Picture walks: The elusive short-eared owl

By Jeanne Church

A year ago last February, I received an exciting email from Kathy Forsythe saying that her brother had spotted several short-eared owls in the open fields of their family’s farm in Vicksburg! He said the owls had been landing on the fence posts out in the pasture late in the afternoon. I had never seen a short-eared owl and headed out the door as soon as I could, camera in hand.

The short-eared owl is about the size of a crow. It has a large head, short neck, black beak, and very distinctive yellow-orange eyes that appear to be painted with heavy rings of black mascara. These birds are called “short-eared” because they have two little tufts of feathers on the top of their head that resemble mammalian ears. They only display those tufts when feeling threatened and most of the time you’re not likely to see them.

Short-eared owls visit our area every winter but, unlike most owls, they hunt during the day, usually around dawn or dusk. You’ll find them flying low to the ground or sitting on fence posts in large open areas scanning for a wide variety of small animals including shrews, moles, birds, rabbits, pocket gophers, bats, rats, weasels, or muskrats!

As I headed into Vicksburg in search of these owls, I spotted a small flock of birds in an open cornfield adjacent to the road. Normally, I wouldn’t have given these birds a second glance; thinking they were probably sparrows or crows or some other birds I’d already seen a million times.

Suddenly, though, I remembered reading about horned larks and snow buntings flocking to our area, and that they liked foraging in open cornfields. I quickly pulled my car to the side of the road to get a better look.

It was a really cold February day and deep snow covered much of the ground. I wasn’t about to trudge through knee-high drifts for sparrows and crows, so I attached a long lens to my camera and zoomed in to see if it was even worthwhile to venture out. It was! The field was full of horned larks and snow buntings!

Snow buntings are pretty little songbirds with a small conical bill. They have soft white bellies and toasty shades of brown on their backs. You’ll find them, as I did, in open fields among crop stubble, as well as along the lakeshore. In the open fields, they will be foraging for seeds, buds, and insects. Along the lakeshore, they will also be looking for small marine crustaceans.

Horned larks are small, long-bodied songbirds that are sandy to rusty brown above, and white below. They have a distinctive black chest band, a curving black mask, and head stripes that extend to the back of their head (sometimes raised into tiny “horns”). Their face and throat are either yellow or white.

Surprisingly, horned larks are here in the lower half of the lower peninsula all year long, but are most easily noticed during the winter when large flocks gather to feed on spilled grain along rural roads or open fields—which is exactly what these birds were up to when I spotted them! Depending on the season, horned larks will also eat caterpillars, grasshoppers, sowbugs, beetles, spiders, and grass seed.

I ventured tentatively into the snow with my heavy camera equipment, trying not to scare the birds away as I walked, and trying not to fall head first into the snow. Every couple of steps, I’d take a few pictures, then slowly move forward. After a few minutes, I’d repeat the process. Eventually, I was within 15 yards of the birds and they were still unaware of my presence. All of a sudden, though, a loud, obnoxious vehicle gunned its engines and charged down the road next to me, sending the entire flock of birds into the stratosphere! To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

Once I got back to the car, I resumed my original quest– finding the elusive short-eared owls. I drove to the open fields and pastures that Kathy had described, and waited; keeping a close eye on the surrounding fence posts and watching for any kind of movement low to the ground that might indicate an owl was on the hunt. Eventually, it got too dark to see and I reluctantly shuffled back to my car; happy enough to have seen the horned larks and the snow buntings, but disappointed, nonetheless, at not finding a single owl.

Maybe I’ll have better luck this year!

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