally reaching her end point about 60 km (36 miles) east of Hudson Bay along the Kovik River  on May 28.

That densest concentration of tracks in the lower left? That was Simcoe’s nest site. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

There she, like Dorval and the adult male Redwood, whom we tracked to the Ungava this summer, settled down to nest — the cluster of thousands of points through June and July make that clear. During that period, she rarely strayed more than a few hundred meters from her nest site, an area of about 70 ha (170 acres).

She expanded her movement range significantly in mid-August, when the chicks would have been gaining more independence and beginning to do some of their own hunting. She did a huge loop around the northwestern tip of the Ungava in late September and October, not starting south until Oct. 25. This time she hugged the coast of Hudson Bay, then cut across James Bay and spent early November south of Akimiski Island on the western shore, then loafed for several more weeks at Hannah Bay, the southernmost point on James Bay, close to where she had stopped in April.

Closing the circle — Simcoe’s route out to Pigeon Rock in Lake Ontario, and back up to Amherst Island from were she started. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Dec. 12 she left again, moving south for the next 10 days across southwestern Quebec and into Ontario, passing through Algonquian Provincial Park, Prince Edward Point and out into Lake Ontario. After a brief rest on the tiny island of Pigeon Rock –a spot she had visited several times last winter — she flew the last 13 km (8 miles) back north to Amherst.

Her return to Amherst will not only bring a familiar face back to an island that really, really loves snowy owls, it will provide us with more of the data we initially tagged Simcoe to collect. She is one of four snowies we’ve tagged since a large wind farm began operating on Amherst, so we can compare their movement data to those from a number of snowy owls we tracked on the island prior to the turbines’ construction. This information should help us understand to what degree,  if any, industrial turbines alter the behavior of this species, which prefers landscapes with wide, unbroken horizons.

In the meantime, you can enjoy following Simcoe’s wanderings yourself — all of her movement data is ready to explore on her interactive map. And if you’re in a position this year to help, we’d be grateful for your tax-deductible donation, which is the sole support Project SNOWstorm receives. (And for the many generous folks who have already helped out — we can’t thank you enough.)




A Quick Update

6 Comments on “An Early Gift: Simcoe’s Back!”

  1. Hey Scott- Can you do a blog post or create a section on the website with more details on how the owls are captured ( at the airports) and re-released in a safer area? Also the transmitter where it’s attached on the owl, would it be visible in flight in an image. Thanks in advance .

  2. These owls are going to stop coming to Amherst island because you post where she is and then we are having up to 100 car LOADS a day coming over and hunting for her. No respect, climbing fences and trespassing to get to her. If you love owls and nature stop invading her feeding ground. We barely get snowies anymore compared to the numbers 15 years ago.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Helen. We take the safety of our tagged birds seriously, and from the beginning we’ve been careful about sharing too much information about them — including our current mapping system, which has an automatic delay of 12 hours (so, in other words, no one can tell where the owl is in real time). We have never condoned disrespect of the birds or private property, and we have always urged the public to watch snowies (and all owls) without disturbing them, or their human neighbors. The large numbers of birders coming to Amherst this winter may be seeing Simcoe, but she only returned to the island a few days ago, so she’s not the main draw. The surprising number of short-eared owls on the island this winter appears to be the main attraction for many birders.

      As you know, Amherst has been a destination for owl-watchers for decades, and owl tourism there has grown dramatically the past 10 or 15 years. With more people have come more problems with poor behavior by some birders and photographers. But regarding snowy owl numbers on the island, it’s important to remember that the prey density (primarily meadow voles) has a lot to do with the year-to-year variation in the number of owls, as does the intensity of any particular winter’s snowy owl flight.

      We’ve been grateful for the help of many island residents over the years, both in monitoring our tagged owls that showed up there, and in assisting our research teams the previous three winters as they trapped and tagged four snowy owls to help understand the impact of the island’s wind farm construction of their movements.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *