The sun set over the horizon, and the last daylight slowly disappeared. A winter breeze blew across the prairie. I waited patiently, eyes fixed upward, scanning the dim horizon.
I had been here many times, but always left emptyhanded. I was anxious, but there wasn’t anything I could do but wait and hope for a glimpse of, and possibly a shot at photographing, the night acrobats.
Then, without a sound of warning, a shadow passed overhead. It was a medium-sized short-eared owl — a bird that has eluded me many times before.
The owl beat its wings a few times as it circled and then glided to the open grassland. It looked magnificent against the backdrop of the sunset. If only I had gotten that shot! But I was caught off-guard.
Short-eared owls (Asio flammeus) are medium-sized owls with small ear tufts on the top of their heads. They are the most diurnal (active in daytime) of all the northeastern owls. Often, they can be observed in the late afternoon and at dawn dusk.
These birds migrate to Missouri during winter and can be found on grasslands, prairie, and agricultural fields, especially. A similar species, the longeared owl, prefers densely wooded areas and has more pronounced ear tufts.
Short-eared owls have large eyes, round faces, and broad wings. During the flight, they beat their wings irregularly, similar to those of moths in flight. They tend to fly low while listening for the sound of their favorite prey, which include voles, mice, ground squirrels, and rats. The owls will swoop down upon their prey feet-first and snatch it with their powerful talons.
Like most owl species, short-eared owls’ wings have soft, fringed edges to the flight feathers that minimize sound during flight, allowing them to effectively hunt mice and voles. Short-eared owls forage during twilight hours when the larger owls, such as barred and great horned owls, usually are not active. (The northern hawk owl is a daytime hunter and has stiff feathers without the soft edges.)
The breeding season in the northern hemisphere is March to June, with a peak April. The owls prefer to nest in concealed low vegetation on prairies and open fields. They typically lay four to seven whitish eggs.
To observe short-eared owls, you will need binoculars, knowledge of where they are during the migration season, and a lot of patience. Fortunately, the Missouri Department of Conservation, with help from staff and volunteer naturalists, offers evening group owl hikes and other owl-related programs. For more information, visit mdc.mo.gov/events to find activities near you.
Since my lost opportunity with that owl, I’ve learned more about the birds’ habitat and behaviors and am better able to anticipate the shots. Sure, I can be lucky, but almost always I have to make my own luck when it comes to photographing wildlife. I was finally able to successfully capture the birds in flight as had envisioned.
Whether you are a photographer, birder, or naturalist, observing this unique migratory bird as it prowls over the open prairie is a rewarding and worthwhile challenge — and a great excuse to get out this winter.
Noppadol Paothong a wildlife photographer for MDC. He lives in Boone County.