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Short-eared Owls

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

March 7, 2022

I am no stranger to winter weather. After all, I do live in the frozen northland. So, I really didn’t think much about it when I went out the other day to photograph some owls. I had in mind the shot I wanted and was determined to get out and try to make it happen. The subject was Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) and I was hoping to get just one clean and clear image of this owl in flight. Perhaps with its head turned towards me so I can see both eyes.

Driving down the road on my mini adventure to find and photo these owls, I checked the outside air temperature by looking on my dashboard which read -18 F. Normally that kind of temperature doesn’t bother me but what I didn’t take into consideration was the wind, which was over 20 mph and guesting to over 30 mph. Yikes!

I had extra jackets, extra gloves and hat in my truck so off I went. Arriving late in the afternoon about 2 hours before sunset I set out to find some Shor-eared Owls. The Short-eared Owl is a grassland species that is in the genus Asio which is in the “eared” owl group, although the tufts of feathers they have are barley noticeable, hence their name, “short-eared”.

Short-eared Owls are a medium sized owl with large yellow eyes and thick, dark eyeliner around each eye that makes them look like they are wearing too much eye makeup. Very goth-like. Like other owls they have short necks and puffy heads. One thing that isn’t short on these owls are the wings. They have long broad wings which when they fly, they look like butterfly wings flapping.

Unlike most of our owl species, the Short-ear’s are found throughout the world on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. It has one of the most widespread distributions of any bird, let alone an owl species. In some parts of their range, they migrate south, while in other parts of the range they are non-migratory.

They often hunt in small groups. Most other owl species hunt solo or perhaps with its mate only. The shorties gather in winter in small flocks of up to 10 or so and hunt for small mammals such as mice and voles in wetlands and grasslands. They fly low over the ground, looking and listening for small mammals. They can stall their flight and hover for short periods of time before dropping down to pounce on their prey.

When one member of the hunting party catches something, the other owls often chase after the one with the prey, which leads to some fun areal battles. The other owls try to snatch the fresh caught prey right out of the talons of the one who has the mouse or vole. The one who caught the prey often flies far away to eat without being harassed by the others.

Arriving at the location where I had seen Short-eared Owls before, I stepped out of my truck right into the teeth of a 30-mph wind out of the northwest, and wind-chills approaching -40 degrees below zero. Immediately I put on a third jacket and pulled my hat down to cover my ears. Wow, it was cold.

In this kind of weather, the batteries in my camera’s don’t hold up well so within minutes my first camera battery gave up and I was forced to take off my gloves to change the battery. Looking through the view finder of my camera causes my breath, when exhaled, to freeze on the screen that controls the camera. This doesn’t help in any way. Wearing thick winter gloves doesn’t help either, especially when the buttons on the camera are tiny and hard to feel even when you aren’t wearing gloves.

One problem after another and soon I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore and my face felt like it was on fire. But I stayed and continued to try to capture some images. Fortunately, right when the cold became unbearable, and the sun was about to set, one of the owls captured a vole near me and was trying to fly up high enough to get away with the prize when a second owl spotted this and came over to see if he could snatch the prey away. The two owls weren’t concentrating on me, so they flew right past me allowing me to capture a few quick images.

I got back in my truck and start up the engine and turn on some heat. Driving home I could slowly start to feel my hands and face again. Not the exact image I was hoping for, but it will have to do. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on Instagram.com, facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at naturesmart.com.


The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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