Losing Buckeye

Scott WeidensaulUpdates13 Comments

Selena Creed with Buckeye, just before her release in early january. (©Black Swamp Bird Observatory)

We’ve seen some major migration to the north this past week, including one owl that is most of the way to James Bay — but the biggest news is the saddest, because we’ve lost one of our oldest and most interesting owls.

You’ll recall my relief last week that, having survived a winter at Detroit Metro Airport (DTW), Buckeye was migrating north, and had reached southern Ontario just north of Georgian Bay, where she checked in the evening of March 21. My relief was premature; I should have remembered the hard lesson we’ve learned over the years, that migration is probably the most dangerous period in any bird’s life, including a snowy owl’s.

On March 28, she checked in again — and hadn’t moved at all since the previous week. We knew that meant either (best case) a dropped transmitter, or more likely a downed owl. DTW biologist Selena Creed, who had trapped and relocated Buckeye twice this winter, would ordinarily have raced north herself to check, but with coronavirus border closures that wasn’t possible.

Instead, Selena made a lot of hurried connections and was able to reach Ontario provincial conservation office Mitch Turcott — who, despite a lot on his plate, offered to snowshoe back to the remote area from which we were getting Buckeye’s signal.

Mitch was able to make the hike yesterday, April 6, and the news was as we’d feared. He found Buckeye’s remains, with the intact transmitter; tracks showed that a fox had scavenged the carcass, so there was no way to determine the cause of death, but Officer Turcott said it was in such an out-of-the-way place he doubts humans had anything to do with it.

“I guess knowing she passed during migration of, presumably, natural causes is better than having her get smacked by a plane on her wintering grounds,” Selena emailed Mitch. “Still, it’s sad to lose a bird with such a history.”

And Buckeye had quite the history. She was first tagged in February 2015 after being relocated from DTW to northwestern Ohio, where Mark Shieldcastle and the staff at Black Swamp Bird Observatory fitted her with a SNOWstorm transmitter. We tracked her for a couple of seasons until the unit failed — and were thus surprised when Selena (with whom we had not previously worked) caught her at the Detroit airport Christmas Eve.

Plans to retag her were scuttled by logistical issues, so Selana moved Buckeye north for release — but she came back, and was caught again New Year’s Eve. This time Mark and crew were able to give her a new transmitter, and we were really looking forward to seeing where she went this summer as a mature eight-year-old. It was not to be.

* * * * *

Now at least six years old, Wells has made the busy riverfront of Québec City her winter haunt the past few years, where Simon Villeneuve got this and other great photos. (©Simon Villeneuve)

Wells’s transmitter, fitted when she was moved from the Portland, ME, airport in 2017, is still riding beautifully. (©Simon Villeneuve)

The migratory pull that was working on Buckeye is pulling a lot of the other owls, too. Several of them are where they’ve been all winter (including Wells, in Québec City, where we’re grateful to Simon Villeneuve for sharing the terrific photos that he’s been taking of the old girl). Simcoe is still on and around Amherst Island, while Coteau (SD), Medina (ND), Stella (MB) and Pettibone (SK) are also on their respective winter territories.

Others have moved north a bit, or a lot. Amherst has bounced around southern Ontario, having left Amherst Island, and on April 5 was near Tweed. Redwood last checked in March 22 near Ottawa and hasn’t transmitted since then; the same for Dorval over near Montréal, who was moving north on March 22 and has been out of contact since. It’s likely both birds moved far enough up into Québec to get out of reliable cell range — it doesn’t take a lot of northward movement to leave the dense cell network.

Yul did the same thing, migrating rapidly north March 25 and in three days covering 400 km (248 miles). On March 28 she pinged a cell tower from her location west of the Ashuapmushuan Wildlife Reserve, a dozen kilometers from Québec Highway 167. We may get lucky with her again, but I suspect that’s the last we’ll hear from her this spring.

Otter, who wintered close to Yul and Dorval in the St. Lawrence valley, also skedaddled without connecting to a cell tower — but because his transmitter is an Argos hybrid

Yul and Otter have both made long flights north — and the only reason we know Otter’s location is thanks to his hybrid transmitter. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

(which is working despite the apparent loss of the external satellite antenna) we know that he’s way north. Yesterday, April 6, he was another 286 km (178 miles) north of Yul, and a full 700 km (430 miles) north of where he’d wintered — deep in the muskeg and boreal forest of northern Québec. The nearest inhabited spot is Nemiscau, a largely seasonal Cree village about 60 km (38 miles) to the northwest.

In the Midwest, Fond du Lac had been off the grid for a while, up on the doorstep of the Upper Peninsula. She checked in last week, though, and it appears she made a huge loop across northern Wisconsin, the U.P., out onto the Keweenaw Peninsula on Lake Superior, and then back south past Marquette to Green Bay, where she spent a fair bit of time out on the ice.

A rarity this winter, the distinctive track of an owl riding on slow-floating ice — in this case, Fond du Lac on Green Bay. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Columbia is still pushing northwest — at this rate she’ll hit the Rockies before spring. Having left southern Wisconsin the beginning of March, she’s now in Towner County, ND, near the town of Cando, and only 30 miles (50 km) from the Canadian border. Pearl is just south of her in Stutsman County, which isn’t that odd; she’s been in the Dakotas all winter — except that in the past two weeks she made a 600-mile (nearly 1,000-km) flight way up into southeastern Saskatchewan, then turned around and came all the way back. We’ve often mentioned snow depth as a reason northbound snowies might pause or reverse course, but that wasn’t the case here — the snow is pretty much gone everywhere along that route. The “why” of behavior like this is what makes this research so fascinating.

Columbia (blue) seems to be heading for Stella’s spot in Manitoba, while Pearl (purple) made an big flight to southern Saskatchewan before returning to North Dakota, close to Medina (red). (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Attaboy, Otter!
The Pull of Spring

13 Comments on “Losing Buckeye”

  1. So very sad to lose Buckeye, especially at this time. Fly high and peacefully, old Friend. Thanks to everyone at Project SNOWStorm and special thanks to Ontario Provincial Conservation officer, Mitch Turcott of the for his efforts to find Buckeye.

  2. Very sad to hear this news. Such beautiful birds! Thank you to all that made great efforts to find Buckeye! Fly high with the angels now.

  3. Thanks to all of you for doing this project and for caring enough to invest yourself and your
    time in it. And a giant thank you to Officer Turcott for saying a hard yes to locating Buckeye instead of the easier no. Wish it had a happier ending.
    A Snowy Owl was on Long Beach Island on April 7, sitting on driftwood on the beach.
    Is it one that is transmitting to you?

  4. So sad to hear about Buckeye. Thanks for all your efforts and thanks to officer Mitch Turcotte for snowshoeing to get her!
    Good to hear about the other snowies. We saw Redwood’s map too late and were hoping he’ll check-in again, but guessed he’d move north. Great photos of Wells!

  5. Was heartbroken this morning to hear about Buckeye. Always loved reading her journey and how she loved DTW and how she was repositioned. She will always hold a special place in my heart. Special thanks to the officer who took time out of his day to find her.

  6. So sad for your loss , there was a white Male with a tag in buffalo , but not a transmitter , any idea of who would of tagged him .

  7. Thank you for all your efforts to continue to track owls. I was wondering what the longevity of the snowy owl? RIP Buckeye

    1. The oldest wild snowy, based on fairly limited band recoveries, was more than 19 years old. Assuming they have a similar lifespan as great horned owls, their closest relatives, 6-10 years is probably about average — though great horneds are sedentary, so they miss the dangers of a snowy’s migration. Given that male snowies may not breed until they’re at least four years old (we really aren’t sure) they have to be a fairly long-lived species, though.

  8. I look forward to these updates and am saddened to learn of the loss of Buckeye. Years ago, when we were on our farm in North Central Pa, I am reasonably sure we had a “Snowy on one of our fence post. I did get a picture of it although it was taken from to far away. One finally question, are Snowys know to “hoot”? Back on the farm we would, although rarely, hear them near of home in our pines?!

    1. Kenneth, male snowy owls have a deep, penetrating hoot, but they almost never vocalize on the wintering grounds — only in the Arctic and subarctic when trying to attract a mate or defend their territory. And they tend to avoid pine forests…might you have been hearing great horned owls, which hoot a lot in mid-winter?

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