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.

Posts about Bird migration

Our owl Ramsey last reported from N.D.

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: April 24, 2014 - 8:02 PM

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.)

One vulture, two cranes

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 31, 2014 - 10:11 AM

Sunday I saw my first Turkey Vulture of the season in a meadow in Orono. The bird groomed itself in the sun for a long time, then glided to the ground to nibble at an extremely dead raccoon. A dozen yards away a pair of Sandhill Cranes poked in the grass for seeds, occasionally announcing their presence. This morning (Monday) the melt water edging our pond held a pair of Mallards and a lone male Wood Duck. We are sneaking up on spring.

The movements of an urban Snowy Owl

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 27, 2014 - 5:06 PM

The Minnesota Snowy Owl that has been tracked by GPS signals since Jan. 26 has moved to a location west of Cosmos,  Minnesota. That is a shift 15 miles west-northwest from its previous site south of Hutchinson. It moved to Hutch from its long-time location in Ramsey, Minnesota, west of Anoka, where it was netted and given its transmitter. This bird is named Ramsey. It is one of 21 Snowy Owls equipped with transmitters by ProjectSNOWstorm, based in Pennsylvania. The project was initiated when the owls began being seen in the eastern U.S. by the hundreds earlier this winter. The owls and the technology came together as a unique opportunity to follow movement of these birds. You can track Ramsey and the other owls at www.projectSNOWstorm.org.

Below is an image (©ProjectSNOWstorm and Google) from the project website showing the movements of an owl located in urban Baltimore. The transmitter on this bird was set to record location every 30 seconds instead of 30 minutes. The illustration shows movements over a two-hour period.

ProjectSNOWstorm will follow the birds as they move back north to breeding grounds. Information is sent to project headquarters via cell-phone technology. The data is downloaded whenever the birds are within range of a cell-phone tower. Yes, there are few if any cell towers in Arctic Canda, but the transmitters can collect and store thousands of pieces of location data for transmission when possible.

You also can use the website to make a contribution to help with financing of the project.

Ramsey the Snowy Owl has moved south

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 22, 2014 - 10:01 PM

The Snowy Owl named Ramsey has moved from its location in the city of Ramsey to a farm field south of Hutchinson. At least that is where is was on the March 18, the most recent date for which information is available. Ramsey to Hutchinson is a 76-mile trip if you follow the route recommended by MapQuest. Ramsey did not follow that route.

The owl left the city of Ramsey at about sunup on March 13, heading southwest. The map tracing his route is fascinating. You can see exactly where it went, and, by the collected blobs of markers, where and when it stopped to hunt. The map is just plain fun to look at, and gives you information never before available in any way. Go to www.projectSNOWstorm, click on maps, click on the Minnesota location.

Ramsey crossed I-94 at about 7:45 that morning, hunting that evening near Corcoran. It flew over Lake Independence in morning darkness on March 14. It was over Watertown an hour later, flying about 200 feet off the ground at 31 miles per hour. Its speed on departure from Ramsey, incidentally, was a leisurely 11 miles per hour. During the entire trip its top recorded speed was 34 miles per hour.

The morning of the 15th the owl hunted west of Watertown. It began moving west/southwest that night, its transmitter placing the bird five miles east of Hutchinson at 4:27 a.m. on March 16. That day it moved very close to its location it had on the 18th. The map shows Ramsey hunting and roosting in an area along State Highway 15 about three miles south of Hutchinson. At night he seemed to prefer hunting fields east of the highway. During the day it was closer to the road or to its west.

Posting of these maps is delayed 72 hours because precise and timely location information is feared to attract photographers. There have been problems with photographers harassing owls at almost every location where Project SNOWstorm has a tagged owl. (There are 21 of them.)

I’ll update Ramsey’s movements when the next report is available, or you can track the owl yourself. Soon, it and the other owls are going to turn north and return to their Arctic nesting locations.

Below is Ramsey, photographed about two weeks ago at its city Ramsey location, which is west of Anoka and east of Elk River along Highways 169/10. The transmitter that allows the bird’s location to be charted can be seen on its back just below its neck. The very light piece of equipment stores the information it collects, transferring it to the Pennsylvania headquarters of the project when the bird is within range of a cell-phone tower.

An excellent book on North America's rare birds

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: February 28, 2014 - 4:54 PM

Rare Birds of North America, Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington, Will Russell, Princeton University Press, 2014, hardcover, 428 pages, heavily illustrated, with index, $35.

All bird identification books should be this good. 

The two authors and the artist, Lewington, have created a guide to 262 species of birds rarely seen in North America. Their criteria for species is five or fewer North American sightings per year, using records dating to 1950.

The book is lavishy illustrated; Lewington is a fine artist. The text is lavish, too, far more information offered than is found in the usual field guide.

This, of course, is not a usual field guide. Working with 262 species, about one-third the number found in your Peterson or Sibley guides, is a real advantage for the authors, thus a real plus for readers.

Each species is discussed first in a brief summary of where it has been seen. Comment on taxonomy follows, then extensive discussion of status and distribution, comments on sightings, very complete field identification comments, including differing plumages by age, sex, and season, and comments on similar species. Similar species often are illustrated; side-by-side comparisons can be  made. 

If you seek rare birds or just hope to encounter one on your travels, the authors give you a thorough review and explanation of vagrancy and migration patterns. With many maps and clear text, you can actually plot — well, make a reasonable guess — as to where and when you want to be to see whatever. 

There are no other books I know of that offer such extensive analysis.

The book is an enjoyable and educational read for anyone interested in how and why rare birds sometimes show up in odd places, including Minnesota and Wisconsin. 

There was a Fieldfare, a northern European thrush, in Grand Marais in 1991, for example, way off its usual paths. A tropical hummingbird called Green Violet-ear spent a few days in LaCrosse in 1998. Another tropical hummer, a Green-breasted Mango, was in eastern Wisconsin in 2007. 

Minnesota had a Garganey, a European duck, in 1993. It breeds across northern Eurasia. A Smew was seen in Superior, Wisconsin, in 2000. It’s a boreal breeder from Scandinavia east across Russia. Minnesota has seen more than one Fork-tailed Flycatcher, a resident of South America.

The book helps you understand why this happens and, perhaps, when. The latter makes this a beautifully done wish-list.


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