Cape May’s Visiting Admiral: Higbee the Snowy Owl

Susan Allen

Meet Higbee the snowy owl.

After a long-distance flight from a remote northern tundra, a visitor touched down on a sandy stretch of Cape May coastline, not too far from the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center.

He sat poised and restful—tucked between patches of golden dune grass, eyes barely open—sleeping off the jetlag.

The visitor is a male snowy owl that goes by the name Higbee, after the Delaware bayshore beach noted for its birding, sunsets and knotty driftwood (perfect perches for hunting owls).

With his white-feathered coat, decorated in gray bars, and long talons concealed underneath fluffy feet, he ranks as an admiral on the avian food chain.

The Admiral Ambassador

Unlike most snowy owls, Higbee is an ambassador for science and education. He wears a backpack that stores valuable scientific data detailing his favorite hunting grounds, migration patterns and whereabouts on a 24/7 basis.

Higbee’s high-tech bling was designed by Cellular Tracking Technologies based in Rio Grande, N.J. The wildlife telemetry company evolved from a collaboration of three scientists seeking to track golden eagles over a mobile phone network in 2006 to an innovative team of software engineers and scientists offering solutions to track wildlife and visualize data across the globe.

Research biologist Michael Lanzone, CEO of Cellular Tracking Technologies, successfully captured and outfitted Higbee with a transmitter on Dec. 5 as a Project SNOWstorm collaborator with help from his wife and fellow scientist, Trish Miller, David La Puma, director of New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory, and other local birders. The Nature Conservancy sponsored Higbee’s transmitter.

Solar and Cell Towers Solve Puzzles

Higbee’s backpack delicately harnesses a solar-powered GPS-GSM transmitter between his wings to log his location coordinates (using the GPS satellite system) at intervals as fast as every 30 seconds. Unlike a satellite transmitter, a GPS-GSM transmitter relays the location data over the GSM mobile cellular network. Researchers and enthusiasts alike can access this data online.

The advantage to using the cellular network is a savings in fees for satellite time per transmitter, explains Scott Weidensaul, a Project SNOWstorm team member, founding board member of the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, and author.

When Higbee heads to the Arctic for the summer, he’ll be out of range, but the transmitter is capable of storing 100,000 locations, which is more than 12 year’s worth of data. Once he’s back in range, the data will be transmitted, reporting on everything that happened while he was offline.

Mega Irruption Gives Scientists Unique Opportunity

As of this writing, Higbee is the 53rd snowy owl (and currently the third of three snowy owls in N.J.) to be tagged by Project SNOWstorm, the first scientific effort to extensively map snowy owl movement. The project was a result of the winter 2013-14 mega irruption (a southerly invasion) that saw owls as far south as Florida and Bermuda. Scientists capitalized on what was likely the century’s largest irruption in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions to begin studying snowy owls outside their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic.

Wintering snowy owl behavior has eluded scientists who were previously limited by daylight to make their observations. Now, transmitters are working 24/7 to help fill in the blanks.

Snowy Owl Hangouts

So far, Higbee is splitting his time between Cape May and Stone Harbor, making stops near Beach Plum Farm, Wildwood Golf and Country Club and the causeway into Stone Harbor.

Island Beach and Lenape, the other two owls tagged in the state this season, are more exploratory. Island Beach has covered the coast from Long Branch to Cape May Point and west to Heislerville. Lenape, even more adventurous, spends time between Island Beach State Park and Ocean City, M.D. 

In just a few years, Project SNOWstorm data has shown scientists that snowy owls hunt mostly at night and will head over the open ocean in search of waterfowl using channel markers and buoys as perches.

Project SNOWstorm collaborators are particularly excited to have tagged two owls that roam the same territory (Island Beach and Lenape), which will help them study owl-to-owl interactions.

Not an Easy Catch

Adrianna Zito-Livingston and her daughter sat on the beach watching a snowy owl through binoculars, giving it the space it needed to relax. With a transmitter en route to Cape May on the ferry and a team of Project Snowstorm collaborators racing the setting sun to get to the owl, there was only one thing missing. Livingston, coordinator of the South Cape May Meadows Nature Preserve, made a phone call. She recruited the support of The Nature Conservancy to sponsor the owl’s transmitter that was arriving at port.

Lanzone and Miller swiftly set the radio-controlled bow net, finishing just in time for the waking owl to go on the prowl. Despite the full moon, darkness was working against the team, and although the owl made passes over the net, it just wasn’t interested enough to commit a landing on the lure.

The next morning, the owl was not spotted, but the following day, it had returned. This time, the owl was quickly captured, outfitted with the transmitter and named Higbee for scientists and nature enthusiasts to follow.

Lessons from New Jersey’s Snowy Owls

In less than a month, Island Beach and Lenape, both tagged on Nov. 29 at Island Beach State Park, have confirmed that snowy owls like their space. Scott Weidensaul explained, “Snowies are generally solitary, although when they first come south you may find groups of them in good habitat. But, they pretty quickly establish dominance hierarchies, with females (which are larger) tending to dominate.”

Island Beach State Park, a 10-mile barrier island first visited by the Lenape Native American tribes, is one of the last undeveloped coastlines in the state. New Jersey is considered one of the most developed and densely populated shorelines in the country, but out of the 130-mile stretch between Sandy Hook and Cape May Point, there are 31.2 miles of undeveloped shoreline. These empty beaches are preferred habitat.

“Watch an area like the Jersey Shore this winter, where there are significant numbers, and you’ll see a lot of aggressive interactions, not usually violent, but more dominant owls chasing less dominant individuals off,” explained Weidensaul.

Early review of how Island Beach and Lenape may have interacted “suggests they avoided each other for the most part,” said Weidensaul.

“Lenape moved out of Island Beach’s immediate area within a couple of days and wandered far more widely,” he added.

Next Stop

In the coming weeks, Project SNOWstorm is off to new territories. “Our major goals…are deploying several tags on closely grouped owls along Green Bay in Wisconsin, to look at interactions, and also on owls on Amherst Island in Lake Ontario, on which a major wind farm will be going in next year. We tracked a number of owls on Amherst in previous years, and want additional movement data pre-turbine so we can compare how the owls use the island once the turbines are installed versus without,” explained Weidensaul.

In the meantime, keep track of the snowy owls wintering on our beaches and support Project SNOWstorm by visiting www.ProjectSNOWstorm.org.

Day 1: The first attempt at tagging Higbee ended in darkness with no tagged owl.  

 

Day 2: No owl in sight.

 

Day 3: Success!  

Day three…the day I was at work and missed out on the snowstorm. But, check out the great posts by The Nature Conservancy and Project SNOWstorm for photos.

P.S. I asked Scott Weidensaul via email to share his first snowy owl encounter:

As best I recall, my first snowy was in the Champlain Valley of Vermont (Dead Creek WMA) on a dusky, snowy evening many years ago. I had friends who lived not far away, and I was focused on getting to their house for New Years’, but was slowed by snow. I knew that snowies were often seen in that area, and kept my eyes peeled—and realized with a shock that the “pile of snow” I saw on a fencepost not far from the road was actually an owl. Mostly I remember the eyes, because like anyone seeing a snowy for the first time, that’s what grabbed my attention.

Published: December 24, 2017

Susan Allen

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