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.
A grandson and I went to Crex Meadows at Grantsburg, Wis, Saturday, hoping he could see the Garganey. When we arrived about 10 a.m., no Garganey. There was a young man with a scope who had been there since 6 a.m. He had given the quest 11 fruitless hours on Friday. I figured he was not going to give up, so I asked if he had a cell phone (yes), gave him my card, and asked him to call me if and when the duck appeared. An hour later, as Cole and I were watching warblers, the phone rang with the anticipated message. Using the phone for an alert was just like the old days.
The Garganey made brief and distant appearances throughout the day. We visited with a couple that had driven up from Oklahoma, and another from Missouri. Guest-book records in the Crex nature center show entries by people from Kansas, Montana, and Oregon, the assumption being that they came for the duck. That certainly is not definitive of visitor travels, but it does indicate the importance many people placed on seeing this Eurasian bird.
The teal in the Garganey pond (County Road F and Abel Road) put on the best show waterfowl yesterday. Warblers were thin, just one location I would call good. There were few shorebirds, this collection of a dozen yellowlegs being the best we saw. We did find six garter snakes, five painted turtles, one snapping turtle, and a bat, all important to an 12-year-old a who loves those creatures along with birds.
We also saw tens of thousands of spiders spread along 150 yards of webbing stretched from weed stems along Pump House Road at Crex. Very strange. If you got too close, as I did, they ran up legs and onto neck and hair. Not good. Larger ones were the size of pennies, the smallest maybe an eighth inch.
"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.
This rotten weather, bad as you might think it is, is worse for some of the migrant bird species now here, early migrants like Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows. Both eat insects, although bluebirds can supplement their diet with berries. The swallows rely completely on flying insects. This rain is making it almost impossible to find insects. I asked Carrol Henderson about this. Carrol is supervisor of the non-game wildlife department of the Minnesota DNR. This is his reply:
“Yes, I think our "insectivores" are In for a difficult couple weeks ahead! If someone has easy access to nest boxes in their yard or property, they could order mealworms from companies like Grubco or Rainbow mealworms, and place them in "feeders" like tuna cans or old breakfast food bowls (these keep the mealworms from escaping) on elevated sites like on top of a fencepost or fastened on a tray on top of a post near the nest box. The mealworms can be kept sealed in their containers in the garage as long as it is so cool. Otherwise, they may need to be stashed in an obscure spot in the refrigerator!
“This cool weather is also a good reminder for people to plant fruit-bearing shrubs with shrubs like American highbush cranberry and bittersweet as an early-spring emergency food source for returning bluebirds.”
Many wild-bird supply stores also carry meal worms. This White-breasted Nuthatch is taking a meal worm.
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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