Badger’s Last Flight

Scott WeidensaulUpdates6 Comments

Badger’s final flight, from backlogged 2018 data we retrieved this summer when her transmitter was found. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Last summer, I got a short, enigmatic — but very exciting — email.

” I found a white box that says to contact you if found. The number on it is 57726.”

In July, Jeremy Estes and a buddy were supposed to go diving in the cold, clear waters of Lake Superior around Manitou Island, a few miles off the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Jeremy lives in Dollar Bay, about halfway down the peninsula, and the island is a favorite destination. This time, though, instead of diving they spent the day exploring the 1,000-acre, uninhabited island. That’s when they found something tangled in a tree along the shore — the mysterious white plastic box and white ribbon attached to it.

As readers of this blog likely have already guessed, what he found was one of our snowy owl transmitters, which had an “If found please contact” label epoxied to the side with my contact info. The transmitter was still attached to its woven Spectra ribbon harness.

Dave Brinker with Badger, just before her release near Freedom, WI. (©Mike Senn)

The unit number, 57726, told us immediately that this transmitter belonged to Badger — a first-winter female snowy owl that Dave Brinker had tagged on Dec. 30, 2017, in Freedom, Wisconsin. (The purchase of her transmitter was generously underwritten by the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Public Service Foundation.)

Badger spent the rest of that winter around Freedom, then began migrating north in early May 2018. The last transmission we had from her was May 4, near Green Bay, WI. Where she went, or what happened to her after that, was a mystery for the past three years. And while we now have some answers, thanks to Jeremy, there are still some unknowns.

At our suggestion, Jeremy put the transmitter outside, solar panel up, and to our surprise it came back to life in a few days and transmitted its backlogged data from 2018. We learned that Badger had flown past Green Bay and north through the Iron Mountain region on the WI/MI border, then followed the Keweenaw Peninsula north on May 11, 2018. The night of May 11-12 she flew out into Lake Superior about 25 miles, but turned around and came back to the peninsula, eventually moving out to Manitou Island.

Badger’s movements on Manitou Island, and the area where her transmitter stopped moving. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

That’s where her trail goes cold. Badger’s data suggests she moved around the island for the next two weeks or so, then the unit became mostly stationary on a cove on the northeast side of the island. We have no way of knowing how she died, but she certainly didn’t remove the harness and transmitter and fly away — the harness was still in perfect condition, and sadly, the only way she came out of it was piecemeal.

The most likely explanation is that she was killed and eaten by a bald eagle, one of the few species that really seem to scare snowy owls, and which are common on the U.P. But it’s also possible she died from some other cause and was scavenged, or simply fell into the water and decomposed.

Worn after years along the Lake Superior shore, Badger’s transmitter remarkably still works just fine. (©Scott Weidensaul)

After Jeremy returned the transmitter, it became clear that, however Badger died, her harness and transmitter had spent a great deal of time in and along the Lake Superior shoreline. The plastic case and the surface of the solar panel were pebbled and heavily weathered, just like a well-worn stone — they must have spent much of the past three years being endlessly rolled and crashed among the waves and shoreline rocks. (This is the ultimate “takes a licking and keeps on ticking” endorsement for how rugged CTT’s transmitters are. The Spectra, which we now use instead of the traditional woven Teflon ribbon for harnesses, was also in near-mint condition. This stuff is tough.)

At some point the transmitter and harness got tossed — by huge waves, or maybe picked up by a curious bird like a raven or a gull — up into a shoreline tree, where the harness became tangled. That’s how Jeremy and his buddy found it.

We considered having CTT refurbish the unit so we could deploy it again, but the experts there felt the technology had advanced enough that we were better keeping it as a testament to Badger, and using newly built transmitters for our 2021-22 deployments. So Badger’s transmitter has a place of honor on my book shelf, a reminder that the world is a hard place for a young raptor — and that we sometimes have the privilege of peering into that world through our tracking.


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6 Comments on “Badger’s Last Flight”

  1. It saddens me to think Badger may have (…there’s always hope) met her end near the Keweenaw in Michigan. Even then, the knowledge you have from all of the snowies and all of their transmitters is remarkable. Here’s to Badger, a beautiful snowy owl who contributed to our general understanding of snowie behavior. Thank you so much for including the general public in this scientific research.

  2. I know all created creatures must die; I knew Badger had not been heard from in quite some years. Now time for tears; yes I am hopeless as a distanced scientist. Love for our fellow travelers even if we never meet face to face makes us human.
    I am grateful to Project SNOW Storm for making the information and imagery available. Just yesterday I was searching sightings of Snowy Owls in the lower 48 to see how I might see one of these magnificent birds.

  3. Another appreciative reader of the compelling fact-based story you wove about Badger and her transmitter. I’m in awe of the durability of the CTT transmitters; an electronic device surviving that kind of outdoor environment for years and still being functional is simply amazing.

    Huge thanks to Scott and the rest of the Project SNOWstorm crew for all they do!

  4. I have been a follower for some years now and wanted to share something my Podiatrist shared from hunting bear a couple of weeks ago. He was (as best I can relate) in Schuylkill County, Pa. and they were hunting bear. He spotted a white form and, as he approached it, realized it was a Snowy Owl. I shared about your Website and he assured me he was going to look it up! Perhaps another follower?!

  5. Jan 10, 2022 , reports on a Snowy Owl cruising and/or perched o’er Union Station in Wash., D.C. makes me want to visit and look about…thx for this interesting report on Badger. I’ll follow my instincts on this new interest of mine.

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