Well, Well, Well — Wells is Back

Scott WeidensaulUpdates16 Comments

Wells’ three summers in the North — 2017 (light blue), 2018 (red) and 2019 (green). (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

It’s been a busy week at Project SNOWstorm, with a shuffling of the deck among our tagged owls, some closure on an early loss, and the return of very familiar name.

First, though, I want to acknowledge what many of you have noticed — we still don’t have maps posted for our four newest owls. That’s because of a systems glitch that we’re working hard to fix. The good news is the maps for all previously tagged owls like Stella and Pettibone are updating with new locations automatically, as they should — it’s just frustrating that the best we can offer at the moment for new owls (Yul, Medina and Pearl) are static maps here on the blog. Fingers crossed that we resolve the problem with the new maps soon.

OK — we have lots to cover, so here we go.

Back Again

The big news was the reappearance of Wells, an adult female we first encountered in Maine in January 2017 after she was captured by USDA Wildlife Services at the Portland Jetport, tagged by our colleagues at the Biodiversity Research Institute and relocated away from the airport. The past two winters she’s used a fairly small territory along the fringes of Québec City and the urbanized north shore of the St. Lawrence River in southern Québec.

Wells, just before her release at Rachel Carson NWR in Maine in 2017. (Bri Benvenuti, USFWS)

She first checked on Nov. 23, just a data-less “I’m here” transmission showing her on the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, about 65 km (30 miles) southeast of Sept-Iles, QC. Her battery was badly depleted; this is becoming typical for Wells, who tends to linger late into the early winter up in the dark subarctic before making a rapid movement south.

On Dec. 6, her unit having recovered some of its solar recharge (and she having crossed to the south side of the river), Wells sent thousands of backlogged GPS locations tracing her movements since she left cell range on April 30 this spring while migrating north. And a fascinating story it was. Her first summer as a tracked owl, in 2017, she moved no farther north than the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec, but last summer — and again this year, as it turns out — she flew another 1,300 km (825 miles) northwest into the central Canadian Arctic.

By June 2019 Wells had flown as far northwest as the Boothia Peninsula and King William Island, where three other SNOWstorm owls — Stella, Pettibone and Woodworth — were also spending the breeding season. She then backtracked about 800 km (500 miles) southeast, and spent the remainder of the summer on along Chesterfield Inlet at the northern edge of Hudson Bay. As with our other three owls from that region, she showed no signs of nesting, and you may recall that reports we had from researchers at Rankin Inlet, just south of her, suggested a complete lack of snowy owl nesting in that part of the Arctic this summer.

Wells remained there until the end of October, then island-hopped across the northern margin of Hudson Bay and across Québec in early November, flying 2,500 km (1,500 miles) in a few weeks. At last report she was on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, opposite the famed birding location of Tadoussac, QC, and only about 195 km (120 miles) from Québec City.

So far, so good: Yul (purple, including her vehicle lift away from the airport) is staying this time near her relocation site, while Otter (orange) has been roaming a bit more widely. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Owls in the East

Confirming what we suspected, a necropsy performed on Montréal, who was found Dec. 3 along a busy highway in Saint-Jean sur Richelieu, showed that she was killed (most likely instantly) by a vehicle collision. While her hybrid GSM/Argos transmitter is still working, it suffered some damage to its solar panels, and will be refurbished at CTT so we can redeploy it on another owl this winter.

Yul, the other airport relocation snowy from the Montréal-Trudeau airport — who was moved but immediately returned to the airfield — was retrapped by Falcon Environmental Services and re-relocated to farmland about 80 km (50 miles) east of the city and across the St. Lawrence, where we’re pleased to say she remains…at least for the moment.

Finally in the East we have Otter, another bird (an adult male this time) with hybrid transmitter. In the past week or so he moved well east of Montréal, crossed the St. Lawrence to the county of Nicolet-Yamaska on the south shore, then flew back north again. As of Dec. 12 he was in the county of Montcalm, just north of the village of Saint-Jacques, an area with lots of open farmland and the very long, very thin fields that date to the French colonial period.

Medina (red) has moved southeast a bit from her original capture location in eastern North Dakota. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Owls on the Prairies

Medina, who was tagged last month by Matt Solensky, had been staying close to original location near Woodworth, ND. But on Dec. 11-12 she flew about 15 miles (22 km) southeast and has been a few miles north of Cleveland, off I-94 in Stutsman County.

Pearl, on the other hand, put on her traveling shoes in a big way and headed southeast, flying 180 miles (290 km) into northeastern South Dakota. By Dec. 10 she was along the edge of the Coteau des Prairies, a low, rumpled plateau that rises from the flat prairie of the Red River of the North to the east, along the Minnesota border. This part of the coteau is within the Lake Traverse Reservation, home of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate branch of the Santee Dakota.

Pearl’s itchy feet have taken her to eastern South Dakota, just east of the Red River valley. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Pearl is currently on the low plateau known as the Coteau des Prairies, which runs for about 200 miles along the western edge of the Red River valley — the uplands just west of the yellow line. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

Farther west, Pettibone remains just south of the Quill Lakes in Division No. 10 in southern Saskatchewan, about 135 km (84 miles) north of Regina. Similarly, Stella — after her lightning in-and-out visit to South Dakota a month ago — seems to have settled in, at least for now, along Whitewater Lake,  just north of the forested Turtle Mountain plateau on the Manitoba/North Dakota line. (Turtle Mountain, for returning SNOWstorm fans, is the area where Woodworth spent a lot of time last winter.)

Speaking of Woodworth, we hope to hear from him after his initial transmission last month of all of his spring/summer/fall data, but he was far enough north at the time that it may take a while for his battery to recover from the drain of a long transmission.

New Maps Are Up!
Bonjour, Yul; Au Revoir, Montréal

16 Comments on “Well, Well, Well — Wells is Back”

  1. Fascinating reports, Scott. Thanks for all you do to bring us more knowledge of these beautiful owls.

  2. I look forward to your updates and I am always excited when I receive one .. I also want to thank you and everyone on your team for all you do for these beautiful Snowy Owls .

  3. This is terrific. I have friends in the Eastern and Central areas of North Dakota that are now interested in watching for Snowy Owls when they are out traveling. Very fun. I travel SD and I have my eyes peeled daily.
    Keep up the great work and information.

    1. To quote our colleague Andy McGann at CTT: “The lives of individual birds are fascinating.” It’s such a privilege to be able to get this window into what each of these birds is doing, especially in such remote parts of the world.

  4. Thank you! I love following their travels. In 2017 a female Snowy spent a month or so on the campus of Vermont Technical College in Randolph VT. It was an amazing experience, I drove up to see her almost every day and learned so much just by quietly watching her.

  5. Thanks for the update. Saw a young, Male down here at the Jersey shore last weekend. Fascinating to read about their amazing journeys.

    1. It can happen — while snowies are more regular during irruption years along the coast of Washington and Oregon, they do reach northern California, and I know there are records at least as far south as San Jose and Monterey Bay, most during major irruptions in 1967-68, ’73-74 and ’77-78. In the winter of 1896-97, pioneering biologist Joseph Grinnell reported “flocks” of snowy owls in the Bay area. There is more information at the CA Bird Records Committee’s site, http://wfopublications.org/Rare_Birds/Snowy_Owl/Snowy_Owl.html.

    1. As I mentioned in the last update, she seems to have settled in just north of Turtle Mountain, not far from the Manitoba/North Dakota line.

  6. I am happy to read about these beautiful creatures. Someday i hope to see one, looked for Wells through the winter a few yrs back never got to see her.. Happy flying

  7. I’m a little disappointed that no snowy owls are listed for Grand Rapids, MI. I initially joined your web page because of all of the comments in our local news and from friends about the snowy owls that had been seen in our area, especially at the airport. Although, I have not heard or seen anything indicating any sightings recently.

    1. Alice,

      Remember, SNOWstorm isn’t meant to be a clearinghouse for general information about snowy owl sightings — our project is designed to learn, in detail, about the lives and movements of the small subset of owls we’ve tagged with telemetry devices. Fortunately, there’s a terrific resource for the kind of up-to-the-minute reports on what’s being seen where — eBird, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon. Checking eBird this morning, I see there are a number of snowy owls currently being reported in the Grand Rapids area.

      Go to: https://ebird.org/home, click on “Explore,” then choose “Species Map” and enter “snowy owl.” The map you get will show all snowy owl sightings worldwide for all years; as you zoom in closer and closer the purple spots will eventually become points that you can click for details. To see current sightings only, click on the bar that says “Date: Year-Round, All Years” and you can set it for the current month and year. That will give you the most recent sightings. And if you check the box that says “Explore Rich Media” on the right, it will show the sightings for which there are photos or video.

      Hope this helps!

  8. Scott, many thanks from all your project followers for the work you are doing with these remarkable birds. Your blogs are so fascinating to follow and I speak for everyone as to our appreciation for being able to read about these individual Snowies
    we come to care for.
    You may not remember me, but I spent several springs at Fort Morgan learning everything I could about banding from the Hummingbird Study Group. I have often told people in my birding community of friends how impressed I was with your natural ability and love of sharing your knowledge of the individual netted birds
    with the public. I know I hung on every word.

    Karen Busch
    Traverse City, MI

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