Northward Bound

Scott WeidensaulUpdates16 Comments

Spring is coming, and the owls are leaving -- four of the Pennsylvania-tagged birds all made significant northward flights in the past week. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Spring is coming, and the owls are leaving — four of the Pennsylvania-tagged birds all made significant northward flights in the past week. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

There’s no longer any doubt that spring is working on our cadre of tagged owls. Four of them have made dramatic northward movements — and three of them have shown the kind of striking similarity in their paths that seems unlikely to be a coincidence.

Four of the five Pennsylvania owls — Erie, Amishtown, Womelsdorf and Wiconisco — have moved hundreds of miles north into New York and Michigan in the past week. (The fifth, Millcreek, has been out of cell contact since he headed out into Lake Erie’s ice sheets Feb. 26.)

Erie is the farthest north, having flown west across Lake Erie, up Lake St. Clair and into Sanilac County, Michigan, in the “thumb” of the state about 75 miles north of Detroit. Except for Saginaw Bay, the west shore of Lake Huron is largely ice-free, so this most ice-happy of our snowy owls may be land-bound for the near future.

I’m fascinated to see how all three of our Pennsylvania farmland owls (Amishtown, Womelsdorf and Wiconisco) have moved in fairly tight concert on a slightly northwesterly track into Steuben County, New York. Then Womelsdorf and Wiconisco hooked left and went right through Buffalo, with Wiconisco reversing course and backtracking about 30 miles from the city, while Womelsdorf flew right through downtown Buffalo and out onto the frozen eastern end of Lake Erie.

This is also the first time we’ve been getting altitude and flight speed data from owls on what is clearly migration, instead of local movement — one of the tremendous advantages of these GPS/GSM transmitters. Here’s a segment of Wiconisco’s flight, from Dauphin County to Tioga County in Pennsylvania:

The elevation profile for Wiconisco shows him climbing gradually as he crosses into the Allegheny High Plateau, flying up to 1,400 feet above the ground (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

The elevation profile for Wiconisco (read right to left) shows him climbing gradually as he crosses into the Allegheny High Plateau, flying up to 1,400 feet above the ground (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

You can see how he climbed gradually to a maximum altitude of 2,289 feet above sea level — about 1,400 feet above the ground as he approached the Allegheny High Plateau. As the ground rose beneath him, he lost a little altitude so that he was soon cruising just a few hundred feet over the flat-topped mountains, finally coming down at the Grand Canyon Airport near Wellsboro, PA.

Amishtown’s track (below) shows a bird that hugged the ground a bit more, rising and falling as ridges and valleys appeared beneath him, generally staying within a couple hundred feet of the ground. You can see two stops in valleys, including one along the west branch of the Susquehanna at the Williamsport Regional Airport.

Amishtown's track (read from right to left) shows a high flight, two stops in river valleys, and more ridge-hugging than Wiconisco exhibited. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Amishtown’s track (read from right to left) shows a high flight, two stops in river valleys, and more ridge-hugging than Wiconisco exhibited. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Most of the winter we’ve been using a duty cycle (the program that tells the transmitter how often to record a GPS location, and when to dial up the cell network to transmit the accumulated data) that takes a GPS reading every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day. But CTT’s transmitters can record 60 times that much data — one location every 30 seconds.

We’ve been anxious to try this, although we knew such a duty cycle would be a challenge for the solar recharge system. But the transmitter on our final 2014 owl, Monocacy, has had an especially robust charge. So on Friday, the team at CTT uploaded an experimental duty cycle to our final tagged owl of the season, Monocacy. (This immature female was relocated from the Martin State Airport in Maryland two weeks ago and immediately flew back to Baltimore, though thankfully not to the airport again.)

At night, her transmitter is now recording a GPS fix every 30 seconds and transmitting every morning, giving us an extraordinary level of detail into her nocturnal movements. She’s remaining very much an urban owl, staying within the Baltimore metro area. Before dawn Sunday morning she flew south across the Inner Harbor to Wagner’s Point, then after dark last night flew back up the harbor and made a big loop to the northeast, along the Back River and into the Elwood Park neighborhood north of Patterson Park.

Monocacy's movements since Saturday, with locations collected every 30 seconds. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Monocacy’s movements since Saturday, with locations collected every 30 seconds. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

It’s interesting that this owl, which is the most southerly of the birds we’re tracking, hasn’t shown any movement to the north. SNOWstorm collaborator and veteran snowy owl researcher Norman Smith has found that most snowy owls depart Massachusetts from about March 19 to April 14, so she has some time.

We’ll still update Monocacy’s map every third day, and we’re trying to decide how best to present this fire hose of incoming data from her — more about that soon. Last Friday’s updates for the other owls will be posted later today — many of the birds I haven’t had room to discuss here are also doing remarkable things in their own rights, as you’ll see if you explore the updated maps.

When an Owl Goes to Church
Busy week!

16 Comments on “Northward Bound”

  1. Hi, amazing information. Was Monocacy released with the other owl you relocated from Martin State? Is it possible they had a social relationship of some sort? If yes, is it possible she would be seeking the other owl again?



    1. Those owls were released in separate locations. It is unlikely there was any sort of social relationship. These owls are young and focused on survival at this stage in life. Releasing them in different locations minimizes competition for resources should they stay in the new place and also minimizes the chance of predation of one of the owls by the other.

      1. I agree with Steve on this — basically all of the interactions we’ve observed from snowy owls this winter have been aggressive, so I wouldn’t worry about us splitting up socialized birds. The vast majority of the owls in this winter’s irruption are juveniles born last summer, so they’re not mated, and the evidence suggests that young snowies don’t mate until their second full summer, so they should have another year before they pair up.

        1. Thanks again for the reply, all very interesting. I have only seen Snowy Owls at Assateague but each time I have seen one it has been close at least one other. I assumed this meant there was a social relationship but it sounds like your experience says this is more likely about good feeding areas and not any sort of bond?

  2. It just doesn’t get any better than this… to have been fortunate enough to photograph seven snowys and follow the ongoing educational research trail is so stimulating. A once-in-a-lifetime irruption–if that is what this turns out to be–is priceless. Thanks to all that have given an endless amount of time and effort to this cause.

  3. There has been a male/female in the St. Catharine, ONT region this winter…from what I heard from the locals, they were there last year as well. Should they come back to the same field area for a 3rd year in a row, would you think of tagging them? I did see them being baited once last year by photographers…don’t know about this year.

    1. I wouldn’t necessarily jump to the conclusion that the owls at St. Catharines this year are the same ones that were there last year — almost all the owls making up this year’s irruption are young birds, for one thing. Also, a place like St. Catharines, on the Lake Ontario shoreline, is just naturally attractive to snowy owls. That said, we’re already thinking about where Project SNOWstorm goes from here, and we’re planning to tag snowies next winter, when the numbers will be much lower and the flight will likely be made up largely of adult owls.

  4. Fascinating opportunity to follow their movements as they migrate by your maps! Hope to see more updates.

  5. Any thoughts on the status of Duxbury? Last map update is as of Feb 28, shows the bird on the roof of the NECCO candy company in Revere, just north of Boston. Thanks.

    1. We’re not sure what’s happened to Duxbury. Her transmitter was holding a good charge, then suddenly dropped below 3.2v, at which point they go into sleep mode until the charge comes back up again. The unit actually checked in March 14 and transmitted about 69 locations from Feb. 27-28 (which are on the map), along with the voltage reading, but we haven’t heard from it since then. There are a couple of possibilities — a mechanical glitch that’s preventing recharging, or a mishap that damaged the owl or the transmitter. For instance, a bird that was hit by a vehicle might be lying on its back, preventing the transmitter from charging. We just don’t know, which is obviously frustrating. There are a couple of transmitters we haven’t heard from in a while, and in some cases we may never learn what the problem was. On the other hand, we’ve had owls check in after many weeks, so we’re not giving up hope on them.

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