The Worst News, and Some Good News

Scott WeidensaulUpdates9 Comments

Some of what Amherst has been up to for the past 19 months, including her current location. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

I hate writing this kind of update; even after eight years it doesn’t get any easier to lose an owl, and I’m afraid we lost Aimé, our most recently tagged snowy, on Monday afternoon, Dec. 13.

As we noted over the weekend, even though she’d been moved 80 km (50 miles) and across the wide St. Lawrence River, she quickly flew back to the Montréal-Trudeau Airport, where the folks from Falcon Environmental immediately started trying to recapture her. We were all especially worried because Amié was spending most of her time right next to the main runway.

The worst happened late in the day on Dec. 13, while the Falcon crew was trying to catch her. They saw the owl walk past a jet on the ground — snowy owls usually ignore even the biggest, noisiest planes — but then she was caught in the back-blast from the engines. They rushed to her, and while Aimé was still alive she died before they could get her to Dr. Guy Fitzgérald’s rehab center.

This is not the first SNOWstorm owl we’ve lost to the back-blast from a grounded jet; the force is extraordinary, as this video, showing a car being tossed end-over-end and destroyed, makes clear. It’s no wonder such a blast could kill a bird. This is just one more example of why we think the work we’re doing to understand how best to relocate snowy owls away from airports is so important.

R.I.P., Aimé; we hardly knew ye.

*  *  *  *  *

It’s nice to be able to leaven the bad news with some good — and pleasantly surprising — news. After an absence of 19 months, Amherst is back in touch with us.

Amherst with her GSM/Argos hybrid unit, before being released in January 2020. (©Rebecca McCabe)

Longtime SNOWstorm followers will recognize that name. Amherst was an adult female tagged in February 2020 on her namesake Amherst Island, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. Her transmitter was one of the GSM/Argos hybrid units we experimented with, which keep in touch via the cell network when they can, but send a weekly fix via the Argos satellite system when in the north. She spent the winter on Amherst, migrating north in early April 2020, and sent her last data transmission on May 5, 2020, when she was halfway up the eastern shore of James Bay.

After that, nothing. Her Argos satellite function quit fairly soon after deployment, we think because snowy owls tended to rip off the external antenna the satellite portion requires. (The GPS/GSM cell transmitter has an internal antenna. Interestingly, significantly larger raptors like golden eagles haven’t tended to rip out Argos antennas, but we’ve stopped using the hybrid units on snowies because of this tendency.) Without the Argos portion operating, she’d need to come back south into cell range to send us her data through the usual cell network. But last winter she failed to appear.

So imagine our surprise Tuesday evening, Dec. 14, when we got a text, “CTT Check-in Alert. Unit Amherst – ASY Female,” flashing on our phones. Over the next half-hour, her transmitter uploaded more than 16,000 stored GPS points before its voltage dipped too low and it cut the connection. She was in western Québec, about 190 km (120 miles) southeast of James Bay, and about 50 km (30 miles) north of the mining town of Matagami and not far from the James Bay Road. The map of Canadian cell towers I checked didn’t show much coverage in that area, but somehow her unit found enough signal to send most of her backlogged data, from May 2020 through late July of this year.

Amherst’s 2020 and 2021 nest locations — the latter just 20 km from where Wells also nested this summer. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Those data show that she nested in both 2020 and again this past summer, about 288 km (180 miles) apart in the northern Ungava Peninsula. Last autumn she began moving down the eastern side of Hudson Bay, arriving Nov. 4, 2020, at Pointe Louis XIV, which divides Hudson Bay from the east shore of James Bay.

She apparently liked what she found, because from then until this past May, she remained in a fairly small 67 sq. km (26 sq. mile) area opposite Long Island — a spot she had passed through the previous spring on her way north.

As I mentioned, we only have her movement data through July 26, when she was still on her 2021 nesting territory 20 km (13 miles) northeast of the Inuit village of Purirnituq. If she’d flown another 20 km northeast, she might have bumped into Wells, who also nested there this summer — obviously, the lemming-hunting was good in that part of the subarctic. With some sunshine to recharge her battery, we should get the rest of her story before too long.

*  *  *  *  *

Fond du Lac made a 60-mile (96-km) crossing of Lake Superior to reach Manitou Island. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Finally, a quick word about Fond du Lac, the other prodigal owl that returned after a long sojourn north. She has moved south from James Bay in the past week, crossing 60 miles (96 km) of open water on Lake Superior to reach…Manitou Island on the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That’s right, the same Manitou Island where the late, lamented Badger’s transmitter and harness were recovered this past summer, three years after her death there.

Fortunately, given the site’s history with snowy owls, Fond du Lac didn’t linger there, and her last GPS point on Dec. 12 showed her flying 15.5 knots (about 18 mph/29 kph) southwest along the peninsula. Hopefully we’ll have more data from her soon.

Congratulations, Dr. McCabe!
Welcome, Aimé (and an Update from Fond du Lac)

9 Comments on “The Worst News, and Some Good News”

  1. Sorry about the loss of Aimé.
    So disheartening.
    Pleased with the good news about the return of Amherst.
    Thanks for everyone’s hard work.

    Wendy Harte
    Austin, TX

  2. Ah, heartbreak. We had a HY female SNOW found in a backyard in Williamstown WV (about 20 miles from my home). A dog was barking at her. Super emaciated at around 1275 gm. The good folks in Cheat Lake (ACCA-WV) did their best but she passed away yesterday 12/15/21. I’m still not over it. I can imagine how you all feel. My sympathies. These updates must be so hard to write. Good to hear from Amherst though!! Hugs, JZ

    1. It never gets any easier, Julie. But some good can come out of these losses, and thanks to your help, the information from the post-mortem on the WV snowy will be added to the rapidly growing veterinary database we have on snowy owl health (about which we’ll have a blog post in the near future).

  3. So sad to hear Aime perished at the airport :(

    Good to hear Amherst has returned, and that she nested twice!

  4. As a resident of Amherst Island you know just how thrilled I was to hear Amherst is alive and checking in. Overjoyed!! To be exact.

    1. We were pretty stoked, too, Janet! Thanks for all you and the other folks on Amherst have done to help us over the years.

  5. Sorry to hear of Aime know Buckeye was always being relocated when it would return to Detroit Airport. I have a question. Do you ever come down into Ohio to tag the ones here. We have one that reappears every year at the Lorain Impoundment, Burke Airport in Cleveland and some have posted a pair around Mentor at the Headlands Beach State Park in Mentor. Love to see where these snowy owls spend their summers. Thanks for all the wonderful updates of these magnificent owls.

    1. We don’t have any current plans to work in Ohio, although we’ve collaborated with Black Swamp Bird Observatory to tag owls from Detroit Airport, and I made a multi-day trip to Ohio a couple of years ago in an unsuccessful attempt to trap a large female along the Lake Erie shore. The limiting factor for us is having folks who are both experienced large-raptor banders and certified for fitting owls with backpack harnesses, which takes a lot of training and requires state/provincial/federal permits.

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