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.
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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
(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.
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.