Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
As a summary to the extraordinary Snowy Owl winter we enjoyed, here's an eBird © map of owl location and movement between January and March. The map was created by the crew at ProjectSNOWstorm, the owl-tracking effort that included the Minnesota owl known as Ramsey.
The map includes so many data points that the mapping software converted all individual points to colored blocks, the more intense the color, the more sightings in that area. Minneapolis is at the extreme left edge of the map.
There were a lot of owls.
Great Egrets are seen daily in a pasture near our home. The bit of land has a small stream running through it, offering good hunting for the birds, and surprising me when this strictly seasonal flow holds fish. An entire egret is an imposing sight. Close looks at egret parts give emphasis to that. Here are egrets feted, toes well armed, and legs, the latter seemingly wrapped in leather like the steering wheel of an expensive car. And the egret’s hunting weapon, testimony to weapon and skill. The fish is a stickleback, a common, small Minnesota fish.
Broad-winged Hawks eat frogs. This one was delivering take-out captured in our pond. The hawks are nesting a couple of yards down the street. The day this photo was taken we watched the hawk visit and pond and its marshy edges three times. We have chorus frogs, Spring Peepers, Wood Frogs, and Leopard Frogs out there. The meal looks like a Wood Frog.
"Ramsey, our Minnesota-tagged owl who spent the winter just outside the Twin Cities, definitely hears the call of the north. After missing a check-in on April 23, his transmitter phoned home on Saturday night -- from Saskatchewan!
"In the previous six days he'd left Ramsey County, N.D., flown across the southwestern corner of Manitoba the night of April 22-23 -- hitting speeds of almost 50 knots (55 mph/89 kph) along the way -- and stopped for the day in Division No. 16, the county-level equivalent in Manitoba.
"That's flat and empty prairie country, lots of grain farming and not a lot of people. The nearby town of Binscarth is noted for "the largest outdoor swimming pool on the Yellowhead Highway," I have learned, but I doubt that's why Ramsey stopped.
"The map below shows Ramsey's position and GSM cell coverage in Saskatchewan.
"We got lucky. One thing that part of Manitoba doesn't have is much cell coverage, though. When last Wednesday night came and his transmitter tried to call, it apparently got no signal, and so kept storing up data.
"By Saturday, though, Ramsey was sitting on the ice of Silver Lake, near the hamlet of Tufnell, Saskatchewan (population 10) -- and fortunately for us, he was just north of the Yellowhead Highway, along which runs a line of GSM cell towers.
"In all, he'd flown 337 miles (542 km) in the previous six days -- but depending on his route, this may be the last time we hear from him this spring, because those cell towers along the highway are about it.
"North of there, the only cell towers belong to Sasktel's network, and from what I've been able to tell they don't use GSM, which is the cellular system our transmitters use. Here's a map that shows the GSM coverage in the province, overlayed on Ramsey's position Saturday night -- as you can see, north of him there's nothing much, all the way to the Arctic. Unless he flies even farther west into Alberta, where GSM cell coverage is far more extensive and extends much farther north, this may be our last contact with Ramsey for this season."
On the map, Ramsey crosses into Canada from North Dakota as shown by the blue markers in the lower right corner.
The Minnesota Snowy Owl named Ramsey is slowly working its way north, most recently located in Ramsey, N.D., of all places. Here is yesterday’s report from Scott Weidensaul, coordinator of Project SNOWstorm, the Snowy Owl tracking project of which Ramsey was part.
From Ramsey, to Ramsey, by Ramsey
By Scott Weidensaul
Shakespeare said a rose by any name would smell as sweet, but what about an owl by any name?
We nicknamed our tagged owls for locations and geographic features -- a better means keeping them straight than easily confused band numbers, without needlessly anthropomorphizing them with human names. And we weren't always especially creative -- which is why the male owl banded in Ramsey, Minnesota became, well, Ramsey.
If you've been reading this blog all winter, you'll recall that Ramsey was the most localized snowy owl we had, scarcely moving half a mile all winter from where he was tagged. But since he started migrating a month ago, he's put some miles under his wings -- first south and west, and now northwest.
He's been AWOL for weeks at a time, hunting prairie country in southwest Minnesota with poor cell reception. He dropped off the radar again after April 5, and didn't resurface until Sunday night, having made a nearly 300-mile (480 km) flight up into northeastern North Dakota.
What caught my eye -- and stirred my memory -- was seeing his location just east of Devil's Lake. That's the heart of prairie pothole country, the fabulously rich breeding ground for waterfowl and shorebirds, a maze of millions of small lakes and marshes, and I'd spent several glorious summer weeks in the late 1990s exploring that part of the pothole region.
What I hadn't noticed was exactly where Ramsey was, until Steve Huy emailed me.
"Did you notice Ramsey is headed straight for Ramsey, N.D.?” he asked.
Actually, as Steve and I soon realized, he was already there -- shortly before dawn on Sunday he'd crossed the line from Nelson County to Ramsey County.
What are the odds? Pretty steep. There appear to be just eight towns or counties in the country named Ramsey...and he's found one of them.
(If he wants to make this an international habit, he'll have to make a big right turn -- Ramsey, Canada, is a mining ghost town, and it's 750 miles [1,200 km] to the east in Ontario.)
Kidding aside, Ramsey is following a decent track for maintaining cell reception as long as possible. Not that there are a lot of towers in North Dakota -- there aren't. But Manitoba just to the north has better coverage than western Ontario, and Saskatchewan to the west of it has even more towers.
The diminishing number of owls checking in every three days suggests a number of them may already have moved into country beyond the cell tower -- and contact with us, at least until next winter.
(The location transmitters the owls carry can store up to 100,000 pieces of data, all available for download when the birds next come within cell-tower range.)
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