Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Short-Eared Owls!

This past Sunday I was out chasing a Ross's Goose and two Snow Geese in Lancaster, Ohio. When driving back to Circleville, I noticed that it was approaching dusk. On a whim I decided to drive just south of Circleville to Radcliff Road and see if there were any Short-Eared Owls about. Radcliff Road (and the attached River Drive) cuts through the area that was once the Pickaway Plains, a small section of prairie now all but gone. More recently, a large section of land in this area was put under control of the Conservation Reserve Program. In an attempt to create habitat for wildlife and restore land that was intensely farmed for decades, farmland was converted to a sea of various grasses. This area (including the famous Charlie's Pond) has become well-known to birders for the interesting array of grassland species that call it home.

Short-Eared Owl Ohio
The grasslands along Radcliff Road and River Drive have been known to harbor overwintering populations of Short-Eared Owls for several years. Actual numbers of individuals of vary year to year, and I've personally missed out every time I've gone looking for them here. But this night was different. Just a few minutes after turning onto Radcliff Road, I noticed a Short-Eared Owl on the ground looking at me! Finally, my Short-Eared Owl lifer! I was dancing in my car from excitement and shooting photo after photo. Finally, after a few minutes, I decided to continue on down River Road. Then I noticed the others; there were Short-Eared Owls flying everywhere!

Short-Eared Owl Flying
This is when I really started freaking out from excitement. At least 7 Short-Eared Owls were flying over the grassland. I wasn't really expecting to see any, let alone have them circling my car! The Short-Eared Owl is a medium-sized owl species that can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. In North America, the Short-Eared Owl breeds in Canada and Alaska as well as the north-western quarter of the lower 48. During the winter months they will migrate farther south to overwinter. Their migration isn't quite like the typical migration of most birds, and instead they exhibit more of an irruptive migration. Basically, they follow vole populations. When vole populations crash in the northern section of North America, large numbers of these owls will irrupt southward to find better food sources. Sometimes this results in these northerly owls being found as far south as Florida or northern Mexico and in great numbers. If the vole populations are high in the north, these owls will not go as far south, and might be completely absent in locations they were abundant at a year ago. These irruptive cycles can make them hard or easy to find in Ohio when it comes to a yearly basis, but they always make an appearance throughout the state each winter. There have even been a few records of them breeding in Ohio, including right here in Pickaway County (probably in this location, but I cannot find exact details), but these records are few and far in between.

Short-Eared Owl in Field
Spot the Short-Eared Owl.
The Short-Eared Owl is an inhabitant of grasslands, prairies, marshes, and other open country habitats. They are nocturnal, but they often begin to come out and hunt up to an hour before sunset. These owls were out and about at 4:30, while the sunset wasn't until 5:10 or so. As you might have guessed, the decreasing light made it hard to take decent photos. Telephoto lenses already don't do well in low light, and I have a pretty amateur-level 300 mm telephoto lens at that. Couple that with my Nikon D5100 camera sensor that does okay with ISO (light sensitivity) levels, and it was pretty hard to get a decent, focused photo without a crazy amount of noise. All of these photos were shot at f/8 with a shutter speed of 1/250 seconds and an ISO of 320 and 400. I also shoot in RAW which allows me to be more flexible with exposures. These photos were all underexposed, but Lightroom does a wonderful job at bringing under-and-over-exposed RAW photos under control.

Short-Eared Owl and Northern Harrier
Since the Short-Eared Owls came out while there was still light, they weren't the only ones patrolling the grasses for voles. Northern Harriers, which are essentially the niche-wise daytime equivalent of the Short-Eared Owl, were still out. The two species didn't like this competition though, and some scuffles broke out. The photo above shows a Short-Eared Owl (on the left) chasing a Northern Harrier (on the right). These two frantically chased each other for a bit and occasionally hit each other if one got close enough to launch an attack.

Short-Eared Owl Ohio
These owls are strikingly beautiful. You might be wondering about their name though. The Short-Eared Owl is called such as they have small feather tufts (not actual ears) that stick up from the top of their head, much like a Great Horned Owl. However, these owls only raise these tufts when alarmed or excited. Most of the time these tufts are held down, like in the individual above.

If you want to see these owls, check out Radcliff Road and River Drive in southern Pickaway County at dusk. If you aren't near this location, try checking out nearby hay fields or grass fields at dusk. The roads around The Wilds near Zanesville seem to produce a bunch as well! Thanks for reading!