Losing Sandy Neck

Scott WeidensaulUpdates19 Comments

Norman Smith releasing Sandy Neck on Cape Cod, in February. (©Raymond MacDonald)

Norman Smith releasing Sandy Neck on Cape Cod on Feb. 5. (©Raymond MacDonald)

It was an email we never wanted to get.

Sunday night Dr. Rob Bierregaard from Drexel University and the Academy of Natural Sciences — who has been studying ospreys on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts for years — emailed us to say that one of his colleagues had found a dead snowy owl along the beach there earlier in the day, a bird that was wearing one of our transmitters.

It was Sandy Neck, an immature female snowy owl that Norman Smith had relocated from Logan Airport in Boston on Feb. 5, and released at Sandy Neck beach on Cape Cod wearing a GPS/GSM transmitter.

After several weeks of moving along the Cape Cod Bay shore, she crossed the Cape Feb. 24 to its south side. Over the next two weeks she moved back and forth between the mainland, Naushon Island and Martha’s Vineyard several times, before settling in on the eastern side of the Vineyard. She often hunted at night over the ocean off Edgartown Harbor, spending her days along edge of Cow Bay and Cape Pogue on nearby Chappaquiddick Island.

We were watching anxiously to see how she fared during the tremendous snowstorm that lashed Cape Cod last week. On Wednesday, March 26, Martha’s Vineyard was under a blizzard warning, while Nantucket, a bit farther offshore, recorded hurricane-force winds of at least 83 mph. (Some offshore buoys farther north in Maine recorded winds of up to 107 mph, and 40- to 50-foot seas.)

Thursday evening Sandy Neck’s transmitter checked in, and at 8 p.m. EDT — the last location in that transmission — she was at the end of the Oak Bluffs jetty, a perch she’d used a number of times in the past. It appeared that she had made it through the storm just fine.

Instead, she somehow ended up in the ocean, since she was sodden and covered in sand when she was found Sunday, just below the tide line. A preliminary examination by Gus Ben David, who has more than 50 years of raptor experience on the Vineyard, suggests she was in generally excellent shape, still plump and with good fat reserves.

I talked with Norman yesterday, and his first thought is that she might have gotten caught by one of the huge waves that pounded Cape Cod and the islands in the wake of the storm — in fact, a jetty is just about the worst place for a bird to perch in such conditions, because she might not have reacted quickly enough to an especially big wave.

But at this point we’re not sure what happened. Sandy Neck is being transferred to the world-famous veterinary center at Tufts University in Boston, where they will perform a necropsy to try to determine the cause of death. The transmitter is intact, and we’re hoping that with a recharge we can get the remaining data since March 27 — and if it’s functioning normally, Norman may be able to place it on another owl this winter, since there are still many in eastern Massachusetts.

This is obviously bad news, but not entirely unexpected; we were prepared this winter for some losses. Almost all of the snowy owls in this year’s irruption are young birds, making their first migration, and it’s a dangerous period in their lives. While we’ve mostly been concerned about artificial dangers like cars or planes (such as the one that killed Philly in January), this is a reminder that young raptors also face a tough — and sometimes fatal — learning curve from natural hazards, too.

We’ll update everyone when we have more news, obviously.

Sandy Neck update
March 27 transmission update

19 Comments on “Losing Sandy Neck”

  1. Sorry for the loss of Sandy Neck. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying following the migration of the owls. Thanks for this wonderful sight and for keeping all of us informed.

  2. Very sad news.

    The March storm was extremely powerful with a storm surge of 25 feet or more reported on Martha’s Vineyard. When I see the map data, and the roost on that jetty as Sandy Neck’s last reported location …and that storm…
    it is hard to imagine being out there in that wind, with the spray and surge…

    Only a few weeks earlier, on a chilly February day, I had the great pleasure of seeing her take flight, eyes alert, scanning the snowy dunes of Sandy Neck. Her powerful wings lifting her up and away,

    a moment of such promise.

    ..and unacknowledged peril.

    1. For those who might not have realized it, that’s Ray’s beautiful (and now poignant) photo of Norman and Sandy Neck with the post.

      1. I have pictures of a snowy owl on beach Rd between the bridges…on the 24 th
        This bird is much whiter, are there many in that area or maybe it was her?

  3. beautiful girl ..thank you for keeping us all in the loop on these gorgeous fascinating wonders of the world :) rest in peace Sandy Neck

  4. Looks like just bad luck. I used to live in Hawaii and even Japanese/Hawaiian fishermen with a lifetime of experience who would harvest limpets (Opihi) from the rockey shorelines there would sometime fall victim to rogue waves and be found drowned. Sounds like that’s what happened to Sandy Neck. So sad.

    1. It certainly seems that way, though we’re waiting for the necropsy report to be sure. But as others have pointed out, this was the most intense storm of the winter along the New England coast. It’s possible that an older, more experienced bird might have sought shelter farther inland.

  5. This makes me so sad. That owl seemed to be the friendliest one folks encountered on MV, practically smiling for and posing for the cameras. The other three I have been watching in the field seem way more “skittish”. Hopefully Sandy didn’t suffer too much and that her other friends are ok. I saw one just yesterday and the day before. My husband commented how “dirty” it was in our photos, like a little kid all covered in sand. The storm must have been hard on them all. I hope they will make a safe migration soon as a month ago, I watched one being repeatedly attacked by three seagulls. That was before I began observing a group, or would it be a colony of around twenty black backs congregating in the same area (as the Snowy) on a regular basis. It was able to ward off three gulls “dive bombing it” but could
    It twenty black backed gulls?

  6. I enjoy reading all the updates but this was a very sad one. Rest in peace Sandy Neck, soar free in Heaven. I live in MN and have seen the snowies that have been in the Vermillion area after numerous tries but it was worth it they sure are beautiful. An experience I won’t ever forget. I look forward to hearing the good news on the others. So sorry about Sandy Neck.

    1. I am so sorry and sending my thoughts. It is such devastating news and I am as heartbroken as anyone because I have a big heart for. Once again send Sandy ,y thoughts.

  7. I am so sorry to hear about Sandy Neck. She was a beautiful snowy owl…Thank you for letting us know of her passing and the results of her necropsy.

  8. “This is obviously bad news, but not entirely unexpected; we were prepared this winter for some losses” Why? Leave them ALONE! there Moving the Brids Is What lead to there Deaths..Bottom line!

    1. I would respectfully disagree. Sandy Neck was relocated from Logan Airport, and as we’ve seen repeatedly this winter, airports are one of the most dangerous places a snowy owl can wind up — there are have been dozens of snowy owls struck and killed by planes this winter (including one of our tagged birds that was hit after being relocated and flying back). I don’t know what the total is now, but half a dozen were killed at Logan before Christmas, despite Norman Smith’s efforts to move as many as possible. Given that Sandy Neck was relocated almost two months before her death, and had moved quite a bit after that herself, I’m not sure how we can see her death as anything other than the kind of natural mishap that kills a lot of young raptors.

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