Casco, Feb. 23, 2016, just before her release in Cherryfield.

Casco, a snowy owl captured in Portland, Maine, and outfitted with a satellite transmitted in late February, pulled a bit of a disappearing act earlier this month when the owl covered some major miles and flew out of range in Canada.

Now she’s back, and she has a story to tell.

Casco, Feb. 23, 2016, just before her release in Cherryfield.
Casco, Feb. 23, 2016, just before her release in Cherryfield.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the release of Casco in Cherryfield on Feb. 23.

The rather large female owl was released in private blueberry barrens — with the permission of the landowners, of course — after being outfitted with a light-weight, solar-powered satellite transmitter by a biologist working for Project SNOWstorm, a collaborative research project to learn more about snowy owls and their migrations in the United States.

The biologist, Lauren Gilpatrick with Maine’s Biodiversity Research Institute, told me that the satellite transmitter was carefully placed on the bird with a special harness that doesn’t hinder the owl’s movements and fits under its feathers. The transmitter sits on the owl’s upper back, catching the sun that fuels it, and is capable of collecting very detailed data about the owl’s movements every 30 minutes or so. The data is sent to Project SNOWstorm weekly, and after a bit of a waiting period, they post the information online so the public can also watch the snowy owl’s movements.

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Biologist Lauren Gilpatrick and Casco with a satellite transmitter on her back.
Biologist Lauren Gilpatrick and Casco with a satellite transmitter on her back.

On Feb. 23, I watched Casco fly over the blueberry barrens and disappear over the trees of Cherryfield. She looked happy to be free, and perhaps ready to hunt for her dinner.

From there, Project SNOWstorm tracked Casco as she flew a couple hundred miles north, crossing into New Brunswick and Quebec near the Gaspé Peninsula around the first of March. Then she vanished.

You see, the satellite transmitter she carries collects data using GPS satellites, but the data is transmitted back to Project SNOWstorm by cellphone tower. So if there isn’t good cellphone reception where the owl is, Project SNOWstorm doesn’t receive any updates. But the transmitter is still collecting data, storing it away until it can contact Project SNOWstorm.

At least that’s how it was described to me. Pretty cool, huh?

Recently, Casco flew back into cellphone tower range and all of the data she’d collected was sent to Project SNOWstorm, so now we have an idea of what she’s been up to.

Instead of going north, as snowy owls are expected to do this time of year to reach their breeding grounds in the Arctic, Casco took a loopy route far to the south, crossing six states and provinces in the process, according to a detailed report written by Project SNOWstorm co-founder Scott Weidensaul and posted on the Project SNOWstorm website on March 27.

Courtesy of Project SNOWstorm
Courtesy of Project SNOWstorm. Casco’s entire flight from Feb. 23 to March 27.

On the night of March 4, she left Grand Falls, New Brunswick, right on the Maine border, and flew about 100 miles due west across the remote and largely uninhabited timberlands of northern Maine, the wild St. John and Allagash river drainages. And almost as soon as she crossed the border into Quebec, she stopped to rest (and likely hunt) at a large timber processing facility near Saint-Pamphile — probably the first gap in the endless forest that she’d seen.

From there, Casco’s route turned southwest, and roughly paralleled the western Maine-Quebec border, remaining on the Canadian side. She spent about 10 days, from March 6-16, near Saint-Ludger, Quebec, an area of farmland along the Riviere de la Chaudier in what is otherwise a heavily forested region.

Then, on March 18, she flew east of Sherbrook, Quebec, and made a sharp turn south to drop into northern Vermont, becoming the first SNOWstorm owl to make an appearance in the Green Mountain State.

She overflew St. Johnsbury in the wee hours before dawn March 19, clipping along at 50 mph. (That’s the kind of detailed data this high tech transmitter can collect!)

Crossing into New Hampshire, Casco rested for a time above treeline on Mt. Moosilauke, a 4,802-foot peak at the southern end of the White Mountains.

“Its alpine tundra must have looked a little like home,” wrote Weidensaul.

She then flew another 93 miles southeast, over the middle of Portsmouth, N.H., and out over the ocean. A few miles offshore, the owl turned back toward land and followed the coast down to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in northern Massachusetts.

In all, she’d flown more than 550 miles since her last check-in.

Deciding that the deep forests around Sebago Lake didn't suit her, Merrimack flew back to the coast last week. (Note, north is at the right.) (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)
Courtesy of Project SNOWstorm. Casco’s flight along the coast recently.

To keep track of “Casco,” as well as “Brunswick,” the other snowy owl tagged in Maine this year, visit the Project SNOWstorm website at www.projectsnowstorm.org and look under the tab called “Maps,” then select 2015-16 to see a list of the snowy owls tagged this past winter.

Project SNOWstorm is a collaboration between dozens of scientists and organizations, many of them volunteering time and resources to learn more about these mysterious birds. The project was formed in the wake of the historic 2013-14 snowy owl irruption: a dramatic increase in population followed by a migration south to the United States in great numbers. To learn more about the irruption and how it affected Maine, check out my story “Snowy owls infiltrate Maine, stirring questions about human wildlife relations.”

To donate to Project SNOWstorm, visit www.nedsmithcenter.org/product/project-snowstorm-donation/. Many of the contributions are used to help purchase satellite transmitters to place on snowy owls in the near future.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...