Feb. 23 update

Scott WeidensaulUpdates16 Comments

The past week was a busy one for us. Among other things, Dave Brinker and I spent a couple of days on Assateague Island in Maryland, hoping to catch a new female snowy for a transmitter. But while the bird we were targeting gave us a good run, the owl we ended up catching was a diminutive male, by far the smallest we’ve caught this winter — healthy, just a bit too small for us to feel comfortable tagging.

So we banded him, took feather samples and sent him on his way — all very well documented, since we had a film crew from Maryland Public Television and a crew from National Public Radio with us, working on stories about Project SNOWstorm.

Almost all of the transmitters checked in Thursday night, but we haven’t yet updated the maps. Unfortunately, in a few places something we’ve been worried about from the beginning has begun to happen — photographers using our maps to locate and target a couple of the owls, which they then flush repeatedly.

This is not an indictment of photographers in general — in fact, the vast majority have been respectful, considerate and a tremendous help in documenting this winter’s irruption, and our tagged birds specifically. Those folks keep their distance, often using their vehicles as blinds, and make a point of not bumping or flushing the owls. Would that everyone was as well-behaved.

So for the foreseeable future, we’ll be delaying the map updates by one three-day transmitter cycle, to give the birds a chance to move on. So the Feb. 20 map updates will be posted tonight, and tonight’s updates will be posted Feb. 26. We may delay some of those updates even further, if we feel we need to.

Frankly, this won’t help address the worst situation, involving Ramsey in Minnesota, who is a highly owl predictable in a fairly small winter territory, and where a few lazy photographers are routinely feeding him and another snowy owl lots of pet-store mice. But it may help prevent problems from developing elsewhere.

I will share two of the latest updates, though, since the owls involved are moving over wide (and in one case inaccessible) territory.

Erie continues to be one our rock stars, with his over-ice movements on Lake Erie. Earlier this week he traveled to within 10 miles of Buffalo, then looped back to the waters off Port Dover, where he’s spent much of the last week.

It’s fascinating to see patterns develop in his locations. I’ve been struck by how much time he’s spending between the tip of Long Point and Port Dover on the Ontario shore, as you can see here:

Erie's tracks through Feb. 20 on the frozen surface of Lake Erie. (©Project SNOWstorm)

Erie’s tracks through Feb. 20 on the frozen surface of Lake Erie. (©Project SNOWstorm)

And yesterday, when the clouds parted and a good satellite image of Lake Erie was available for the first time in days, it became clear why: There is a big crack in the ice sheets there, with open water that presumably has waterfowl and gulls.

Lake Erie from space on Feb. 22, showing the open water between Long Point and Port Dover where Erie is hunting. (NOAA CoastWatch /Lake Erie MODIS Imagery)

Lake Erie from space on Feb. 22, showing the open water between Long Point and Port Dover where Erie is hunting. (NOAA CoastWatch /Lake Erie MODIS Imagery)

The other big news is Hungerford, an immature female we tagged a week ago on Assateague Island. The coastal owls have been moving widely this winter, with both Assateague and Henlopen moving far up the Atlantic coast from the Delmarva to New Jersey, but Hungerford’s track looks to my eyes like something different.

Hungerford, heading north. (©Project SNOWstorm)

Hungerford, heading north. (©Project SNOWstorm)

Leaving Assateague around dark on Feb. 17, she flew inland and spent the next day along the headwaters of the Pocomoke River, then at dusk on the 18th she started moving north again, this time arrowing basically straight north up the Delmarva past Georgetown, west of Dover and Smyrna and up to the C&D Canal. Here she cut across the narrow head of the Delaware Bay, then crossed west again to New Castle, settling for the day on an old industrial waste landfill.

For the next day she moved around Wilmington, stopping for a few hours near the Wilmington College campus, then after dark at the New Castle Airport before moving north again. She spent the day Thursday near West Chester, Pa., and with dark was heading northwest — her last position was only about 20 miles east of our tagged owl Amishtown, on the fringe of a huge area of open farmland that’s been popular with snowy owls this winter.

We’ve seen a lot of long-distance movement this winter from our tagged owls, but Hungerford’s very straight, very directed northerly flight makes me wonder if we’re seeing the first signs of northbound migration. It’s too soon to say — she could just as easily reverse direction — but in the next month or so most of our tagged birds should start heading north, and I suspect we’re seeing the first signs of spring working on snowy owls.

Final days for Indiegogo
Shuffling off to...

16 Comments on “Feb. 23 update”

  1. Scott,
    Can”t these photographers be delivered a HUGE FINE by U.S Fish and Wildlife officers or the equivalent officers of Minnesota Fish and Wildlife?
    I am confident that Ramsey’s bander, Frank Nicoletti, is keeping an extensive watch on “his” bird and knows the predictability of the offenders’ visits.
    This activity must certainly be in strict violation of the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.

    I, for one, would really like that, and if they are free-lance individuals, but are rather employed by a newspaper, TV/radio station, magazine, etc I think that their employer should be notified of their tactics.
    Furthermore, these folks are obviously following maps and updates on Project Snowsotorm’s website.
    I believe their names should be exposed on this very Project Snowstorm blog/website,; some negative publicity for these named individuals would be terrific!

    1. The fact is, feeding a wild raptor is not against the law, at least not in and of itself, just as feeding songbirds isn’t against the law in and of itself. The issue of harassment, which is illegal, is a murkier question, and that’s a judgement that USFWS and MN DNR needs to make based on the circumstances. But the photographic ethics are pretty clear, and we ask that photographers not feed or disturb snowy owls, especially those like one of the Ramsey birds carrying transmitters.

  2. Thanks for your reply, Scott. It would be wonderful if either of those two agencies had enough documentation (I.e. these individuals’ “own mug shots” if you will, taken by USFWS or MN DNR agents in the field, caught in the act of disturbance (harassment) of these owls.
    It is so unfortunate all-around; as you have already mentioned, pet shop mice or biological supply mice may harbor some disease, absent in the wild populations of rodents that is these birds’ livelihood. In such cases, as you know, the wild owls may not have any natural immunity against diseases found in non-wild pet shop or lab mice.
    It is sooo frustrating that some people, like these individual photographers, always have to buck the system!
    These individuals are non-ethical not only as photographers, but as birders/wildlife observers as well!
    That is why I would hope that they could be singled-,out, fined and if they are going to use the photos taken as part of a sponsored assignment for commercial use, THEN their employers’ organization should be made aware of their violations against code.
    I have ZERO tolerance for such.

  3. The tracking will continue as long as they are in range of a cell tower and have sufficient battery strength. We hope some will return in later years and connect with data in their travels

    1. A polite request, which if ignored and the egregious behavior continues can be followed by the statement that you’re taking down their license plate number and reporting them to DNR for potential harassment. But it’s important to remember that not every photographer flushing snowy owls this winter is an experienced bird photographer — many are just shutterbugs entranced (like many of us) with this winter’s irruption. Many simply don’t know better, which is why a polite, friendly approach is usually best. And sometimes even a good, ethical photographer will think they’re far enough away and inadvertently flush a bird. But there’s no excuse for someone repeatedly pushing an owl into flight, or routinely baiting it in with live prey.

  4. Would it be possible, prior to updates, to tell which owls have checked in? I’ve been waiting for a Cranberry update but as long as I know he’s checked in I would happily wait for the actual map.

  5. I don’t update the map pages HTML but one approach would be to add more of a status panel on the individual owl map pages with something like the following:
    Example 1:
    Latest Data Mapped: 2/20
    Last Check-in: 2/23
    Next Map Update: 2/26
    Example 2:
    Latest Data Mapped: 2/20
    Last Check-in: 2/20
    Next Map Update: Next check-in + 3 days

  6. Scott,
    How long do you expect the transmitters to remain on the birds and is there enough cell phone service in northern Quebec to keep sending data?
    Thanks, Andy Brown

    1. The transmitters will stay on the birds permanently. We debated long and hard back in early December whether to use permanent harnesses or something that would eventually break away, but decided to go with a permanent Teflon ribbon harness because the transmitters can store up to 100,000 GPS locations — more than five years’ worth of data at the rate we’re collecting it. (And we can reprogram them remotely – if we drop to on location an hour, it’s 11 years.) While there’s obviously little or no cell service in the Arctic and subarctic (aside from a few Native villages) we know from satellite tagging that Norman Smith, JF Therrien and others have done that these owls often come south again in subsequent years — not as far south as they did this winter, but far enough to come in cell range in the Canadian Maritimes, New England, the Great Lakes or the northern Canadian Prairies. When that happens, we’ll get a huge treasure-trove of data potentially spanning years, and with the same kind of unprecedented detail we’re getting this winter.

      1. Wow! I didn’t realize the GPS devices would last that long – that is just so cool! I was wondering, would it be too much stress to relocate Ramsey before he gets too habituated to feedings?

        1. There are risks with relocating an owl, too — risks that are worth it when the owl is exposed to, say, the hazards of an airport. Furthermore, relocation requires specific permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and those relocations we’ve been involved with have all been authorized by USFWS and conducted by the USDA and state wildlife agencies because the owls posed a strike hazard at airports. The simple solution would be for photographers to stop feeding the owls, including Ramsey.

  7. Thank you so much for posting such interesting & informative information about these beautiful Owl’s. I love to photograph wildlife & an owl has been on my bucket list for a few yrs. When the Snowy Owl’s came I was ecstatic hoping that would be my Owl to shoot.. I have been following them online & traveling trying to catch a peek. Sadly I have not yet seen one but the pictures on here have been just gorgeous & I keep hoping to get a chance to shoot one myself. I’ve traveled back & forth often between Annapolis,,Severna Park, Sandy Point & the Bay Bridge,Md to Rehoboth Beach,De. to Assateague,Va. & in between luckily I have a cousin in Wachapreague,Va & kids willing to drive me when I am traveling past my health limits.I haven’t gotten an owl but have shot many beautiful birds,scenes & things during my search. I hope to get to Assateague,Md. this weekend. I am sad to hear what is happening with a few photographers & sad the locations are being delayed because that is how I plan where to try next. I do,however understand why you are delaying posting locations just wising I had been lucky enough to catch that glimpse first .It is frustrating the few cause problems for everyone. Thanks to all on here,e-bird the Md & Anne Arundel Co Birding FB pages.I have learned so much since joining & want to learn & photograph even more.Wildlife photography has been my passion,my pain medicine,my relaxation & joy & since coming to these pages it has done nothing but grow & gain more & more excitement. The pictures everyone shares are so wonderful & I enjoy them all.Thank you.

  8. Hi, I have another question. With regard to the small owl you banded at Assateague, is this the owl with the brown sort of smudge on his ear that has been photographed so frequently? If yes, is there any correlation between his size, his behavior (not fleeing human observation) and his size? I read your comment that he is healthy but he seems to be one of the last owls to remain and, as someone who is very taken with these owls, I worry a little for the little guy. Also, if you did have concerns about his or any owl’s health, would you intervene?
    Thank you,
    Robin Zimmerman

    1. That’s the same bird, but I don’t think there’s any correlation between his size and his behavior. Snowy owls are highly dimorphic by size, meaning that there’s a big difference between males and females (like most raptors, females are the larger gender). But they’re also pretty individualistic in terms of how much tolerance they’ll show for people. One of the females on Assateague has been very skittish, while others are quite approachable. That has more to do with personality, and perhaps how frequently they’ve been harassed by birders and photographers getting too close, than anything else. Remember, even though he was fairly small, he was very healthy and had good fat stores — there’s nothing wrong with him.

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