So, the great “Bolt for the North” we were expecting last week didn’t materialize, although one snowy did shift his compass in that direction and one of our long-stationary owls did begin to move significantly — although to the west, not the north. And one of the owls that had been migrating north did a complete turnaround and is back where she started in January.
Anyone who says they can predict exactly what a snowy owl will do is kidding themselves.
We can say that Newton does appear to be gone for the season; his last check-in was March 23 and we’ve heard nothing since, including April 1, which as with all first-of-the-month dates is supposed to trigger a connection from any transmitter within even slight range of a cell tower, even if there’s not enough battery voltage or cell service to send data. Nothing from Newton, who was already at the northern edge of the cell network when he last connected. It’s possible he might be picked up by one of the increasing number of small bush communities with a cell tower, but that will just be dumb luck.
Columbia, who has remained tight as a tick all winter in a small area near Carman, MB, started moving March 24, but to the west, not to the north. By April 1 she had flown 253 km (157 miles) across southern Manitoba (coming just a few kilometers from the U.S. border at one point), before stopping near Grande Clairiere, a Francophone community in the rural municipality of Grassland, MB. Columbia’s last location was just outside the Oak Lake/Plum Lake Important Bird Area, a 654 sq. km (252 sq. mi.) protected area designated an IBA because of its large concentrations of migrant waterfowl and nesting waterbirds like Franklin’s gulls.
Just to the south in North Dakota, Salyer started making some progress, flying about 95 miles (150 km) northwest to parts of Ward and McLean counties where he had been hunting in late February. Back east, Otter and Alderbrooke haven’t budged. Otter is right where he’s been all winter, near Alfred and Plantagenet in southern Ontario, while Alderbrooke is on the north shore of the St. Lawrence near Saint-Barthélemy, QC.
Which leaves us with Huron, who has pulled one of the stranger large-scale movements we’ve seen in our time tracking snowy owls here at Project SNOWstorm. In January she was trapped and tagged on the shore of Lake Huron, then moved to extreme southwestern Ontario for most of the winter. You may recall that in early March she started moving north across Michigan, eventually reaching Lake Superior and the Upper Peninsula, but then turned back south and east again to Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron.
The last few days of March she flew all the way back to within just 23 km (14 miles) of her original capture point in southern Ontario, and she remained there as of today, April 4, moving between residential neighborhoods in Southampton, ON, and tiny Chantry Island just offshore.
Why the huge loop, which in all covered roughly 1,000 km (625 miles)? We obviously can’t know what’s going on in an owl’s head, but it may not be a coincidence that the place where Huron turned around is also the southern limit of significant snow depth, according to NOAA’s National Snow Analysis. Deep snow can make for tough hunting if you’re a snowy owl that keys in on small mammals (compared with, say, water birds) and maybe Huron decided to loop back to easier hunting grounds. But we don’t know — except we do know this is what makes what we do endlessly interesting.