North, Then Not

Scott WeidensaulUpdates5 Comments

That’s quite a little midweek getaway that Newton took. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

As we noted last week, both of our veteran snowy owls, Newton and Hochelaga, have been off the grid for a week or two. In my most recent update, I noted that both had very low battery voltages before they went dark, so that their radio silence probably had to do with low solar recharge that’s not unusual at this time of year, but that in the case of Newton, who had made a big move just before vanishing, it might have been because he was in a place with poor cell reception.

And boy, was he ever. Newton checked in last night (Sunday, Feb. 18), uploading almost 300 GPS locations; when I checked the notification on my phone, his “Current Location” map showed him right where we’d left him, near Heaslip and Tomstown, ON. But when I downloaded his data, I had a huge shock — Newton had in the previous 12 days made a remarkable flight roughly 375 km (230 miles) due north to James Bay, where he hung out for the better part of week, and then flew all the way back to his starting point!

Why? That’s a good question. As the days get longer we often see snowies, especially adult males like Newton, getting antsy; they need to get back to the Arctic and, ideally, find a place where lemming populations are high so they can stake out a territory and be ready to attract the attention of a passing female. (Snowies show no fidelity to previous nest sites, and can move thousands of kilometers from one summer to the next, and thus show no year-to-year fidelity to their mates, either.)

Arriving on James Bay, Newton hung out for five days around Hannah Bay and the mouth of the Harricana River. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Last winter, also in mid/late February, Newton left his winter-long spot in southern Ontario and made a huge loop south of Lake Huron over the course of several days before returning more or less where he started, remaining there for several more weeks before finally migrating north March 20, 2023. This new flight may have been a similar expression of some pre-migratory restlessness, but it was a lot of flying. On his way north, he left at about 10 p.m. Feb. 7, and was on the shores of James Bay, at the mouth of the Harricana River by daybreak on Feb. 9. Newton spent about five days moving around the edge of Hannah Bay, then headed south about 9 p.m. local time on Feb. 13, arriving back where he began about 2 a.m. Feb. 17.

And along the way, Newton also apparently found some bright sun and (presumably) highly reflective snow, because his battery voltage is topped off completely. So while his little vacation north was undoubtedly cold, it was also sunny.

Hochelaga remains off the grid as of last night. There was an eBird report yesterday of a snowy owl that the observer thought might have been Hochelaga at the Montréal-Trudeau airport, where Hochelaga likes to hang out, but no confirmation. The local forecast is showing a lot of sun this week, though, so I’m hopeful we’ll hear from him before too long. Loren, our newly relocated airport owl, continues to be a good girl, staying put near Masseuville on the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River where she was released.

All Back in Touch
Introducing Loren

5 Comments on “North, Then Not”

    1. Not our first rodeo, I guess. We’ve been through this many times with the vagaries of solar recharge and cellular dead zones, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there’s a sigh of relief when they reappear.

  1. Flying looks easy for large birds (not so for hummingbirds) , so a round trip of about 500 miles to check on the lemmings seems like a reasonable way to spend a couple of winter weeks! Why not? But really I wonder about the energy cost/benefit, the risk and reward; or what goes on in an owl’s head

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