Sinepuxent and a report from the ‘southern’ SNOWstorm

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Allen Sklar (left) and Steve Huy do a preliminary fitting of the harness on Sinepuxent, our first Maryland owl in several years. (©Rowan Huy)

I’ll start with the big news: We’ve tagged the first owl in Maryland since Baltimore was relocated to Assateague Island nearly three years ago. More about her in a moment.

It’s been a busy year in the southern range of SNOWstorm activity, in Maryland and Delaware. There are owls farther south but, here in the East, they’ve been few and far between. When snowy owls began arriving in November, my initial quest was to place transmitters on some of these early arrivals so we could learn about their movements as they roamed in search of suitable habitat. I drove hundreds of miles and even took a few chilly boat rides across the Chesapeake Bay in search of owls. Several times I chased owl reports far from home only to have the owls depart before I arrived.

My first and second captures of the season were the same young male on Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay, at the end of November. This island, which had been eroding into the bay, is being reclaimed with dredge spoils from the shipping channel in Baltimore’s harbor. It is rich with gulls and ducks and a perfect spot for a snowy owl to visit. This particular owl was too thin to safely carry a transmitter, while a second owl on the island eluded capture. A subsequent visit to Poplar 10 days later revealed three owls, but the one I caught proved to be the same male. He was still underweight and released after some quick measurements. The other two owls decided to depart as I was focused on the owl in hand. It was a strange situation; the weather during my first attempt was so mild that I was swatting mosquitoes while trapping, but the return trip was more seasonably chilly.

One of the many snowy owls that have appeared this winter along the Delaware and Maryland coasts. (©Allen Sklar)

A bit later in the winter, I had the opportunity to help relocate an owl that had very dangerously positioned itself along the runway at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, which sits on the western shore of Maryland. Accompanied by Dave Brinker and both Navy and USDA APHIS staff, we were ignored by the owl for several hours as strange planes hovered nearby (sorry, but we were not permitted to take photos or video) or

Sinepuxent heads off into the night, without a backwards glance at Steve Huy. (©Allen Sklar)

practiced touch-and-go landings. The owl paid as little attention to the screaming turbines as it did to our lures. As darkness fell the snowy pulled a disappearing act on us. After fruitlessly searching the airfield with one of the Navy personnel and the aid of a spotlight, we found that the bird had returned and was actually sitting, unnoticed, about 50 meters from the rest of the group. We dropped a trap and waited for about an hour as the owl slowly walked across the field, stopping every few meters to grab a small vole for a snack. We finally caught it, but again, this male was too small and not an appropriate candidate for a transmitter. So he was banded and relocated to a safer location.

At the end of the year I focused my efforts on Assateague Island, a barrier island along the coast of Maryland. Assateague is prime habitat for wintering snowy owls and we’ve trapped or released several transmittered owls there. On New Year’s Eve, with the whole family along for the event (hi, Mom!), I trapped a very healthy male on the northern end of the island. He was released with only a band as we were shifting our supply of transmitters to where they were needed most.

Snugged down in the dunes for the day, Sinepuxent surveys the Assateague Island coast. (©Allen Sklarr)

During the last weekend in January my daughter, Rowan, and I made another trip east. Jan. 27 was sunny and unseasonably warm, with temperatures in the upper 50s. In addition to several owls reported on Assateague, I had just received notice that two were spotted on Cape Henlopen in Delaware, so that’s where we started. The cape seems to be an important stopover point for snowies traveling along the coast between Maryland and New Jersey, but none seem to stay there for very long. When we arrived, both owls were present and in view at once. I set a trap for each and waited.

As the sun began to set the first owl made its move with a long glide toward the closest trap. The second owl, much farther away and on a higher dune, saw this and made a beeline for the first owl. What followed was an amazing display of aerial combat, as both owls made passes at both traps while trying to chase off the other. Eventually one bird flew off to the beach, where it was scared away by hikers. The second owl, a male, made a final move on a trap and was netted. Although he was healthy, he was just a fraction too small; we have clearly defined guidelines regarding appropriate size and body condition for fitting transmitters on owls, designed to insure their heath and safety, and this one was two grams shy of our threshhold.

On a rainy day, Sinepuxent courses over her winter territory near her namesake bay. (©Alllen Sklar)

The next day it was raining but still rather mild so I decided to just take a look around the state park campground on Assateague Island, down on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Rowan and I quickly spotted a female snowy on the dune fencing. After watching her a while the rain almost stopped, so I set a trap. After a brief wait we had her in hand. Weighing in at more 2,100 grams, she was fitted with a transmitter, sponsored by a generous donation from the Delmarva Ornithological Society, and released back into the rainy night. Photographer Allen Sklar, who has helped us on Assateague since the beginning of Project SNOWstorm, helped with the tagging.

We’re calling her Sinepuxent, named for the coastal bay where she hunts at night. “Sinepuxent” is an Algonquian (probably Lenape) name, which has been variously translated as “stones are lying broken up” or “stones lie shallow,” though it’s also translated as “stony swamp.” To us, though, it means “beautiful snowy owl.”

(Maryland bander Steve Huy is one of the co-founders of Project SNOWstorm.)

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