The Return of Argus

Scott WeidensaulUpdates15 Comments

Argus’ 22 months of travel, almost all of it beyond the reach of the cell network in Nunavut. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Sorry for the silence the past two weeks — as we’ve mentioned before (but it bears repeating), everyone involved in Project SNOWstorm does this on the side as a volunteer. Sometimes our day jobs get hectic enough that other things are delayed, and that’s been the case for me the past few weeks. Thanks for your patience.

Argus flexes his wings just before his release in January 2019. (©Dan Mason)

But we’re leading off with some really exciting news — Argus is back, after an absence of almost two years! This almost pure white male was at least six years old when he was trapped and tagged in January 2019 by USGS biologist and longtime SNOWstorm collaborator Matt Solensky near Harwood, North Dakota. Argus spent the remainder of the winter mostly along the Red River valley between ND and Minnesota, and the last we heard from him he was northbound near the Manitoba border in April 2019.

After that…nothing. Because our GSM transmitters communicate with us through the cell network, if the owl remains out of cellular range, we won’t get data updates, even though the unit continues to log regular GPS fixes. So we didn’t know if Argus simply remained in the north, away from cell service; if he had perished; or if his transmitter had failed.

Argus swapped directions after moving into southwestern Manitoba earlier this month. The large block of darker green at the top is Riding Mountain National Park. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

All that changed Feb. 7, when Argus’ transmitter unexpectedly checked in and downloaded more than 21,000 GPS locations, tracing all of his movements over the past 22 months. No wonder he was radio-silent; last winter he never came farther south than the Nunavut/Manitoba border near Nueltin Lake, and both of the past two summers he wandered the remote regions of the southern Canadian Arctic archipelago, from the Boothia and Adelaide peninsulas out to King William and Victoria islands.

Interestingly, despite his mature age there is no indication that he nested either summer — although he settled down into a few areas, his data do not show the intense concentration in one spot we’d expect from a male defending and provisioning a nest. We’ve seen at best spotty nesting evidence the past few years from other tagged owls in that region — it seems the lemming populations may not have been high enough to support widespread breeding.

When Argus checked in he was in Division 5 of southeastern Saskatchewan, just on the southern fringe of the boreal forest. Since then he moved southeast into southern Manitoba, then doubled back northwest, and as of Feb. 16 was just south of Riding Mountain National Park near Rossburn, MB.

* *  *  *  *

With one exception, everyone else in our 2020-21 class of snowy owls is right where we left them last time. The exception, once again, is Stella, who moves and keeps moving.

Starting in the east, we’ve heard little from Wells since she connected — kind-sorta — in mid-January, with an almost empty battery and not enough juice to send us her current location. She’s connected twice since then, each time starting to send backlogged data from last April, but immediately crashing her battery after just a few GPS locations. We’re hoping the rapidly strengthening day length and solar angle of late winter will boost her power in the coming weeks, but her battery may have reached the end of its useful life. In all wildlife telemetry — radio VHF, satellite, GPS/GSM — it’s battery weight, power and life that remain the greatest constraints. Because of the extremes of temperature to which they are exposed, the batteries in snowy owl transmitters have an especially hard life.

In the St. Lawrence valley of southern Québec, Yul and Alderbrooke remain just 60 km (38 miles) apart — Yul near Baie-du-Febvre, and Alderbrooke near Saint-Hyacinthe. And in Ottawa, Dorval has been regular as clockwork, moving between the Central Experimental Farm and the former Greenbelt Research Farm (and occasionally roosting during the day on the roof of a big-box home improvement store in Nepean).

Side-by-side satellite images from Feb. 10 (left) and Feb. 14 show how lake ice has formed around Amherst Island, outlined in red. (NOAA CoastWatch imagery)

Simcoe’s spending a lot of her time on the ice, now that there is ice to spend time on. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Down on Lake Ontario, Simcoe has taken advantage of the recent cold weather to move increasingly off Amherst Island and out onto the growing area of shore ice that is belatedly forming on the lake. (This winter has seen unusually low total ice cover on the Great Lakes, at least until the recent epic cold snap.) We’ve mentioned many times in the past how much snowy owls love ice, whether it’s on lakes or the ocean, and while she’s still coming back to shore from time to time, Simcoe has been spending a lot of time drifting on ice floes.

Stella’s perambulations around the Dakotas have brought her to Lake Sakakawea in northwestern North Dakota. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Stella, chilling on the ice on Lake Sakakawea. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Jumping out to the Midwest, Columbia is snug as a bug in her winter territory southeast of Milford and Spirit Lake, Iowa. And farther west still, our rolling stone, Stella, just keeps on rolling. Since our last update, when she was in northwestern South Dakota, she’s moved 155 miles (250 km) north, and since Feb. 2 has been on the ice of Lake Sakakawea, one of the huge impoundments on the Missouri River (more specifically, she’s on the Van Hook Arm of the lake, near New Town, ND).

Lake Sakakawea is, at 368,000 acres (149,000 ha), the third-largest man-made reservoir in the U.S. Its completion in the 1950s flooded a sixth of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, including much of the best farmland, and evicted members of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation from the communities of Van Hook and Old Sanish; New Town is, as the name suggests, one of the resettlement sites. Stella, like most good snowy owls, has been taking advantage of the ice cover on the immense lake, staying as much as 3.5 miles (5.5 km) from shore.



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15 Comments on “The Return of Argus”

  1. Wow.. back from doing a quick search on your new book. That’s fantastic. Congratulations!

    Not sure if this has been asked before but when a transmitter carrying owl’s transmitter no longer works, all tracking of the animal is shelved and another owl is introduced and fitted with a newer robust unit? Better yet, how do you track an existing Project Snowstorm owl to it’s location to replace a transmitter before it goes especially if the bird is out in some remote area unreachable.
    Congratulations again on your new book! Will you be traveling to do any promoting?

    1. If we know where an owl with a failed or faulty transmitter is, and it’s possible to retrap it, we try. That’s often very difficult and time-consuming, in part because older owls that have been caught previously can be very trap-shy.

      If a transmitter fails completely, we obviously no longer have any easy way of tracing that bird. What sometimes happens, though, is that while the unit stops sending full data uploads, it continues to connect enough that we get regular current location fixes — that happened with Hardscrabble for two years, allowing us to monitor his winter locations. (And to make multiple, ultimately unsuccessful attempts to retrap him — he was cagey old boy, having been trapped twice before.)

      In the case of Baltimore, even though his unit failed, he continued to return every winter to the same spot near Arnprior, ON, where our friends Pat and Dan LaFortune kept close tabs on him, and helped us with several trapping attempts — which were finally successful. In that case, we did not have the permits in place to allow us to fit Baltimore with a new transmitter, so he was released without a unit. When we recaptured Redwood this winter because his harness was partially broken, we planned to replace it to keep tracking him, but Covid lockdown restrictions made it impossible for Rebecca McCabe to meet the trap team. So he was released without his transmitter.

      (As for a book tour, the pandemic has restricted me mostly to virtual events, starting the end of March. Thanks for asking.)

  2. Thanks for the wonderful update and all continued dedication to these amazing creatures. Really enjoy learning about their travels and behavior. Will have to check out the new book next!

  3. I have been watching 3 snowy owls this month February 2021 two mails one female !! All in the same area!!

  4. Simcoe has been sited numerous times on the south side of Amherst Island. Sitting pretty in a field across from our home scouting out food supply. Directly ,on the lake side of our house, out on Lake Ontario. She was catching a free ride on moving ice and coming in closer to shore in the gloaming of evening with the last sunset on her wings, sometimes just at dark. We enjoy seeing a few Snowy Owls here landing on the ice-covered rocks along the beachfront. Simcoe is seen quite often. especially during the current cold snap. We are directly amidst Simcoe’s flight pattern shown in your Google Earth picture of Amherst Island.

    1. I don’t assume that every Snowy Owl we see coming in off of the lake is Simcoe, though it is certainly great to see them returning repeatedly to South Shore A.I. this year. As you know, there are quite a few here. Thank you Project Snowstorm for all of the work accomplished in order to give us updates on these wonderful birds.

  5. I am SO glad to hear Argus is still alive and flying around! I was quite worried when he went radio-silent; as his last reported location was very near an active Bald Eagle nest in northern North Dakota, I feared the worst. But now we know he was just in a serious hurry to get back north. I hope his current loop to the south might include a visit to the area where he was caught/released, so I can get another look at him (and perhaps a few photos, if I am lucky!).

    1. Maybe he’ll swing by to say hello, Dan! It would be great if you could get some photos of him.

  6. Congratulations on your new book. If it’s only half as good as your others, I’m sure I’ll love it!

    I thought I’d share I little information from North Dakota. I was down to Lake Sakakawea on Sunday. You said Stella has been there chilling on the ice. Chilling is definitely the correct word. We’ve been in the deep freeze here for over 10 days. Our night temperatures have been as low as -25F to -35F, with daytime highs of only -10F. -50 windchills at times. Thankfully that’s now ending. Although I didn’t have the pleasure of locating Stella, a flock of 18 Gray Partridges flushed as I approached the lakeshore. I hope she catches herself a nice meal.

    About Stella’s wandering. North Dakota has only a few dozen active birders. This fall the birders from the east side of the state were asking, where are all the Rough-legged Hawks? Us birders on the west side said, we’ve got them. Lots of them! If the Roughies seemed to prefer the west side over the east, will Stella too? If she was looking for an area with no snow- she’s found it. It will be interesting to see if she settles in.

    I didn’t get even a glimpse of Stella on Sunday. Was I disappointed? A little. But who can complain when three miles south on the top of a telephone pole sat my consolation prize. A Gyrfalcon! This birder went home with a smile on her face! Thank you Stella. And thank you Project Snowstorm!!!!!

    1. Thanks for the update — Stella, the other snowies and that gyrfalcon must be feeling right at home with the thoroughly Arctic weather on the Plains this past week. We hope all our friends in Texas and elsewhere hit by this epic cold snap are faring better.

      It will be very interesting to see if Stella settles down near Lake Sakakawea — all those rough-legged hawks suggest a great local crop of rodents. (Unless she’s too busy hunting partridges, which is a possibility. Snowies can handle a huge variety of prey — our good friend and co-founder of SNOWstorm, Norman Smith, has observed that the most common prey species for snowies at Logan Airport in Boston this winter have been red-throated loons!)

  7. Hi Scott. I am
    hoping that Stella will roll into
    Eastern Colorado one
    of these years. Such exciting news about Argus!!! It is hard for me to
    view this purely as science and not feel
    that we have been reunited with a long-lost friend.

    1. Chris, that’s exactly how we feel about these owls, too. We know they’re not little people, but creatures with their own epic lives — and we do become attached to them, because through our tracking we see what fascinating, individualistic lives they lead.

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