Scott WeidensaulUpdates19 Comments

The wind catching under her wings, Century prepares to head back to the wild (©Raymond MacDonald)

The wind catching under her wings, Century prepares to head back to the wild (©Raymond MacDonald)

Back in December, when the magnitude of the winter snowy owl irruption was becoming clear and we conceived the outlines of Project SNOWstorm, we set a pretty audacious goal — to tag more than 20 snowy owls this winter with GPS/GSM transmitters. Given that we had no funding and about a week’s planning, it may have seemed more foolhardy than audacious.

But three months later, we can finally take a breath and celebrate. Thanks to incredible public support — from hundreds of individuals and dozens of organizations and agencies who contributed money, and dozens of collaborators contributing their time and expertise — we marked the end of our tagging operation this weekend with our 21st and 22nd transmittered owls.

In Massachusetts, the 21st bird was herself a milestone. “Century” was the 100th snowy owl that SNOWstorm collaborator Norman Smith, of Mass Audubon, trapped and safely relocated away from Logan Airport in Boston. An immature female, she was also the biggest owl he’s caught this winter, weighing 2,627 grams, or nearly six pounds.

With a crowd of onlookers to mark the occasion, Norman released Century Saturday afternoon at Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Massachusetts, well north of the airport. Photographer Raymond MacDonald was on hand for the event, and we’re grateful for his photos.

Norman Smith talks snowy owl biology with a rapt crowd at Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge, waiting for Century's release. (©Raymond MacDonald)

Norman Smith talks snowy owl biology with a rapt crowd at Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge, preparing to release Century. (©Raymond MacDonald)

To put this winter’s irruption in context, Norman has been studying the snowy owls for 33 years, and his previous record year for the most snowy owls he’d caught was 53. Adding those he’s banded this winter away from Logan, his total exceeds 135, and he may end up tripling his previous record.

Our final tagged owl of the winter was released Sunday. “Monocacy” was trapped, along with another snowy owl, at the Martin State Airport near Baltimore by Dave Brinker and Steve Huy. Monocacy was relocated to private farmland in northcentral Maryland where there’s good grassland habitat.

Meanwhile, the owls we’ve been monitoring are showing some signs that the lengthening days and melting snow are having an effect. We’ve seen the first indications of northbound movement over the weekend, which given the immense flights of geese and swans through the mid-Atlantic, wasn’t a surprise.

Wiconisco's track FGriday night, flying 94 miles from Dauphin County to Tioga County in Pennsylvania (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Wiconisco’s track Friday night, flying 94 miles to Tioga County, Pennsylvania (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

One bird — Wiconisco, just tagged last week — made a 94-mile overnight flight almost due north, from central Pennsylvania to near the New York border. And Ramsey, who had been bunked down in his namesake town in Minnesota for months, suddenly has a case of wandering wings — although he’s not moving north. And Erie, still on the frozen lake of the same name, is shifting his activity area to take advantage of the widening margin of open water along the northern shore.

Watch for these and other map updates on Tuesday. As always, we’re delaying release of the specific movement data by three days for the safety of the birds.

Class photo
Number 20!

19 Comments on “Goal!”

  1. I am new to this site, but I was baffled about two weeks ago by a large bird in the bare branches of the maple tree outside of my window. It was big and the whitish/golden breast stood out against a blue sky. It was “earless.” It sat in the tree for about 20 minutes. This was no blue jay….my usual visitors. site…..35 mi SE of Syracuse in the “rolling” and snowy hills of Central NY State.

    I told another substitute teacher about it….he is an environmentalist/skier ….and he said, “It sounds like a snowy owl.” I was originally thrown off, thinking they were pure white…..with ear tufts ….Since then , I have been in my grandmother’s bird books!

    Its whitish golden breast was striking……mottled tail feathers….and when it took off, it was huge.

    We have a wonderful assortment of N eastern birds here…including a few bald eagles….seen only occasionally. I am on a small lake and we have resident blue herons. Thanks to this blog, I will learn more ….and hope that Mr/Mrs Owl liked it enough here to make a return perch in the old maple tree.

    1. That’s the one — and the same owl that I banded originally in State College Jan. 31, and which was moved to Perry County, PA, to get him away from the State College airport.

  2. I assume that once these birds move to their home in the north, the transmitters will no longer be in range and we will get no further data on their movements?

    1. That is correct if they all return to areas with no cell towers (which is likely). After this spring migration north, we will be waiting for any to return close to civilization in future years, at which point they will transmit all of the location data they have stored since the last time they checked in.

  3. living here in syracuse, we have seen a number of snowies each year at our airport and on the lake in oswego. they gather each year on peninsula point, west of watertown on lake ontario’s NY north side. to see them dive for prey is such a thrill. thank you so much for all this hard work; i am ecstatic that i found your site from nor. question: re pic of carcasses around nest…do they actually arrange them around the nest like this? do we know why ? this sounds silly, but are they eaten in order?

  4. What happened to the other owl caught when Monocacy was trapped? You don’t mention that one being tagged or released.

    1. That bird was banded and relocated, too — sorry we didn’t make that clear. Our focus in this posts has primarily been on the transmitter-tagged owls, but the banded birds are also an important part of the research, not only because as marked individuals they help us track snowy owl movements, but because they also provide feather, blood and DNA samples.

      1. Did you relocate Monocacy and the other owl together to the same location? Were they together in some way? The owls I have been fortunate enough to see were always in relatively close proximity to another.



  5. Just a little information from here in Minnesota. I was personally able to see and photograph 9 different Snowy Owls around the south central part of the state. I noticed a mass departure from 7 of those 9 owls this weekend. One pure white Snowy was still in the farm fields in Vermillion, MN and another of these beautiful birds was struck by a car on Thursday night on a gravel road. I saw no other sign of the other owls anywhere in their usual areas. Ramsey and the other nearby Snowy were not in their usual locations on Saturday, though, I think I did see Ramsey in another location, not too far away. It was such a pleasure to witness these majestic birds and how they adapted to areas that were sometime far different than their homeland is.

    1. Yes, Ramsey has been on the move, and we’ll have have updated maps for him and many of the other owls tomorrow. We’re definitely seeing a degree of wanderlust starting to kick in as the days get long, although only some owls, like Wiconisco, have made northerly flights. In some cases, the movement away from long-established winter territories may be a reflection of what German ornithologists call “zugunruhe,” meaning pre-migratory restlessness. Ramsey’s recent movements (which have been south, not north) may be an example of this. He’s getting the itch to go, but is not quite ready to scratch it.

  6. I have photographed and seen just two weeks ago (March 4, 2014) a snowy owl on the PA/OH border on frozen Pymatuning Lake. He enjoyed being close to the causeway which connects Andover, Ohio & Espyville, PA.
    My friend (who is a high school biology teacher) had one land in her back yard because she lives right on the lake and she was able to watch it cough up its pellet. After the bird left, she went out and retrieved the pellet to show her biology class. She also teaches a local wildlife class so of course she was loving her special up close and personal visitor!

  7. A beautiful Snowy Owl was sighted on Presque Isle, Erie, PA on Tue, 23 Dec 14. My wife Rosie and I spent 15 minutes photographing it as the Snowy just sat on a log near the water and posed for us. We were some 30 feet away from it and it didn’t seemed frightened by our appearance. It was a real magical experience for both of us.

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