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Buckeye, the first SNOWstorm owl in Ohio, takes off under a frigid winter sky. (©Kate Zimmerman)

Buckeye, the first SNOWstorm owl in Ohio, takes off under a frigid winter sky. (©Kate Zimmerman)

Project SNOWstorm has its first Ohio owl — Buckeye, an adult female tagged through the cooperation of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Oak Harbor, Ohio, and the Kirtland Bird Club in Cleveland, along with USDA’s Wildlife Services, which trapped and relocated her.

Buckeye was a repeated offender at Detroit Metro Airport in Michigan. She was first trapped there in mid-January by Wildlife Services, relocated 80 miles and released — the standard procedure for moving snowy owls away from airports, where they are a significant plane-strike hazard to themselves and the aircraft.


USDA biologist Brian Washburn, left, and BSBO research director Mark Shieldcastle with Buckeye, after they finished harnessing her. (©BSBO)

USDA biologist Brian Washburn, left, and BSBO research director Mark Shieldcastle with Buckeye, after they finished harnessing her. (©Terry Breymaier)

Unfortunately, she came back. Last Friday the owl was caught again at Detroit. This time, she was taken to northwestern Ohio by Dr. Brian Washburn, research wildlife biologist for the USDA. (Brian was also instrumental in tagging Alma, our first Michigan owl, and has been working with us in several states to learn more about the behavior of relocated airport owls.)

Brian and Mark Shieldcastle, research director for Black Swamp, tagged Buckeye with one of our GPS-GSM transmitters, which was sponsored by BSBO and the Kirtland Bird Club. Then she was released in open farm country in Ottawa County, Ohio, about 50 miles (80 km) south of Detroit.

This has been a long time coming. Mark and BSBO executive director Kim Kaufman had hoped to deploy a transmitter on an Ohio owl last year, but the opportunity never presented itself.

Buckeye’s transmitter was initially programmed to report daily, and the first transmission showed that she wasted no time in making tracks. She left Ottawa County’s lovely habitat as soon as it got dark Sunday night, and looped about 30 miles (48 km) northwest to Toledo. She stopped for a breather on the high stacks of the PFB refinery, south of the Maumee River, then continued north through the city.

By 5:30 a.m. Monday, when her transmitter checked in, she was less than two miles (3.2 km) from the Michigan border. We assumed that Buckeye the Ohio owl was about to become a Michigander once again.

Instead, Tuesday morning’s transmission showed she looped south of Ottawa Hills and spent the day in a commercial strip area with a lot of offices and light industrial buildings. After dark, she spent much of the night on top of an immense pile of mulch in an otherwise vacant lot – probably a great hunting spot.

Buckeye's almost-to-Michigan-and-back route over the past couple of days. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Buckeye’s almost-to-Michigan-and-back route over the past couple of days. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Then she took to the wing again. At 5:30 a.m. Tuesday she was flying southwest, back into the farmland of northern Wood County, right on the edge of the Toledo sprawl — and away from Michigan.

Because she’s moving so far, so fast, we’re not withholding her location data for a couple of days, as we usually do, and you can follow Buckeye’s movements on her tracking map with the most recent data.

Tuesday morning  her transmitter took up a new duty cycle, so she should check in again Thursday, and then weekly on Thursdays thereafter — an energy-saving measure to conserve battery power through these long winter nights. Depending on whether she’s still moving widely, or has settled down, we may withhold the new update for a couple of days.

Buckeye’s already proven to be one of the more interesting owls this winter, and I suspect she’s going to continue to be — although the best thing she could do is find some nice, quiet stretch of farmland and plunk herself down for the rest of the winter. Drama’s really not what we’re looking for from these birds; safety is.

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6 Comments on “Buckeye”

  1. In checking on Buckeye’s transmitting signal, it shows no updated movement (unless I’m reading the map wrong) since 2/17/15 at 5:53a.m. Do officials in this project go and check for sightings or wait for new signals?

  2. You have to remember that we’re not getting continuous, real-time location data. The transmitters continually log GPS locations, but are programmed to send the accumulated data via the cell network at preset intervals, which we can change as needed. 

    When Buckeye was released, her transmitter was programmed to take GPS locations every 15 minutes, and transmit them to us at about 11 a.m. UTC (6 a.m. EST) daily. Once we were sure the unit was working properly, we sent it a command on the 17th to switch to our normal duty cycle, which is 30-minute intervals for GPS locations, and a transmission of the accumulated data every Thursday evening. 

    Assuming she’s in cell range, we should get her data from 5:53 a.m. 2/17 to about 7 p.m. 2/19 — and then we’ll get weekly updates thereafter. We’ve chosen this duty cycle because it’s the best compromise between regular transmission of data, and conserving battery power — dialing up through the cell network drains a lot of juice from the solar-powered battery, especially on short winter days.

    It’s also important to remember that just as your phone sometimes hits a dead zone, so do the transmitters; when that happens, it just waits until the next scheduled check to try again. We’ve learned to have patience; sometimes an owl “disappears” for a couple of weeks at a stretch. Also, we usually delay posting the latest movement data to give the owl some breathing room — we’ve had a few cases where birders and photographers got a little too close, too often.

  3. I
    live on Rt. 25, between Perrysburg & Bowling Green. Last winter, as I was
    walking out to my barn, I came within 10 feet of one of these beautiful females
    sitting on a nearby fence post. She just sat there looking at me for what seemed
    like a very long time, 2 or 3 minutes, and then she slowly opened her wings and
    gracefully flew up and around the area not far from me, before flying
    She was
    stunningly beautiful and did not seem to be afraid of me. And there I was,
    without my camera! 
    that day, I had only seen pictures of snowy owls. I remember thinking that the “Polar Vortex”
    had messed up her navigational abilities… or perhaps she knew something that
    we didn’t:)    Rusty

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