Sandy Neck update

Scott WeidensaulUpdates15 Comments

Sandy Neck’s remains were in very good hands today. Dr. Mark Pokras from Tuft’s famed wildlife health program in Boston performed the necropsy, and I wanted to share his findings — the interest in this bird and her loss has been tremendous.

The only injury of any sort Dr. Pokras found was a small bruise deep in the left pectoral (breast) muscle. Confirming the initial examination yesterday, Dr. Pokras found that Sandy Neck had great muscle mass and body fat, with no visibly significant parasites. There was no food in her stomach or gizzard, which would make sense if she died shortly after the storm hit last week.

Dr. Pokras also said he found no evidence of water in the trachea, lungs or air sacs. I asked if that meant our initial conclusion — that she’d been swamped by a wave and drowned — was wrong.

“I would not assume that a dry respiratory tract totally rules out drowning,” he said. “But if I had to guess, I suspect that she got into the water, got soaked, dragged herself up on the beach and died of hypothermia.” Given the cold and high wind following the storm, that might not have taken too long.

This isn’t the last word — he also took samples for toxicology, microbe and virology tests to see if she had any underlying problems that didn’t manifest themselves in the post-mortem. But it seems this was most likely a natural, storm-related death.

We’d like to thank Mark Pokras and the folks at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine for their help with Sandy Neck. Such necropsies and tissue samples have been done many times this winter on dead snowy owls, at facilities across the Northeast, and often on a pro bono basis.

For example, Dr. Erica Miller from New Jersey’s Dept. of Environmental Protection (who is also the consulting vet for Tri-State Bird Rescue), and Dr. Sherrill Davison from the Laboratory of Avian Medicine and Pathology at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, have together provided a number of necropsies and tests — including one on Philly, our previous tagged owl fatality.

Dr. Cindy Driscoll from Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources has coordinated much of this work across state lines. These post-mortems on owls found dead, or killed by plane and car collisions, allow us to gain the most information possible about the threats these birds face down here. This is especially true of lab tests for toxins, which should give us fresh insights into what kind of exposure snowy owls face from rodenticides and other contaminants.

Wasn't that a mighty storm...
Losing Sandy Neck

15 Comments on “Sandy Neck update”

  1. please do pass on our tremendous thanks to all the people listed. all of us are out here, extremely grateful for the passion and selflessness you all demonstrate…have kept a roof over our heads through different career paths, mostly because at the time we had no choice. thank goodness all of you were able to do what you do. i am forever thankful, for layers of reasons.

  2. It will be very interesting to see the results of toxicology tests. I was just thinking today about Snowy Owls that may have been exposed to D-con. I know the manufacturer has not complied with the new regulations for D-con. I hope the owls in more urban settings had safe food. Is there also a lead problem for the owls that were feeding on waterfowl?

    1. One of reasons we decided last December to try to necropsy and sample as many dead snowy owls as possible this winter is a growing body of evidence that rodenticide poisoning — especially from so-called second-generation or “super wafarin” poisons like bromadiolone — poses a significant threat to raptors. While the EPA has some restrictions on their sale to homeowners, because of the danger to children, the anticoagulants are still available for bulk purchase in ag supply stores, for use by pest control companies and in “tamper-proof” outdoor packaging. Besides direct, fatal poisoning via their prey, studies of urban raptors suggest many of them carry a sublethal dose of the toxins, which means (because they are blood thinners) that a relatively minor injury can lead to fatal blood loss.

      1. Ok that makes sense, but lots of the owls already have begun their migration back up north why didn’t she start her journey when she had the chance? I know that when she joined the crew she was relocated away from the city (Boston) but she was still in the Boston area when the storm came. Why didn’t she head north yet?

        1. Some snowies have started moving north in the southern areas like Maryland and Pennsylvania, but not all of them — Monocacy is still in Baltimore, for example, and there are others in the mid-Atlantic area. There are still many snowy owls in New England and the Great Lakes, including a lot in Massachusetts — it’s not unusual for the most southerly individuals to start moving north first. It’s not unusual for some snowy owls to linger until May, especially because these young birds probably won’t breed until next year, so they’re in no real hurry to get back to the Arctic.

  3. I am in a birding class at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, and last night we visited their vertebrate collections and saw how a student was preparing a dead Cooper’s hawk as a study specimen. Waiting to be prepared was, I noticed, a snowy owl from Project Snowstorm, so must have been a fairly recent death. Can you tell us which owl this is? Thanks so much. I felt honored to see such a beautiful bird, even in death…

    1. I’ll have to check with my friends at the Cornell Lab of O, but my guess is that was one of the hundreds of snowy owls that were banded by Project SNOWstorm collaborators, rather than one of the 22 owls that were also tagged with GPS transmitters. If one of the tagged owls had been killed and recovered, I’m certain they would have contacted us.

      1. Why would sandy neck even be sitting on that post if he saw the gigantic wave coming? Is it because they spend most of their time up in the north and the aren’t used to having 40-50 foot waves coming at them? They say that owls have great eye sight so that wouldn’t make any sense plus he would have enought time to react, right?

        1. Always good to hear from you, Carl…remember, all we know for sure is that Sandy Neck wound up in the ocean and perished. The wave hypothesis makes sense, since she’d been perching on the rocky jetty along the storm-battered eastern side of the island, but we’re by no means certain that’s what happened. For example, one of my colleagues wondered if she tried for a duck (Sandy Neck hunted mostly offshore at night), misjudged her attack and wound up in the water. After all, young raptors make a lot of dumb mistakes, which is why their mortality rate in the first year is so high. But I still think a big wave is most likely. If you’re not on the coast, it’s hard to imagine how violent the surf can be in the wake of a big storm, and you sometimes see “rogue waves” that significantly bigger than others, reaching higher and farther inshore. Even an owl can let down its guard for a moment, just as humans sometimes get swept to sea if they’re standing too close to the shore when a big wave comes in.

          1. I replied to your answer in the wrong place and it need to be here.

            Ok that makes sense, but lots of the owls already have begun their migration back up north why didn’t she start her journey when she had the chance? I know that when she joined the crew she was relocated away from the city (Boston) but she was still in the Boston area when the storm came. Why didn’t she head north yet?

    2. I checked with Dr. Kevin McGowan, who manages the bird collection at Cornell. He said that while someone was preparing a snowy owl last night as a demo for your class (one of about a dozen dead snowies that have come to them this winter) it was not banded, and obviously didn’t have a transmitter. I hope this clears up things.

  4. dr Pokras is an awesome person! Hope to hear more about poor Sandy Necks
    fate. Question, is this irruption world wide? Are people tracking snowies in Europe and Russia?

    1. No, this is very much a regional phenomenon, as such irruptions usually are. The birds originated in northern Quebec, where the lemming population hit its cyclical peak, drawing in owls from the eastern Canadian Arctic. There was no irruption elsewhere in North America, and I think the only snowies reported in Europe this winter were a few that hitchhiked across the Atlantic on container ships, having come aboard some distance from Newfoundland.

  5. Rest in Peace, Sandy Neck. I found a poem for her:

    Snowy Owl Near Ocean Shores
    BY DUANE NIATUM
    A castaway blown south from the arctic tundra
    sits on a stump in an abandoned farmer’s field.
    Beyond the dunes cattails toss and bend as snappy
    as the surf, rushing and crashing down the jetty.

    His head a swivel of round glances,
    his eyes a deeper yellow than the winter sun,
    he wonders if the spot two hundred feet away
    is a mouse on the crawl from mud hole
    to deer-grass patch.

    An hour of wind and sleet whips the air,
    nothing darts or passes but the river underground.
    A North Pole creature shows us how to last.
    The wind ruffles his feathers from crown to claw

    while he gazes into zeroes the salt-slick rain.
    As a double-rainbow before us arcs
    sky and owl, we leave him surrendering
    to the echo of his white refrain.

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