Gathering near dusk…photographers all over our area search open fields for this illusive and rare owl. When you find one, you are likely to find a few more. Hayfield and scuff pastures are a place to look. You might hear them before seeing them.
They have barking vocalization which can be heard when large numbers of these birds are present. It is a dog-like bark you hear coming from the field.
They are an opportunistic owl in meal preferences, but they do like voles. That makes them a gardener’s and farmer’s friend. Their nomadic and sometimes irruption nature, make them move to better feeding grounds if food runs scarce. Some years, like Snowy Owls, their numbers increase. Our area is in the short-eared owls’ most southern range, so they can be seen year-round in some places not far from us.
Heavy snow cover is a reason for them to search for grasslands which are open and dominated by herbaceous vegetation. The fields are perfect having few shrubs and trees, but as land use practices change, grasslands have become one of the most imperiled habitats throughout New York. I first noticed this with another grassland, open-field feeder, the Bobolink. Farms converted to row crop and early mowing of hay crops, have also contributed to these grassland bird declines. Early mowing conflicts with their nesting time, many times killing nestlings before they can fly.
Birders and researchers have documented many behavioral aspects of these birds, but little is known about short-eared owls’ winter tendency to return to the same site year after year. I know our photographers locally have visited this site for a few years and owls have been present, but speaking to a few, they mentioned there have been fewer in numbers this year.
Photographing them is also a bit more difficult since the owls are most active after the sun sets. Even though they are an owl that is a daylight hunter, their prey often is out at dusk too. My images are cropped from a much larger view, but when these small owls fly, photos can be rather beautiful.