One of the coolest aspects of Project SNOWstorm’s tracking has been documenting the extent to which some snowy owls hunt waterbirds over open water, a practice long recognized by snowy owl researchers like SNOWstorm co-founder Norman Smith, but rarely quantified in any way until now.
Readers here will recall that earlier this month, Norman tagged Chickatawbut, a juvenile female owl trapped at Logan Airport in Boston and relocated to the mouth of the Merrimack River near Newburyport, Mass. She’s been regular and fairly easy for observers to find, and last week local photographer Sean Riley got some great photos of Chickatawbut feeding on a red-throated loon at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, on the south side of the river mouth. (Warning: A few of the photos are fairly graphic.)
Carrie Gray, a scientist at the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine — one of our SNOWstorm partner organizations, and specialists in loon conservation — had some thoughts on this event.
“March is common time of year for die-offs, particularly among COLOs [common loons] but also RTLOs [red-throated loons],” said Carrie, who is working on a Ph.D. about red-throated loons. “So this bird may have been beaching itself or in poor condition near shore. They also go into shallows and rivers when in poor health. So it was likely easy pickings, as I think it would be very difficult to pull healthy RTLO off the salt water.”
Can’t get enough Chickatawbut? Here’s a great video of her release on March 8, shot in part by drone by Dr. Eugene Potapov, a SNOWstorm collaborator and one of the members of the International Snowy Owl Working Group, which was meeting in Boston and took part in the release. Eugene has used the drone, among other things, to monitor the nests of endangered Stellar sea eagles in Russia, and kept the craft high enough, and far enough away, so it didn’t disturb Chickatawbut on her release. The footage also gives an excellent view of the superb saltmarsh habitat she’s been hunting the past month or so.