Sunday, December 5, 2010

Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus. Photo by Douglas Ritzert.

Indications are that this'll be a good winter for one of our most interesting birds, the Short-eared Owl. Reports of numerous short-eareds are coming in from scattered sites around Ohio, including Big Island and Killdeer Plains wildlife areas about an hour north of Columbus.

I headed up that way after work last Friday, and wasn't disappointed. There are few spectacles as entertaining as watching a bunch of these odd unowllike owls working the meadows, diving at prey and jabbering and fighting among themselves.

Vast expanses of wet prairie have been restored at Big Island in recent years, and this is the vista from the observation platform along the north side of State Route 95, not far west of its junction with State Route 203. If you want to watch the show, this is the spot. I watched about six short-eareds from this very place, and occasionally one would pass quite near. It was even possible to hear their odd terrier-like barking yaps, given liberally when any other owl or perhaps a Northern Harrier would invade one's space. Doesn't seem like owl habitat, but Short-eared Owls are very much birds of open landscapes, hunting the same ecosystems that host meadow-dwellers such as Eastern Meadowlarks and harriers.

You'll have to forgive my photos - it was pretty much dark when I made them, and I don't yet have the big lens for my new Nikon D7000. These were shot at great range in dusky conditions with a 105mm and cropped - not the right way to go about capturing such beasts on pixels.

In spite of photo quality issues, the utterly distinctive flight style of the Short-eared Owl can be seen above. "Moth-like" perhaps sums it up best; deep rather languid wingbeats that give the impression that the owl is gently floating through the air. The above photo shows this owl's wings near the apex of its upstroke. Short-eared Owls are actually capable of clapping their wingtips together and creating a loud smacking sound, and such wing claps are part of their courtship display.

If you get into a situation where numerous Short-eared Owls are hunting the same turf, it won't be long before you'll see some hostile encounters. These birds rank high among the world's most antisocial beasts, and when not paired off for breeding purposes, they generally despise the presence of other raptors. Above, two owls conflict after too close of an encounter. Their dogfight was filled with protesting barks, strafing, and fabulous bursts of speed. It didn't last long and the Alpha reclaimed his position.

A half-dozen Short-eared Owls quartering a field seems rather a haphazard thing, with owls streaking, floating and diving in all directions. I doubt that it is, though. They are after little rodents called Meadow Voles, which are like lemmings in that they have boom and bust years. This winter, apparently, is a boom year at least locally.

Voles create well-defined runways through the grass, and if you learn to recognize these chutes and watch for them, they can be fairly conspicuous. These grassy corridors are the voles' super highways, used repeatedly in their forages. I suspect that rather than roam the fields haphazardly, hoping for a vole to appear, the owls tend to follow the jigs and jags of the vole runways, upping their odds of an encounter.

Short-eared Owls are crepuscular - active in the twilight hours. This works to our advantage, as it's often plenty light enough for great owl observing when they start to become active. If you'd like to go enjoy the Big Island short-eareds, I'd recommend getting up there an hour or so prior to dusk. There are also plenty of Northern Harriers, and if you arrive early enough you'll witness the changing of the guard, as the harriers pack it in for the night and the owls start to become active.

On the way back, my route took me through Upper Sandusky, where I encountered a fantastic sea of Christmas lights. Driving along North Sandusky Avenue - the main drag - past Harrison Smith Park, I was floored to see a virtual eruption of colorful lights.

This display is known as the Winter Fantasy of Lights, and you can read more about it HERE.

If you are into such things, it's an easy trip to Upper Sandusky from the owl-watching havens of Big Island and Killdeer Plains.

And if you want a great place to dine, right down the street is MJ Mugsy's, which is magnifico!

Not a bad evening: owling, over the top Xmas lights, and fabulous Italian food!


Anonymous said...

I saw the owls that Saturday. Our group was at the very next pull off spot past the observation deck. When we left, I was driving back toward Marion, and there was one owl that was flying low right next to the road. AWESOME view!

Jim McCormac said...

Very good, glad you saw them! Their numbers grow; Russ Reynolds reported at least 25 at Big Island today!