Oh, Canada!

Scott WeidensaulUpdates8 Comments

I was going to draw some sappy Valentine metaphor tonight, but the fact is, we feel like kids at Christmas every time the transmitters check in — and tonight in particular.

I was relieved to see that Amishtown is staying put in Lancaster County, at least for the moment. He’s wandered around a three-mile-by-three-mile area, but this evening was back not far from his release site, close to where several other snowies have been all winter. I hope he stays, and steers clear of the Philadelphia airport.

But the big news was the reappearance of Erie, who’s been off the grid for more than two weeks. We assumed he was out on the ice on Lake Erie — and man, was he ever!

Since he last checked in on Jan. 27, he’s wandered 276 miles around Lake Erie, crossing into Canada, looping around Long Point, coming briefly to land in the town of Hickory Beach, Ontario, and at 7 p.m. Friday was about a mile off Port Dover. This is the biggest movement of any owl we’ve tracked, and one of the most dramatic.

Erie's 276-mile track across and around Lake Erie, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 14 (©Project SNOWstorm)

Erie’s 276-mile track across and around Lake Erie, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 14 (©Project SNOWstorm)

Millcreek, which had been hanging out almost exclusively at the Erie airport, also decided to get some ice time, moving in the past 24 hours out onto Presque Isle Bay and the Erie waterfront.

Henlopen's track (including a bit that shows the transmitter being driven to Cape Henlopen Sunday). (©Project SNOWstorm)

Henlopen’s track (including a bit that shows the transmitter being driven to Cape Henlopen Sunday). (©Project SNOWstorm)

Henlopen, one of our newest owls, failed to check in tonight. He was tagged Sunday at Cape Henlopen, Delaware, and by Tuesday evening had flown around the top of Delaware Bay into New Jersey. We’ve had some technical glitches getting his map up, but should have it soon — and with luck, we’ll hear from him on Monday evening with an update.


Sandy Neck's movements over the past three days. (©Project SNOWstorm)

Sandy Neck’s movements over the past three days. (©Project SNOWstorm)

In Massachusetts, Duxbury has moved up the coast to Scituate, where she’s been fairly sedentary. Sandy Neck, on the other hand, left that beach where she was released last week, moved up the coast past Plymouth, and this evening was on Duxbury Beach.

Our Midwestern owls, in contrast, continue to stay pretty much where they’ve been. Kewaunee, Freedom and Ramsey are proving to be real homebodies, with very clearly delineated, rather small ranges. It’s obvious that their winter territories are providing them with what they need — but the excellent condition of all these owls suggests they’re eating very well, whether they’re on the coasts or inland.

So why the huge differences in the distances some of these birds are moving? I suspect it may be an inherent difference in the landscapes they inhabit.

On the coast, the habitat is linear and more or less continuous; there are few limits for an owl on the move, and when they start flying, there’s not much to stop them.

On the lakes, the restricting (or liberating) aspect is the ice edge. On Lake Ontario, you can see by Braddock and Cranberry’s movements how the ice margin is extending farther and farther from land — five miles last week, more than seven miles this week. It provides them with a base for hunting, and an easy ride when the wind moves the ice sheets, which are for the most part not shore-fast.

Braddock (left) and Cranberry's movements, often riding the ice margin that hangs five ti seven miles offshore in Lake Ontario. (©Project SNOWstorm)

Braddock (left) and Cranberry’s movements, often riding the ice margin that hangs five ti seven miles offshore in Lake Ontario. Lots of ice-floe riding with the wind for these two.  (©Project SNOWstorm)

Lake Erie, which is now largely frozen, is simply an expanse with no real features except for the increasingly scarce cracks of open water. No wonder Erie was just meandering around.

The inland farm/prairie birds, on the other hand, have no leading lines to pull them away from their territories. It’s fascinating to see the same species react in very different ways to very different habitats.

Buena Vista, whose transmitter has been only sporadically communicating, continues to be sighted in the general area of his release in late December. And Assateague’s transmitter uploaded new instructions this week, but didn’t check in tonight — we don’t know why.

Duxbury relaxing
Amishtown joins the crew

8 Comments on “Oh, Canada!”

  1. As for Ramsey in Minnesota, you should be aware there is some controversy brewing on the MOU email list/serv. As you may already be aware of, bird is being baited with lab mice for photographs. It’s happened a number of times now, unfortunately. The other Snowy that inhabits the cell tower next to Ramsey’s territory has been baited as well and not just once or twice. These owls are in a congested area of human habitat which includes a rail line and a two-lane busy freeway. The safety of these owls is already at high risk. My personal feeling is that “baiting” these creatures only increases that risk. My question then, since there is human interference with these birds, could that also encourage their range to be so limited? In other words, since humans are feeding them often, would that not encourage the owls to wander less in their territories? I’m not sure that their ranges would be so limited if this practice was not engaging them. Thus, you may not be getting a “true” picture of their range habits for research purposes.

    1. We’re aware of the situation in Ramsey, and very concerned about it. Jim Wright of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune has been writing about it, among others. The photographers feeding pet store mice to the owls are creating a situation in which the birds are becoming increasingly habituated to humans, which in a congested, suburban environment is especially risky. There’s also the fact that Project SNOWstorm has invested thousands of dollars and a lot of collaborator effort in tagging Ramsey in order to learn how a wild snowy owl lives — not to track a bird that’s being fed by photographers too lazy to wait for natural behavior.

      It was our understanding that most of the feeding is targeted at the other, untagged snowy owl and not Ramsey, but that appears to be changing — and it’s not justified in either case. While it’s not illegal, it is wrong, and we urge the photographers who are tossing mice to these owls to please stop.

      1. So I was out there to see the owls in Ramsey County today. There were baiters there feeding the owl that is across the road from Ramsey. They said that they do not feed the one the is Ramsey. They stay over near the one that likes the cell phone tower. It seems to keep to the tower and the fields near the tower. And does not appear to go near the busy road or the 4 lane highway or railroad tracks. The baiter was very descret and asked how I felt about baiting. I told him that I was afraid that the baiting would habituate the owl to people. And in doing that I feared that the owl would get used to cars and may fly at the cars and get hit and subsequently killed. I also asked where the mice were from to which he replied they were from someone who raises them to feed to his snake. I was afraid that if they were coming from a pet shop that they might have diseases. Not that someone who raised them for a snake would not have them but I felt the mice would be less likely to have diseased than pet shop mice. On the other hand how different is feeding the owls mice from feeding birds in the back yard ? That is a question that has to be asked too. I just hope that these owls in Ramsey County do not get hit by cars, trains , or other human type of moving vehicle. They are special and I would be greatly saddened to hear of any of the three of them found dead.

        Jean Kelley

        1. We hear the “It’s just like feeding birds in your backyard” justification all the time, but that’s a false analogy, I think. Given their naiveté around people, snowy owls can be habituated to humans much more quickly than songbirds with an inherent fear of people. More importantly, large raptors are also at significant risk from people who want to harm them, both down here during winter, and in the Arctic, where they are hunted for feathers and meat by Natives. In both places, habituation places them at direct risk. Finally, once they learn to approach people for food they can’t discriminate between those who might welcome the approach and those that would be terrified of a huge owl flying toward them — and respond violently. That’s especially likely in a suburban area like Ramsey.

          1. Scott,

            Thank you for getting back to me. After reading others’ comments, I’m trying to understand the justification of feeding one owl but not the other with feeder mice. It appears there are those that think feeding interference is okay for some owls but not for all. This makes no sense to me. Is not the cell phone tower owl just as important and just as vital as the “transmitter owl”, Ramsey? Or is this owl less important so we can do what we want with it for our own reasons? From my own perspective, I can’t seem to justify feeding one owl over another. I witnessed this “feeding” with the cell phone tower owl and I watched the owl come within a foot or less to the mouse handler with mice. The second time I watched the feeding take place, the owl came even closer. I found it sitting nearer and nearer to the “feeding” site without much hesitation to come in to pick up a meal. I had mixed feelings about this occurrence and did not photograph this happening. Instead, I left the scene and went to look for Ramsey which I did find. At another time, I also came upon a van of individuals with a local news station who asked me if I had seen either of the owls. I had not at that time and was later glad I had not. The individual I spoke with was not interested at all in the owls per se but instead only seemed to want to locate one of them, presumably for some “great photo shots”. I found this person aggressive and insensitive. He did not seem to be a “birder”, so to speak. At least not to me. He also asked me if I had taken any photos of them. I had but they were not with me at the time. He abruptly ended our conversation and left.

            As for justifying this feeding activity in comparison with backyard bird feeders, I do not see these activities as the same. Birds I feed from my feeders do not come in to feed until AFTER I have left my yard. I’m not a foot away or less while the birds come in to feed. I’m not in the yard at all when they come in to feed. I know the crows know me and watch me from about 15 feet away but do not come into feed until I’ve left the yard. Nor do any of the other passerines. I have heard of some individuals who remain motionless with seed in hand while BC chickadees feed from their hands but I think this not the usual case with most backyard feeding stations. I am somewhat uncomfortable with that as well. I am also not subjecting another animal, in this case – a mouse, to a death not on nature’s terms. Thus, I don’t see seed stations the same as using live prey to feed. These animals have a function that nature has designed them to fulfill. I feel privileged to be able to witness these majestic snowy owls within a reasonable distance with my binocs or scope. However, I’m hesitant to interact with this impressive creature on other terms so I choose not to and would do so only in the company of a licensed bander as a chosen volunteer. Since these animals are nationally protected, I’m surprised contact or interference is not more limited or only allowed by licensed banders and handlers with permits.

            I do hope your continued research with these magnificent owls yields knowledge that will benefit not only scientists but others in the general public, like myself, as well. To gain the knowledge and the understanding of how these animals survive will help us be benefactors to their continued survival and protection as maybe nature has intended. By your research, perhaps others who do not respect these animals will learn to. Keep up the great work!

      2. One other item of interest : the baiters said that Ramsey got a rabbit last week ! The owl near the cell phone tower did cross the road to try to get the rabbit but Ramsey defended it’s kill and chased the other snow away !

    1. We’re always relieved when an owl check back in, too, but we have to keep reminding ourselves that the transmitters are dependent on good cell reception at the point (7 p.m. every third day) that the transmitter attempts to dial out. If there’s no reception at that point, the unit will wait another three days to try again, to conserve battery power — but in the meantime, it continues to store GPS locations. Erie was within cell range of the Canadian coast Friday evening for the first time in more than two weeks, resulting in that bonanza of tracking data.

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