It’s been a long time coming, is all I can say.
Last night (Sunday, Jan. 14) my cell phone started buzzing around 7 p.m. Eastern time, as my wife and I were eating dinner. I glanced to see who was texting me, and almost dropped my fork when I saw the words “CTT Check-in Alert: Unit Newton – ATY Male.” Newton, one of our 2023-tagged owls, had finally flown back south into cell range and was transmitting data.
I let out a whoop, but before I could even open the alert to see where Newton was, another one came buzzing through: “CTT Check-in Alert: Unit Hochelaga – A5Y Male.” This was even bigger news, because Hochelaga, an adult male trapped at the Montréal-Trudeau Airport by biologist Julie Lecours of Falcon Environmental on March 2, 2021, and tagged by Becca McCabe from SNOWstorm, hadn’t come south last winter. When he was caught in 2021 they found he was already banded, having been caught there as an adult in 2016 — making him at least nine or 10 years old this winter.
Hochelaga’s transmitter has been busy while he’s been away, and it downloaded more than 25,000 precise GPS positions stored up over the past nearly two years. Newton’s did the same for his movements over the past 10 months.
So where have they been? In spring 2022, Hochelaga migrated across James Bay, up the western side of Hudson Bay and summered on the Boothia Peninsula in the central Canadian Arctic, though his track never settled in one spot suggesting nesting behavior. He then spent the first part of the winter of 2022-23 on the edge of Hudson Bay, right on the Manitoba/Ontario border, later hopscotching south and east from February through May 2023 around James Bay before heading north again. After crossing briefly to Southampton Island, Hochelaga spent the rest of the summer on the Ungava Peninsula an in northern Québec.
That’s also where Newton spent this past summer, and unlike Hochelaga, who never settled in one spot, the tracking data suggest that Newton may have been tending a nest there. (It’s a bit harder to tell with males, since they don’t spend days and weeks incubating, but he remained in a very small area all summer).
Interestingly, both owls remained far north in the Ungava until just the past couple of weeks, then moved rapidly south and back into cell range. Hochelaga moved almost 1,600 km (1,000 miles) in a little more than two weeks, following the edges of Hudson and James Bay and winding up Sunday night just north of Montréal, and only 30km (20 miles) from where he’d wintered in 2021-22.
Newton’s transmitter went dark on Dec. 24, likely from the lack of solar recharge that far north. When it kicked in again on Jan. 2, 2024, he’d moved 160 km (100 miles) south and kept on moving, arriving Jan. 14 near Timiskaming, ON, a flight of 1,300 km (800 miles).
So, why the sudden reappearance? We suspect the belated arrival of serious cold and snow probably played a big role, although Hochelaga has now shown a tendency to remain far north late, even in years he eventually comes south. Ice cover data for Hudson Bay shows the last wee bit of open water and thin ice vanished around Jan. 10, just as they were heading south, which may have chased off any remaining waterbirds. More to the point, we’re hopeful this may shake more of our tagged veterans south into cell range, and bring other untagged owls down here as well.
We’d love to deploy new transmitters on appropriate owls this winter, and the fact that we haven’t isn’t for lack of trying. For example, SNOWstorm team members Charlotte England and Malcolm Wilson (who tagged Newton last year) racked up nearly 3,000 km (1,860 miles) over 10 days banding winter raptors like rough-legged hawks in southern Ontario, but did not see a single snowy owl. They’ll be back out again early next month, and our fingers are crossed their luck will be better.
Meantime, Hochelaga and Newton’s map data will be updated with their recent travels, and will continue to update periodically this winter (though as always, it will be time-delayed by at least 24 hours, so no one can kind where they are at any given moment).