Thursday, December 16, 2010

More Short-eared Owls

I found myself at Big Island Wildlife Area yesterday, and stayed until late afternoon, when the Short-eared Owls emerged. The number of owls using this nearly 6,000 acre wildlife area has grown steadily since I last reported on them. We saw about ten of them at once last evening, and many others were present elsewhere. There might be as many as 40 or 50, all told.

There's a reason that so many rather antisocial owls are packed so densely, and the answer dwells within this tunnel. If you find yourself at Big Island on an owl-seeking mission, take a moment to scan the snow-encrusted ground for holes such as this. Then look within, and if the occupants have been active of late, you'll likely see fresh grass cuttings and tiny feces that are shaped like Tic-Tacs.

The owl's favored fresh meat - Meadow Voles, Microtus pensylvanicus, the maker of the holes in the snow. Snowfall serves these chunky mouselike rodents well. It insulates their runways, and probably increases the temperature within their grassy domain. Perhaps better yet, the snow offers camouflage from the numerous aerial predators that like to snack on them.

Cute as a button, and to an owl, a furry bratwurst with legs. In spite having snow-covered shelter in the form of a labyrinth of tunnels, the voles just can't seem to resist flirting with danger. They'll poke from their holes, apparently for a look-see around the landscape, or make mad dashes across open ground.
Such boldness can be a fatal mistake.

Like feathered predator drones, the platoon of owls thoroughly sweeps the fields, and those ultra-sharp eyes and ears don't miss a trick. Even a vole's quick run from cover is enough to send a Short-eared Owl barreling down and bushwhacking the little rodent before it knew what hit it.

I have to chuckle at the nattering nabobs of negativity who love to chatter about wetland/wildlife restoration projects funded by sportsmen's dollars. They perpetually claim that such work only goes to benefit ducks, as that's all that hunters care about, and the agencies that oversee such projects only aim to create "duck habitat" and could care less about nonhuntable critters.

A short decade ago, the land now frequented by these owls was in rotations of soybeans, corn, and wheat, and had been for decades. Miles of drainage tile siphoned away the water that moistened this fomer wet prairie, drying the soil enough that crops could be grown. Now, because of the Division of Wildlife's restoration work - funded by sportsmen's dollars - a much more diverse ecological system of prairie plants thrives. Wilson's Phalaropes have bred here, as have many other nongame wetland-dependent birds. The spike in plant diversity jumpstarted the food chain, allowing important prey species such as meadow voles to flourish. And thus the owls have come, to delight the scores of (mostly) non-hunting birders that come to admire them.

If you don't pay for habitat conservation via a hunting license, consider purchasing a Migratory Conservation and Bird Hunting Stamp ("Duck Stamp") or the beautiful new Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp.
Short-eared Owls are quite distinctive, even from afar. They row through the air with deep floppy wingbeats, jagging erratically over the hunting fields. If a vole reveals itself, the owl might briefly hover before plunging down and attempting to seize it.

Short-ears rank high among the most interesting birds to watch. They really don't seem to care for company, but when so many owls are hunting the same area, as is the case at Big Island, conflicts abound. These two crossed paths, and began barking at one another and dropping their talons in a threat display. A bit of strafing, barking, and showings of the claws, and they went their separate ways.

I hope you can make it up to Big Island to see the show. The owl circus seems to have shifted to fields along Espyville Rd. (T-84) between State Route 95 and La Rue-Prospect Rd. The wildlife viewing deck off 95 can also be good, and owls are being seen over the large impoundments on the north side of LaRue-Prospect west of Espyville Rd.

A scan of the map in THIS LINK will reveal all of these sites, and if you make the trip soon I'll guarantee you'll see owls. Just remember, these flat-faced hooters are most active late in the afternoon, towards dusk, and that's when you should visit.


Birding is Fun! said...

Great personal insights into Short-eared Owl behavior. I have enjoyed seeing them only on two occasions both times at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge north of Salt Lake City, Utah. Magnificent species of owl!

Lisa at Greenbow said...

A furry Bratwurst! I will never look at my grilled Brat the same again. tee hee... THey winter near where we live. It is an annual treat to go watch them on snowy days. They are so active therefore easy to see. The way they bark and chase after one another is fun to watch.