Promoting the enjoyment, study, and conservation of Wisconsin's birds.

WSO funding let Project SNOWstorm tag owl in '13

The 2015-'16 season of Project SNOWstorm got off to an exciting start when Buena Vista- the Snowy Owl electronically-tagged very early in the project with $2,500 in funding from WSO-- checked in after being out of touch for 20 months.

Author and naturalist Scott Weidensaul posted in his Project SNOWstorm blog on Dec. 14 that his team was "a bit stunned last month to hear form a long-lost study subject, Buena Vista, the second owl we ever tagged, just as (this year's) SNOWstorm was getting under way."

Buena Vista was trapped Dec. 23, 2013, by Prof. Gene Jacobs from UW-Stevens Point, Mike Lanzone of Cellular Tracking Technologies, and Mike's wife, Dr. Trish Miller of University of West Virginia. They caught the then-juvenile male in the Buena Vista Wildlife Area of central Wisconsin, whose grasslands are famous for the state's largest prairie-chicken population.

In contrast to some owls, he remained within a roughly one-square-mile area throughout the winter. His location was just a few miles north of the home of the late Fran and Frederick Hamerstrom, pioneering biologists who in the 1960s organized the first major research project into Snowy Owl irruptions. Buena Vista was last detected March 31, 2014, still on his winter territory, after which scientists assumed he had migrated north. 

"We didn't hear from him at all last winter. That could have been because Snowy Owls don't necessarily come south each year, and if they do, they might not go far enough to reach good cell coverage. Or, as a young bird, he simply might not have survived the intervening year, " Weidensaul wrote. But at the beginning of last month, Buena Vista connected to a cell tower just south of Lake Manitoba, in Manitoba, Canada, about 70 miles north of the North Dakota border.

"He didn't have much of a cell signal, and only sent a small batch of his backlogged data; it will take a number of such connections to upload the thousands fo locations his transmitter should have stored over the past 20 months.

"But what we got was interesting enough. His last location in Wisconsin was April 1, 2014, after which there is a gap of almost a month in the data. On April 30, BV was 664 miles northwest of the Buena Vista grasslands, near the town of Gypsumville, in the interlake region of southern Manitoba, between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg. 

"From there, he flew 1,106 miles farther north to the edge of the Beaufort Sea in northern Nunavet, moving out onto the ice and cutting a wide curve around the Keith Islands, then angling back southeast about 100 miles (322 km), into the barren-grounds lands near Bromley Lake and the Back River-- a place of musk-oxen, grizzly bears, and caribou. (And industry, there is an enormous open-pit gold mine just 44 miles away.) The last data in this transmission was from June 7, 2014. 

"Unfortunately, we haven't heard from Buena Vista again. It may be that the fast-shortening day length up there has taken his battery charge too low, or (perhaps most likely) he's moved some place out of cell range. If he moved toward Winnipeg, he'd hit a region with dense cell coverage..but owls don't know that," Weidensaul wrote. 

Thanks to support from WSO, other organizations and hundreds of people, Project SNOWstorm put GPS transmitters on 22 Snowy Owls during the winter of 2013-'14 to study their ecology and movements while on the wintering grounds. 

Meanwhile, here in Wisconsin, after a large October influx and surprising November lull, Snowy Owls are now making another surge into the state. The DNR's Ryan Brady, bird monitoring coordinator for the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, said recent reports have come from Milwaukee to Superior, Madison to Green Bay, Eau Claire and various other locations statewide. 

You can find recent sightings near you at http://bit.ly/1MMZBMH. Keep in mind that mapped birds may have moved on and others are undoubtedly in unlisted locales waiting to be found.

As of Dec. 16, 108 presumed-unique snowy owls have been found in 45 Wisconsin counties. This compares to 112 and 168 owls in the 2013 and 2014 irruptions, respectively.

On a broader scale, the irruption is wide-spread across the eastern two-thirds of the continent and focused in the northern U.S. and southern Canada as usual. Notable are recent sightings from airports in Washington, D.C., and Denver, Colo. Perhaps best of all, this new batch of owls appears in better body condition that the troubled October birds, Brady noted.