We already knew that the storm that swiped the New England coast March 26-28 was huge, both the winds and snow in its immediate wake, and the epic seas, storm surge and tides that slammed the coast during the days that followed.
Sandy Neck got caught up in that storm and died — and now it appears that we also lost a second tagged snowy owl to it, Plum.
We’ve suspected for the past week that something bad had happened to Plum, who had been patrolling the area around Marblehead and Salem, Mass., since being relocated from Logan Airport by Norman Smith on March 4.
Her transmitter checked in on April 1, and I had a growing sense of alarm as I looked at the data. At 6:37 a.m. she was perched on the north end of the Marblehead peninsula — but half an hour later her position was in the middle of the harbor, moving at just .2 knots.
If this was a frozen lake I wouldn’t have thought much of it, but there was no ice there on which to perch. And her track for the next three hours took her very slowly up the middle of the harbor during what I later realized was an incoming tide.
Then, for the next two days, her transmitter was essentially stationary, on a small area of beach at the very head of the harbor.
I called Norman that night, and explained that we might have a dead or injured owl. He drove up from the Boston area the next day, expecting to quickly find Plum — it’s hard to miss a snowy owl. But instead he found nothing, and we wondered if we had misread the situation.
Saturday night, her transmitter sent additional locations — and they hadn’t budged at all. Perhaps, we wondered, a great horned owl or bald eagle had killed her and carried part of her remains (including the transmitter) into the trees that edged the small beach where the signal was coming from.
Or perhaps a raccoon was carried it up into the brush along the shore. The most hopeful possibility was that she’d somehow dropped the transmitter.
So Norman went back Sunday, and again scoured the area. Nothing — nothing along the water, nothing in the trees.
Yesterday, Dave Brinker in Maryland took another look at the location data. In every transmission, some GPS fixes are better than other, usually because they triangulate from more GPS satellites. Dave weeded out all but the highest-quality locations from each of the two data transmissions, averaged them and plotted the locations.
Both coordinates were within a foot or two of each other.
So today, for the third time, Norman drove back to Marblehead, with a couple of helpers. They combed the beach, going back and forth past the plotted spot a dozen times — until Norman saw something shiny in the sea wrack at the high tide line.
He thought for a second it was a shell, but then realized it was the black, reflective surface of the transmitter’s solar panel. Underneath, completely buried in wrack and dead march grass washed up with the tide, was Plum.
Norman said she appeared to be in excellent weight and fat, but as with Sandy Neck, she’ll be necropsied at Tufts University’s wildlife center to see just what happened. But Norman said that when he picked her up and turned up head-down, a lot of water came out of her trachea.
It appears that, like Sandy Neck, she got caught in the winds and waves following the big storm. Nor were they alone — Norman knows of four or five other unbanded, untagged snowy owls that have washed up on Massachusetts beaches in the past week, also victims of the storm.
While this wasn’t the outcome we were hoping for, It was just pure luck that Plum’s solar panel remained unobscured, collecting energy and continuing to transmit — allowing us to solve this mystery. (It also means that we can reuse the transmitter, which is some consolation.)
Speaking of Sandy Neck, we were able to get all of her data from her transmitter, and reconstruct her final days. It appears that at about 5:40 a.m. on March 29, she was flying north a few hundred yards off Martha’s Vineyard when she hit the water. The current carried her a short distance south as the tide turned, then north around the northern tip of the island. Then the tide changed again, and currents took her south several miles past Oak Bluffs, where she washed up on the beach and was found the next day.
These losses have been tough, and they might not be the last — this is a dangerous time as the birds move into new and unfamiliar areas. But there was also some great news from the latest data downloads.
Ramsey checked in again after a long absence in the prairie country of southwest Minnesota, where cell reception is spotty. Kewaunee began heading north, stopping at the mouth of the Fox River in Green Bay, where power plant discharges keep the water open, then headed north on the frozen bay itself.
Amishtown, Oswegatchie, Erie, Braddock, and a number of other owls have been making tracks as well, while some other birds are staying put for the moment. We’ll have the latest updates posted on Tuesday, so be sure to check the maps.