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Owl’s return delayed

(Dec. 12, 2014) The pending nor’easter that soaked the shore in the early part of the week washed out plans to return a female snowy owl to Assateague Island after she was rescued in mid-March with a broken wing.

In announcing the pending departure of the owl formerly known as “Dolphin Eater,” Dave Brinker, a regional ecologist with the Department of Natural Resources, explained the bird’s colorful nickname.

This particular owl had been previously caught and banded, and, when she was first recovered, she was stained orange and “reeked of rancid spoiling meat,” Brinker said. As it happened, birdwatchers from Cape Henlopen reported seeing a snowy owl feasting on the remains of an expired dolphin and assumed this was the same bird.

Now dubbed “Delaware,” the owl was found to have broken bones in her wingtip. Surgeons from the Baltimore Zoo reportedly fused the bones, hoping the repair and rest would give Delaware the ability to be released back into the wild.

The release was first scheduled for Monday with a rain date of Tuesday, but the nor’easter consumed both days. Delaware’s day was set for Wednesday, but it was then pushed to Thursday, Dec. 11.

“[Wednesday’s] weather on the coast features very strong and gusty winds and a continued small chance of rain or snow. The wind will continue through the night but begin dropping after sunset,” Brinker said.

Since Delaware will just be regaining her freedom and might still need some final conditioning before she is fully back to her wild state, Brinker continued, the release will be given another day to let the winds subside.

As part of the owl’s rehabilitation, she was outfitted with a GPS transmitter as part of Project Snowstorm, a program dedicated to tracking snowy owls as they experience a phenomenon called an “irruption.”

The Project Snowstorm website explains that snowy owls generally live their entire lives in the Arctic, but every now and then for reasons not fully understood by science, the owls come flooding south. The winter of 2013-14 was described as a “mega-irruption,” something not seen for a century. This year the irruption continues a bit farther west than last year’s, just east of the Great Lakes.

“It’s not like these birds don’t deal with storms in the wild, but what they tend to do is just find a place and sit,” Brinker said, “We know from the GPS telemetry they just sit down, and we don’t want to handicap [Delaware] from the start.”

The former Dolphin Eater has been in captivity for nine months.

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