Back to Amherst

Scott WeidensaulUpdates5 Comments

The low sun glints off the ice surrounding Amherst Island, and silhouettes some of the 86 wind turbines on Wolfe Island in the distance at left. Two newly tagged owls on this Lake Ontario island may help us better understand the impact of wind energy development on these raptors. (©Rebecca McCabe)

Things are really happening in a whirlwind here these days, and we have a lot of news to share. Today, it’s two newly tagged owls on Amherst Island, one of the most famous owl spots in North America. (I also made an attempt to tag an owl in northeast Ohio, but came up short — that’s a story for another day.) Tomorrow we’ll have news of still more newly tagged owls, and a general update on the status of our other tagged birds.

Amherst Island has for decades been a mecca for owl lovers. This winter, our team found at least 25 snowy owls there, by no means a record for Amherst. (©Rebecca McCabe)

Amherst Island sits at the northeast corner of Lake Ontario, and is a name that longtime SNOWstorm enthusiasts will recognize. We’ve had a number of tagged owls winter on or migrate through Amherst, including Baltimore, Flanders and Tibbetts — a testament to the draw this island has on snowy owls, as well as many other raptors. Amherst has for decades been a major winter destination for birders and photographers drawn by 11 species of owls, as well as rough-legged hawks and other northern birds.

In December, though, work began on what will eventually be a 26-turbine wind farm on Amherst, a project that has generated a significant amount of local opposition, as well as concern about its impact on birds. While not taking a position on the controversy, we recognized that we have a unique research opportunity on Amherst, which might lend some clarity to the debate over the impact of wind energy on raptors. We already have several years’ worth of movement data from owls on Amherst in the absence of turbines — and a last opportunity this winter to obtain more. Once the wind farm is built, we can then continue the study to see whether the movements and behavior of snowy owls change in the presence of the towering structures — something which, so far as we know, has never been investigated.

Tom McDonald, left, and Dave Okines get Emerald fitted with her transmitter and harness. (©Rebecca McCabe)

So earlier this week a four-person SNOWstorm team converged on Amherst with the goal of deploying up to four transmitters there: Jean-François (J.F.) Therrien from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania; longtime snowy owl researcher Tom McDonald from Rochester, NY; Dave Okines from the Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory in southern Ontario; and McGill University Ph.D. student Rebecca McCabe, who (as we’ll detail in an upcoming post) will be analyzing SNOWstorm’s immense dataset for her doctorate.

Crossing from the mainland Ontario shore on the ferry, they were met at the landing in the village of Stella by Amherst’s own Bird Lady, our friend Janet Scott. “Dayle’s on the radio — why don’t you come say hi?” she asked, and then whisked them a short drive to CJAI, Amherst’s local “born in a barn” radio station, and on whose silo-mounted antenna Baltimore used to perch. J.F. did a quick interview with morning host Dayle Gowan in CJAI’s milkhouse studio, and then they headed out in two

Jean-François Therrien holds Stella, with her new transmitter in place, before returning her to her capture location. (©David Okines)

teams to start trapping. For the next few days, whenever island residents would pass, they’d give the SNOWstorm folks big waves and smiles. “Everybody was incredibly friendly,” J.F. said.

Trapping was a challenge, even though the team estimated that there were at least 25 snowies on Amherst, not only because of the very cold conditions, but also because there was an abundance of food for the owls this year. “There are plenty of voles,” J.F. said, “and the snow cover is thin so they can catch them easily. Some of the owls were catching voles right next to our traps. But both Tom and David were amazing — they were really skilled and highly motivated.”

That first day (Monday, Jan. 15), though, the team kept coming up dry despite all their efforts — until their luck changed at dusk. Both teams, trapping separately, caught large juvenile females as darkness fell, and just a short time apart. They took the birds back to Janet’s kitchen, where they were processed and tagged out of the cold, then released back at their capture sites.

The new birds are Stella and Emerald, named for the two small communities on the island. Both were big, very healthy owls — Emerald weighed 2,135g (about 4.7 pounds) and Stella was 2,379g (5.25 pounds). Since their release, Emerald has been hunting farmland in the eastern half of the island, while Stella has been moving between the base of Long Point at the southern shore and out to the ice up to 3.75 km (2.3 miles) offshore.

Scanning the snowy fields of Amherst Island for owls — a good time for serious cold-weather clothing. (©Rebecca McCabe)

The team continued to trap the following day, experiencing several near-misses, but ultimately had to head home without deploying their two remaining transmitters. Still, the data we get from Emerald and Stella, combined with data from owls in previous years, should give us an excellent baseline for comparing how snowy owls respond in the future to the presence of turbines, which will overshadow many of the areas that snowies traditionally use on Amherst. (In future winters, we also hope to track the movements of owls on neighboring Wolfe Island, which already has 86 turbines.)

We want to extend our sincere thanks to Janet and everyone else on Amherst who was so welcoming and cooperative,  to our colleagues at Kingston Field Naturalists for their assistance in the planning phase of this project, and to federal and provincial officials for facilitating the necessary permits.

Not all of the island residents waved to the trapping crew. (©Rebecca McCabe)

Bancroft and Austin (and Badger and Arlington and...)
Welcoming (Back) Ashtabula

5 Comments on “Back to Amherst”

  1. Huge thanks and kudos to Project Snowstorm for its ongoing research and the exciting placement of transmitters on two Snowy Owls on Amherst Island last week. Thanks to the Project Snowstorm team lead by Dr. Jean-Francois Therrien, Senior Research Biologist,Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for outstanding work in icy cold conditions, to Kurt Hennige of the Kingston Field Naturalists for liaising with the team, to Janet Scott for her gracious hospitality, to Bonnie LIvingstone and Janet for scouting owl locations, to Jean Iron of the Ontario Field Ornithologists for connecting everyone, and to the many Islanders who cheered and supported the team.

    Let’s hope “our” Snowies survive the turbines.

    1. Everyone at Project SNOWstorm is grateful for the help the field team received on Amherst, and as the person who drafted the blog post, I’m sorry I overlooked the several of the contributions that went into making it a success. Thanks for setting the record straight, Debbie.

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  3. Thanks for the great update!! Very important for the research the tagging of snowy owls in Amherst Island with the industrial wind turbines threat looming in the horizon. We’ve been many times to Amherst to see the snowies, I remember seeing Flanders there a couple winters ago, it’s a beautiful place. Welcome to the SNOWstorm family Stella and Emerald!

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