I saw my first Short-eared Owls almost 10 years ago when I first got into birding. They quickly became, in my opinion, one of the most enjoyable birds to watch and take photos of. However 2008 was the last year I had good luck finding them and the last I had some decent shots of them. In the years since then I would be lucky to see one per year and it usually would be when there was virtually no light left. Short-eared Owls mostly breed up in Canada so I only see them in my home state of Pennsylvania during the winter season from about Decemeber through March. These owls like to inhabit various grasslands like old reclaimed strip mine areas or Amish farms. Like most owls they roost during the day but the best chance to see them is about an hour before sunset when they wake up and begin their hunting in search of a tasty rodent. Their favorite is the meadow vole and any place that has an abundance of them, then there’s a good chance they’ll stick around through the winter and get their fill. Finally this winter of 2017 they have been back in better numbers and I have seen them in several different locations. The reason could be, is that these areas have an abundance of rodents unlike years in the past.
Like a lot of birds, they don’t get spooked easily by just seeing a car, so the best way to get pics of them is to watch for one to land, drive up slowly and shoot from your car window. Such as how I got this shot which was one of my first from this winter.
These owls have a much different flight style compared to the Harriers that you also see in the same areas. Shorties have what is described as a very buoyant and floppy kind of flight which makes them look light as a feather when they are flying about.
They love to find a favorite perch where they can listen and look from. Many love the Amish corn stalks.
One of the coolest things to see is when they fly by and have their eyes locked on you. They have the most piercing eyes and such an expressive face.
Occasionally they will fly up fairly high but most often they really like to hug the ground and typically aren’t up more than 10 feet. This no doubt lets them hear and see a rodent they are trying to find much more effectively.
Some birds just know how to put on a good show for birders and photographers and these owls are one of the best at doing that. They love interacting with one another as they chase each other through the fields and often bark at each other in a very strange sounding call. In this shot I got three together.
One evening as it was getting a little too dark for pictures, I was heading out the road but found one sitting on top of a telephone pole. I slowly pulled up beside him, stuck the camera out the window and began to get some shots. I think he heard my shutter clicking away and turned his head to the side as to say “what’s that funny noise I hear” much like how your pet dog does when it hears something.
Since they begin to get active right around the sunset hour, if you’re lucky you can get them with some brilliant colors in the sky which were some of my favorite shots I got of them.
I very much hope these owls will be back next winter in good numbers like they were this year. Unfortunately their population numbers have plummeted in recent decades mostly due to loss of habitat. Hopefully they can find a way to bounce back. I could truly watch these guys every day and never get tired of it.