Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
Fishing Bay Short-eared Owl - Larry Hitchens
This is a very special section of "For the Love of Owls". Unlike most of the owl species that we pursue either together and on an individual basis, the Short-ear has been a team effort and a pure example of our camaraderie and our love of nature and photography.
Fishing Bay Short-eared Owl - Eric Gerber
Just as a Duck hunter might wait in anticipation for the return of the migration of waterfowl to arrive at his or her location, we wait and look forward to the winter arrival of the migratory Short-eared Owls that invade our coastal wetlands and inland grasslands here in the Mid Atlantic and the southeastern United States. Whether separate or together, we will normally start our late fall and winter days early in the mornings in the tidal marshes of our local wildlife refuges looking for ducks, geese and other avian species to photograph. Usually after lunch and around 3 PM, we will leave our previous locations and congregate along a roadway that passes through the Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area in Dorchester County Maryland.
Our favorite area consists of about a mile of open marsh on both sides of a seldom traveled roadway between two major shelter belts of Loblolly Pines. The lack of travel on this roadway as well as the numerous signs and stakes used by the local muskrat trappers on which the owls like to perch create the perfect environment and opportunity to use one's vehicle as a "hide" for the photography of this species. With all of the open marsh and the numerous structures available for a rest, the reason the owls like to perch so close to the road is a mystery to us. Perhaps they scan the sparsely vegetated road shoulder for prey or they just like to sit and entice the goofy folks clicking away with their shutters in the warmth of their vehicles.
Our usual routine is to park at both ends of the marsh and perhaps in the center with the third vehicle if available and to scan and observe the marsh for the arrival of the owls. Once an owl is spotted or it chooses a perch we will contact each other by cell phone as to it's location along the roadway. The amazing thing is that once an owl has perched, we can drive to its location, park and have ample time to photograph the bird without it flushing. You must remain in your vehicle with limited movement or the Owl will launch. We once had some birders arrive and they just had to get out and try to set up a spotting scope for observation when the owl was only 25 yards off the roadway and it immediately flew. "Go figure" on that one! But then on my last trip to the area and my best photos ever, my Chocolate Labrador retriever decided to all but climb out of the rear window and the owl just sat and enjoyed his antics.
Burning the Marsh - Jim Flowers
The Short-ears at this location can be hit or miss (and are more often miss than hit) as we will often sit at this area without the sight of an owl. But when they do show, the opportunities for photography can be excellent and it makes the wait or misses worth the effort. However, there are normally plenty of other species to keep a photographer busy if the owls don't show. Bald Eagles, Hawks and Northern Harriers are plentiful along with various waterfowl and wading birds, not to mention an occasional Sika Elk along the woodland edges. Winter is also the time the DNR decides to burn the marsh to control the Phragmites, an invasive strain of the common reed, that was introduced from Eurasia This can add excitement to an evening in the marsh as well as photo opportunities.
Photographing the Short-ears of Fishing Bay has become an annual tradition and we hope this continues for many years to come. It's the perfect ending to our winter days a field.
I have included a few of Eric's images from other locations too. I now have three locations here in Pennsylvania that I have located this species but there are many. One is a re-claimed landfill that has become an upland grass habitat and home to many different species. It is truly a success story on its own.
Fishing Bay Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus)- Jim Flowers
Fishing Bay Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) - Larry Hitchens
Short-eared Owl Biology
The Short-eared Owl is a medium sized owl with an average length of 13-17 inches and an average wing-span of 42 inches with the males being an inch or two shorter. It weighs on average between 7-17 ounces. The female is slightly larger than the male.
Pennsylvania Short-eared Owl - Eric Gerber
Although primarily a nocturnal hunter, the Short-eared Owl will hunt between 30 to 60 minutes before dusk and at times earlier in the afternoon and continue during the night and up to a few hours after dawn. Their primary food source consists of meadow voles followed by other small mammals but the owls will sometimes take birds. Birds are likely to be more important in the coastal marsh environment where they will prey upon shorebirds and small gulls. Short-ears, unlike most other owls will carry their food in their talons. Short-ears and Northern Harriers will compete and harass each other while hunting with the harrier often stealing food from the owl.
Unlike most other owls, Short-ears nest on the ground and the nest are normally under the shelter of a grass mound or tuft. Short-ears will often nest in scattered colonies in excellent habitat. The female will lay large clutches of between 4 to 14 eggs with an average of 5 to 7. The young grow fast and will wander from the nest in about 12 days. The young Short-ears will fledge in about 4 weeks.
Short-eared Owls are highly migratory and often nomadic with the exception of the southern parts of its range. Movements of up to 1200 miles are not uncommon. Natural enemies consist of the many large raptors including the Bald eagle, Northern Goshawk and the Red-tailed Hawk. Because they nest and roost on the ground, larger mammals such as coyotes, dogs, foxes and skunks can be predators. Wild Short-eared Owls have reached almost 13 years of age.
The preferred habitat for the Short-ear includes wide open spaces such as grasslands, prairie, agricultural fields, salt marshes, estuaries, mountain meadows, and alpine and Arctic tundra. Short-ears will roost in trees during the winter if the ground has snow cover.