Wasn’t that a mighty storm…

Scott WeidensaulUpdates31 Comments

Plum's track shows her leaving the north end of Marblehead (right), then apparently hitting the water and slowly drifting with the tide to the head of the harbor. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Plum’s track shows her leaving the north end of Marblehead (right), then apparently hitting the water and slowly drifting with the tide to the head of the harbor, where she was finally found today. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

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.

Plum, the day she was released at Parker National Wildlife Refuge on March 4 (©Ray MacDonald)

Plum, the day she was released at Parker National Wildlife Refuge on March 4 (©Ray MacDonald)

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.

4/11 updates
Sandy Neck update

31 Comments on “Wasn’t that a mighty storm…”

  1. I have loved being able to join in and learn about these owls and think you have been doing a tremendous job protecting the whereabouts of the birds while giving us detailed information. I wonder however if I wouldn’t be so saddened by their demise if they didn’t have names that I so easily associate with. All wildlife is so vulnerable to a host of dangers but I have almost come to feel that Plum and Sandy Neck were my friends. Would I feel any different if they had been given numbers? Probably not but just a thought.
    Keep up the great work!

    1. We thought long and hard about how to designate the owls, back when we started tagging them in December. We wanted to avoid human or pet names that would anthropomorphize the birds — but band numbers or transmitter numbers are too confusing when you’re dealing with dozens of birds, even for us. We opted instead to name them based on their capture or release location, but of course with time and familiarity they become individuals anyway — to all of us.

  2. Thank you so much for all of the work that you are doing to track the snowy owls. Like Susan, I feel attached to them, and feel sorrow knowing that two have died. However, I feel comforted knowing that your team has found and cared for their remains. Special thanks to Norman for looking for and finding Plum’s body. I believe that her spirit still soars among us all.

  3. Very sad to learn of this and the others lost. Is there a known expected survival rate for migrating Snowy Owls? If yes, does their preferred area (coastal v. inland for example), impact the statistic?

    Thanks in advance for your reply.

    Robin Zimmerman

    1. I don’t know that there’s a statistic specifically for young snowy owls, but ornithologists and wildlife rehabbers often talk about the “70 percent rule” — that about 70 percent of all young birds die before their first birthday. Much of that mortality occurs shortly after the chicks fledge and become independent, but for migratory species the journeys south and back north are especially dangerous. Interestingly, there is some research to suggest that juvenile mortality rates are actually higher in raptors than in smaller birds, which is counterintuitive. That may be because learning to pursue, hunt and kill your food is harder (you don’t need much strategy to sneak up on a seed or a worm) and also because grappling with larger prey is inherently more dangerous. And every habitat has its own dangers, from coastal storms, to urban traffic, overhead wires and glass buildings, to poisoned rats around barns, and natural predators like bald eagles and great horned owls.

  4. It is a great disappointment that we have lost not one but two owls. And in the same storm. I am an great nature lover and since I was small the snowy owl has always been my favorite animal. The death of Plum is very hard to resist. When I joined the emails I did expect some deaths, just not in the same place and storm. My sadness for these owls is so big and i greatly appreciate your hard work. Keep it up!

    1. All of us involved in SNOWstorm are experienced researchers, and we knew going into this that we’d lose some birds — given that almost the entire irruption consists of young owls, it was inevitable. But only having one confirmed loss (Philly, in late January) through most of the winter probably gave us a false feeling of security — that by spring the owls were through the worst of it. But Norman Smith, who has been studying snowy owls longer (33 years) than anyone else, warned us that in his experience spring is the most dangerous time for these birds, and so it has unfortunately proven.

      1. I know you are right and I did expect a few deaths. I never thought I would see a program that does this for the owls. I am so greatful the you guys are helping these majestic creatures. Although I am only ten I wish I could help. Keep up the amazing work!

  5. Thank-you for your work and these updates! Incredibly fascinating, the drama of the migrations is gripping…it gives us a real idea of what these amazing owls go through to survive! I understand the feelings about the names but agree with what you guys decided to do…it really helps us to keep track of hoo’s-hoo! (sorry about that, couldn’t help it!). Anyway the anguish of the loss is the same for me name or not, we all still really love these critters!

  6. my grief for the snowies is almost palpable, but i really very much appreciate your detailed and interesting replies…you are educating us, while explaining. i am learning a great deal and am eager to support your work.

  7. Does anyone involved in the project have a feel for how many unbanded owls may have died in that storm? Have other remains been found?

  8. I think I mentioned in the post that Norman Smith was aware of at least four or five other unbanded and untagged snowies that washed up on Massachusetts beaches in the wake of the storm, but what the true toll was, we have no way of knowing.

  9. So sorry to learn about the deaths of Sandy Neck and Plum. No doubt other Snowys perished as well in that storm, along with other migrants. That is a beautiful photo of Plum in the article. Thank you for all of your efforts in trying to learn more about their lives.

  10. I’m really impressed by the dedication that has been shown in recovering these fallen owls. Not only is this great scientific information, but I feel that it brings closure to the mystery on a more personal level.

    Thank you!

  11. Thank you for ending this sad, sad story with an update on the others or I shall have cried all night. And that would include as always my sadness for all the sweet creatures we lose everything single minute around the world.

  12. Whether named or not, I think it would be impossible not to become emotionally connected to these beautiful creatures, and their loss is certainly felt by those who have been following them. I have grown especially attached to Ramsey since February, when I had the good fortune to photograph him and another Snowy in his namesake city. When he departed for the rural agricultural countryside of Southwestern Minnesota (another area I am very familiar with), I was fascinated by his movements and followed them closely on the Snowstorm.org website. When Ramsey failed to check in for a couple of cycles, I became very concerned for his well-being, especially in light of what had happened to Philly, Sandy Neck and now Plum. I was elated to discover this morning that Ramsey continues to roam the countryside in SW MN, travelling as far West as Granite Falls, then returning to Bird Island, MN (what an appropriate name). I reviewed his travels during the last couple of weeks and I might suggest that it is less likely that he failed to check in due to cell-tower proximity, perhaps more likely that his solar-powered transmitter needed a recharge.
    A big THANK YOU to everyone involved in this project. It has certainly been a learning experience, one that brings to light another one of Nature’s wonders. Let’s hope that the remaining owls fare better as they return to the high arctic.

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