“Raptors” of 2021/2022 Winter Season

I know that at least one of these birds pushes the definition of a raptor a little far, but, there is no denying that each of the birds featured in this post is a truly horrific predator if your are unfortunate enough to be considered their prey. It’s been a lot of fun this season shooting these birds. I get out as much as I reasonably can and although it looks like the season is turning over, I’ll have a lot more photos of these birds to share in the following weeks.

The smallest on this short list, the American Kestrel feeds primarily on small rodents and birds during winter months. During warmer times of the year, Kestrels will include arthropods and reptiles in their diets.
Anyone who has spent any time on grasslands, marshes or other flat rural areas will know the distinct shape of the ubiquitous Northern Harrier. These low-flying raptors are the scourge of rodents trying to make their living among dead winter vegetation. In rough times, they will also kill and eat birds, including members of their own species.
The Short-eared Owl should already be pretty well known to anyone that has recently visited this blog. They are terrific predators, combining keen eyesight, hearing and the ability to fly completely silent while performing aerial acrobatics. This bird is on its way to attempt a prey capture.
This was an irruption season for the Rough-legged Hawk. Many more birds than typically seen have been observed in eastern Missouri including this very cooperative female that was photographed in St. Charles County, MO. These birds, along with Short-eared Owls, have already begun moving north towards their summer habitats.
Sure, the American White Pelican is not typically lumped in with the Raptors, but I thought this photo conveyed the ferocity that this predator can use to catch its fish prey. This is another great winter photography subject.
Finally we have the Bald Eagle. We tried a few times this season along the great Mississippi River to photograph these guys pulling stunned fish from the waters. We had some success, but unfortunately, we did not have a long enough deep freeze to bring them down river in the concentrations that photographers dream about.

That is all for tonight. I will hopefully have more photos of these species to share soon.

-Ozark Bill

Short-eared Owl vs. Northern Harrier – A Case of Kleptoparasitism

Miguel and I watched as this SEOW returned to a favorite perch after just catching a vole. It wasn’t quick enough to ingest its catch and the NOHA is coming up behind to take advantage of this.

I would love to know how many thousands of years this struggle has been going on. The Short-eared Owl (SEOW) and Northern Harrier (NOHA) are separated genetically by millions of years, currently existing in separate orders. The SEOW belongs to the Strigiformes and the NOHA falls within the Accipitriformes. However, they have evolved to have similar lifestyles that have placed them in similar niches and thus, pushed them into direct competition with each other.

Yes, technically, the SEOH has developed more of a nocturnal habit and the NOHA is more active in the day. However, both species are highly crepuscular (active near dawn and dusk) and the SEOW is one of the most diurnal owl species, routinely hunting during daylight hours. They also use the same prey sources – primarily feeding on small rodents like mice and voles in winter. Additionally, both species have similar hunting strategies of flying low over the prairies, meadows and agricultural fields, using both their keen sight and hearing to locate their favorite scuffling mammals.

As the NOHA arrives, the SEOW leaps from its perch with catch in claw.

On average, harriers are roughly 25% larger than the SEOW but the wingspan of both species is nearly identical. Short-eared Owls use this increased wing area to their advantage with increased maneuverability. They can find themselves on the menu of NOHA but this is a much more challenging prey for the harriers who usually prefer their acts of kleptoparasitism (stealing another’s food).

This female NOHA rushes in talons first with her eyes on the prize.

After spending dozens of hours this season watching these two species forage across these grasslands of Lincoln County, MO I can attest that both species are terrific hunters. However, I think it’s safe to say that the SEOW has the higher success rate. They were not successful every time they plunged into the vegetation but more often than not, we saw these birds rising with a recently departed vole or mouse in their beak or claws.

An observation I found interesting is that when the SEOW made a successful kill, they almost always would fly a short distance and either eat it on the wing or, more often, would land in a new place to consume. I can only speculate that they do this because they think the act of catching the prey may alert would-be kleptoparasites and they move with the prey to get a better idea of who may be watching. On the other hand, it could be argued that this action could make it more obvious that they have had a successful kill and potentially ring the diner bell. Here is another interesting question.

Moment of impact. We can’t say for certain what happened here but I like to think the NOHA put one foot on the prey and one directly in the owl’s chest. Note that each bird pulls their head and delicate eyes as far from their opponents weapons as they can.

It’s a complicated relationship, for sure. I do not know for certain, but I would anticipate that the NOHA gets a significant portion of their caloric needs from the SEOW – or at least in this particular setting. As I mentioned earlier, the SEOW are so successful, it appears they can take this loss with little significant impact – or at least in a setting such as this with ample rodent populations. It may be a completely different scenario when they find themselves in a less productive area.

Caught in the act. I was very happy to have caught a frame that shows a foot of each bird on the vole at the same time.

On numerous occasions, Miguel and I watched as the SEOW took a much more aggressive and territorial stand. They were much more likely to pick a specific area that they foraged in and defended, often chasing NOHA and other SEOW away from their lands. NOHA, on the other hand, appear to cruise much more at random.

There is nothing particularly noteworthy ethologically speaking about this image. I just liked the shape of the SEOW with wings and tailfeathers spread and backlit by the low-hanging sun.

I have read that others have documented the swings in the numbers of SEOW from year to year and location to location based on the availability of prey. It is also well known that the SEOW is one of the most migratory of owl species. In the years we have followed these birds in Lincoln County, we can attest to this. If not already done, it would be really interesting to see the results of an in-depth look at the population dynamics and migration patterns of the SEOW and determine what role, if any, the NOHA may play.

The NOHA has its meal and the owl will likely have another for itself in little time.

Finally, I tapped into the inner comic writer in me and produced this silly little GIF that personifies the above interaction. I apologize if I offended anyone with my bad attempt at using a Cockney accent for the “villain” of this story… 😉

The Flaming Owl

The Flaming Owl was the original English name given to the Short-eared Owl. This directly represented its Latin binomial of Asio flammeus, and assumedly refers to the fiery textures and colors of its plumage. I like to think that it might better represent the look of the bird when it is typically seen – in the golden warm light of the setting or rising sun.

So it Begins

First Snowy Owl of the 2020/2021 season in eastern Missouri.

Although it looks like the next official Snowy Owl “irruption year” is predicted to be in the winter of 2021/2022, eastern Missouri has had its first bird of the season and other states have had a few handfuls of sightings as well. This bird was recently spotted in the area of BK Leach Conservation Area and the town of Elsberry, about a 45 minute drive north of the St. Louis metro area. Sarah and I hopped in the car yesterday afternoon and thought we would give it a try.

It didn’t take long to find the bird – by means of finding the birders who had found it for us. This bird looked healthy and was quite active, hunting from perch to perch. Most of our looks were from pretty great distances but we were fortunate to be able to see it up-close, perched on this utility pole just outside Elsberry in the last light of the day. See below of the bird from far away but on a natural perch.

Snowy Owl from our first vantage point from about 200 yards.

If you chase after this one, be aware of the ‘local flavor’. Sarah and I had a couple run-ins with more than the average passive-aggressive douchebags but I guess it takes one to know one. I was pleased to see several birders younger than me (teenagers, actually) out looking at this one as well. From what I heard, these guys were pretty serious birders.

We then went slightly south to BK Leach C.A. proper, hoping to find some opportunities to view and photograph Short-eared Owls. We found approximately five birds during limited light but they were quite active, fighting amongst themselves and the Northern Harriers. The one photographed below came out from a group of birds carrying its prize.

Short-eared Owl flees with its rodent prey.

Overall it was a nice afternoon on another warmer than average December day.

-OZB

Having some success with SEOW

Short-eared Owl

Miguel and I have been trying to get some better in-flight shots of the Short-eared Owls that use the wet prairies at BK Leach CA for their winter homes. Tonight, preparations and fortune came together and we wound up with a few that we can be satisfied with. The lighting wasn’t great, as the nice sunlight was blocked by heavier and heavier clouds as soon as the action began, but sometimes you take what you can get.

Short-eared Owl

 

Short-eared Owl

 

Short-eared Owl

-OZB

Winter of the Short-eared

I have shared images and discussed the Short-eared Owl on a number of previous blog posts.  Never did I imagine the “storm” that the “winter” of 2015/2016 was to bring.  On many different trips to a few different places, I along with my partners Sarah and Steve, were fortunate to have great looks at great numbers of these fluffy fascinations in feathers.  I can’t say for certain if this winter in this region was abnormal for hosting a greater than average number of SEOW, or if my observational skills have just improved, but it certainly seemed easier than in past years to find and watch these birds.  I’ve just finished putting together a video with some video clips and highlight images that I wanted to share. Without further ado, here you are…

Oh, the challenges video brings to an inexperienced, unprepared and poorly equipped photographer.  Throw in the fact that these birds are utterly unpredictable and it’s hard to believe I was able to capture what I did.  So, I learn and take notes and hopefully improve next year.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

Other than the simians, is there another species easier to anthropomorphize?  Here we have cute and inquisitive SEOW, followed mere seconds later by the evil, harbinger of doom SEOW of which early writers told.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

And then we have the indifferent SEOW…

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

Okay, I’ll stop now before they take my biologist card away from me…
Although I got a few images, I struggled mightily and missed several great opportunities at capturing SEOW in flight this season.  The randomness of the encounters coupled with challenges with lighting and equipment make this a true challenge.  Funnily, one of my better in-flight photographs was taken with a setting sun at the bird’s back – not the best opportunity…

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

The image below was taken with the sun in a better position.  Notice the catch light, which suggests that the bird was up and in flight with the sun still in the sky.  Something else in this photo that I noticed before is the difference in dilatation of the lit pupil compared to the pupil of the shaded eye.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

Below is a flight shot from a further distance.  I liked the warm light of the golden hour, painting the dead prairie vegetation in fire.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

One night Steve and I were fortunate to have an owl perch close to our car well into dusk.  It then left its perch and landed nearby in the vegetation.  We could not tell if it was after a prey or decided to go back to bed, as it sat there for the short remainder of the day.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

The final image I am sharing here is just to show off those feather-covered legs.  A great adaptation for the cold climates in which these birds are found.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

-OZB

Short-eared Owls and a Christmas Moon

SEOW & Christmas Moon
SEOW & Christmas Moon

Wow.  I’ve been looking for an evening like this for a number of years.  I have heard and read that Short-eared Owls will often start their night early and often will often be up and active with several hours of day left.  I have seen them before at dusk, right before sunset, but last night at B.K. Leach C.A. we had several on the move with almost two hours of light left.  We were able to count a minimum of eight SEOW, but there may have been more.  Immediately before sunset I was able to observe somewhere between 25-30 Northern Harriers along with the owls.  It was quite a treat, listening to the Owl’s peculiar barks and screams as they were dog-fighting with the other owls and the Harriers who were looking for their spots to spend the night.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

-OZB