At the end of 2013, snowy owls started showing up far south of their usual winter range. The big white birds were reported in South Carolina, Georgia, even Florida.
Dave Brinker, an ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, had never seen anything like it.
“Something huge is going on,” Brinker told his colleagues. “We won’t see something like this for a long time, probably for the rest of our lifetimes.”
The invasion wasn’t just a boon to birders; it was a scientific opportunity. The lives of snowy owls aren’t well understood because they spend much of their lives in the Arctic, far from humans. But Brinker and fellow bird biologist Scott Weidensaul knew if they could follow the movements of these wide-ranging owls as the birds returned to the frozen north, the scientists could learn a lot about their hunting patterns, breeding behavior and migration routes.
These transmitters are capable of recording exact latitude, longitude and altitude, to an accuracy of a couple of feet. That means we know the exact trees, homes, piers, silos and skyscrapers these owls rested on as they traversed the country.
I set out to follow the path of one young male owl, retracing his 14,000 GPS coordinates from a Maryland beach to his last known location up in Canada. We saw the things he saw, met the people he met and hoped to find the owl himself at the end of the road.