Chasing Short-eared Owls

by Gabriel Chupp | Jan 1, 2024 | 0 comments

Short-eared Owl flying over a farm field
Short-eared Owl flying over a farm field. Photo © Adrian Shank.

It was the evening of December 31, 2020. I was returning home from trying to find one more year bird, when my birding friend Tim Byler pulled up behind me with his taxi driver. He had gone to look for Short-eared Owls at a place about 12 miles (19 km) from us where people were seeing them every evening, but I had not been allowed to go along. Grinning, he showed me a picture he had taken with the driver’s phone—a picture of a big bird on a fence post that was unmistakably a Short-eared Owl. And thus began my own quest to see them.

The next day was January 1, and I was out again, working on giving my brand new year list a jump start. This time Tim was along too. We had a good day, tallying in the upper thirties, but in the afternoon it started raining. Hard. We couldn’t bird like this.

We had discussed trying for the Short-eareds again this evening, and now we decided to try it. We quickly called a driver, and within minutes he arrived. We piled in, and away we went.

The place was right along a main highway, with large weedy fields on either side of the road. A field lane went off on one side, and the gate was set far enough back for us to turn into.

We pulled in and sat there…and sat there…and sat there. The skies were overcast. A lone harrier coursed across the fields. As darkness came on, it started raining. Finally we had to admit—like it or not—failure.

That was Friday evening. Saturday morning Tim tried again, thinking the owls might be out, since they hadn’t been Friday evening. He missed them again, but got to add Rough-legged Hawk, which was also known to be hanging around there.

On Monday evening he tried yet again, and finally succeeded in finding the owls. So now it was up to me to get there. Hopefully they wouldn’t migrate before I got it done. I learned that two birders from another community were there about the fourteenth of January and saw the owls. If only I could! How long would they stay?

But I also have another birding friend in the community, and he can make things happen. On Saturday, January 30, he got a few other boys our age willing to go along, mostly just for the adventure. My parents were out of state at the time, so I did not have many duties at home. I made sure he knew I wanted to go along.

As we pulled up to our parking space, one of the boys spotted a hawk flying off to one side. I whipped up my binoculars and immediately saw the black belly of a Rough-legged Hawk. Good deal!

We disembarked from the minivan. A few other cars were also parked along the road, all people who had come to see these seasonal birds. In another two minutes, we had recorded a harrier. This bird stuck around for quite a while, floating over the fields.

Aaron set up the spotting scope and started scanning the fence posts hundreds of yards back against the woods. That was too far back for me to pick up owls with my binoculars unless they were flying. From a distance, a Short-eared Owl can look very much like an extension of the post it’s on.

In just a little bit, Aaron told me, “I think I have one.”

He let me have a look. My, but that spotting scope was clear! It brought the bird right up close. Yes, that definitely was a Short-eared Owl—a real, live Short-eared Owl! Here we were only five minutes into our evening, and already had all three of the target species. So, what now? Do we go home?

We decided to stay, and were rewarded with an interesting show. After a while another owl came swooping from somewhere and roused the early bird. Together they winged across the field, flying buoyantly about 5 feet (1.5 m) above the ground, occasionally diving at a mouse. As the evening progressed, more owls appeared, coming one by one from somewhere, though you could never tell where.

When we first saw them, they were probably 600 yards/meters back, but they kept moving forward, bit by bit, until finally they were all the way out by the road. Several actually crossed the road. By the end of the evening, we thought we had probably seen at least eight!

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! In our case, it paid off! And if you keep your eyes open in winter around large weedy fields, it might pay off for you too. Hopefully you will see the Short-eared Owls someday, whether it means going to a proven public spot or finding a surprise one of your own.

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