Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The short season of the short-eared owls

Short-Eared Owl Backed by Golden Light, Skagit County, Washington

Where I’m from — the greater Seattle area — a snowbird is a person, a person who travels far south to spend the winter in the sunny warmth. But to a short-eared owl, a different type of snow bird, where I’m from is the south.

For a few months a year — the coldest months — you can often spot a short-eared owl or two flying back and forth over an empty field, hunting for voles. Some fields can attract a half-dozen of these owls.

And these owls attract people. Owls are not often easy to observe. Owls typically work at night. They usually try hard to blend in with their surroundings. They generally keep quiet.

Short-Eared Owl Flying in Morning Light, Skagit County, Washington

The short-eared owls do the opposite. They’re very active for a few hours after sunrise and just before sunset. They work open fields and grasslands, not dense forests. And they’ll speak up if another owl or a northern harrier infringes on their territory.

They put on a great show and they don’t try to hide.

Short-Eared Owl Hunting Over Field, Skagit County, Washington

At one time or another, you can find short-eared owls in most parts of the world. They’re they most widely distributed of any owl species. They can travel across the ocean. They’re found in Hawai`i.

Even though my files are full of short-eared owl images, I still try to visit them at least once each winter. I recently ventured out on one of the few clear mornings we have had this winter.

Arriving at a favorite field while stars still filled the sky, there wasn’t a sign of the owls. As the first color of sunrise appeared, they began taking flight.

Short-Eared Owl Hunting, Snowy Day, Skagit County, Washington

Despite their short ears, these owls can hear quite well. They most often catch prey by hearing it. They’re even able to find voles hidden under the cover of snow.

In the faint light, I could see them flying low over the grass, almost coming to a stop and then plunging to try to catch a meal. They were easier to spot when they flew high in the sky, their dark bodies showing against the brighter sky.

Two Short-Eared Owls in Flight, Sunrise, Skagit County, Washington

Every so often, a couple of owls would tangle with each other. There would be a guttural warning squawk. Then maybe they might give chase and try to attack with their talons. A moment later they would separate and hunt in their own areas.

As the sun cleared the horizon, bathing the field in a golden glow, I marveled at the beauty of the owls as the backlight gave them a striking fringe.

Short-Eared Owl Flying in Tall Grass, Skagit County, Washington

I took pictures for the better part of two hours, but it was time to pack up. It was still just 22 degrees. Even if the owls were still dramatic, the light was less so and my cold fingers were begging for mercy.

 In a month or so, the mornings won’t be so uncomfortable. But by then, these short-eared owls will be on their way to Alaska or the Yukon.

‘Til next winter.

Short-Eared Owl in Flight, Winter, Skagit County, Washington

(Prints of Kevin Ebi's images are available through LivingWilderness.com. Learn about new work by joining his mailing list.)

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