Short-eared Owls of the Plains

Published March 4th, 2021 in The Waitsburg Times.

Glimpses of white flashed through the heavy sagebrush as Finn dashed across the scablands. There were Hungarian partridge and valley quail hunkered somewhere among the sage sea and She was working her best to locate them. A carpet of spent grasses and forbs provided ample food sources for upland birds, which were inexplicably absent from the flood-scared landscape.

Circling a small basalt butte, I recalled the last flash of white being off to the left about 30-yards. Starting in that direct, my handheld locator alerted me that Finn was on point, simultaneous with my catching another glimpse of white between the waist-high brush.

Rushing on for a flush, a single bird levitated silently, catching the wind and flapping lazily to perch on a lichen-encrusted fence post and peer judgingly back at us. Its round head and exaggerated wingbeats gave it away instantly. A short-eared owl, I would come to learn.

Over the years, my setters and I have flushed short-ears a number of times on the Palouse. Occasionally pairs emerge. When hunting covey birds, there is no concern over drawing a bead on one of these peculiar raptors that can be downright startling, but when chasing something like sharp-tailed grouse, expecting a brown and white bird of similar size can be momentarily confusing.

Short-eared owls are brown spotted with a buff, streaked chest and white under the wings, resembling dried grasses. Their pale face is clearly defined with large golden eyes, outlined in black as if they are wearing eye liner.  And if you really want to dive into the minutia of detail, a dark comma-shape is prominent on the white underwing.

An owl’s “ears” are the lateral feather tufts on the head. The great horned owl boasts magnificent “ears”, but they are far less conspicuous on the short-eared owl. Only when on the defensive are the short-ear’s tufts erect and visible, hence, its namesake. 

Aside from their unique, exaggerated flapping and flight that the Audubon Society describes as “buoyant” and appearing like a “giant moth”, I’ve come to read the dog in the instances they point before the owl appears. They must possess a unique odor as the dogs know it’s a bird, but it just doesn’t smell right. Their points are tentative rather than rigid and confident, and when the bird levitates, the dogs peel off with no desire to pursue it.

Our numerous encounters with short-ears on the grasslands comes from them being the most wide-spread owl species in the world, occurring on every continent. Their North American range spans the entire continent nearly to the Arctic with year-round residency and breeding approximately across the northern band of the contiguous 48 U.S. states.

While most owls prefer some form of dark cover and timber, short-eared owls inhabit the open plains, shrub-steppe, tundra and marshlands, where they roost and nest on the ground like upland gamebirds or waterfowl. When nesting, the female selects a high spot and scratches out a bowl-shaped depression similar to what you might find a pheasant using as a dusting bowl. She fills the bowl with down feathers and grasses for soft, warm brood rearing. Nesting and breeding occurs March through June and peaks in April in the northern hemisphere.

Short-eared owls hunt mainly by sound, listening for rodents scurrying and scuffling in the prairie or wetland duff. While they hunt at night like other owls, one of most unique traits of short-eared owls is their common daytime activity. Short-eared owls are very active in the crepuscular periods of the day and can be seen most any other time of day.

Although these medium-sized owls are common locally and worldwide, my encounters with them have always been on large tracts of shrub-steppe. The patchwork of draw-bottom habitats dappling our wheat local wheat farms typically supports species of alder, cottonwood and black locust, more enticing to great horned owls who would whoop the shorts off the short-eared owl if it desired the shade.

Short-ears are easy to photograph and easily approachable. Finding them is the real challenge. A hike through public lands west of Dayton or the central Washington scablands near Odessa are areas where I commonly see these pale-faced fowl. A canine companion can increase your odds of discovery, but the camera must be at the ready.

Once spooked, Short-ears typically remain close, perching quickly, but the slightest additional human movement can put prompt distance between you. Select a fast shutter speed for the moving target. Upon the flush, train your focus on the bird and try for that perfect in-flight shot, then wait for the owl to settle and capture that wide-eyed glance of incredulous judgement born only of a meal or midday snooze disrupted.