Snow Raptors

A few from a couple snow days this past January. Some of the first outings with the Canon R5. On one day, light levels were quite low and birds were at a great distance. Tried shooting with and without teleconverter to get more light. Difficult circumstances.

Short-eared Owl cruising over snow-covered grassland.
Settings: 700mm focal length, 1/2000 sec., f/5.6, ISO-3200.
Short-eared Owl shortly after leaving perch.
Settings: 700mm focal length, 1/2000 sec., f/5.6, ISO-2500.
Short-eared Owl with prey.
Settings: 500mm focal length, 1/800 sec., f/4, ISO-2000.
Male Northern Harrier
Settings: 700mm focal length, 1/2000 sec., f/5.6, ISO-2000.
Female Northern Harrier with prey.
Settings: 500mm focal length, 1/2000 sec., f/4, ISO-3200.
Northern Harrier and Short-eared Owl
Settings: 500mm focal length, 1/2000 sec., f/4, ISO-3200.
Squabbling Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier
Settings: 500mm focal length, 1/2000 sec., f/4, ISO-3200.
Whenever a Short-eared Owl tried and missed its intended prey, it would immediately shake the snow and other materials from its talons.
Settings: 700mm focal length, 1/2500 sec., f/5.6, ISO-1000.
Short-eared Owl skimming snowy landscape.
Settings: 700mm focal length, 1/2500 sec., f/5.6, ISO-1000.
A great catch!
Settings: 700mm focal length, 1/2000 sec., f/5.6, ISO-1600.

Ozark Bill

Short-eared Owls – In Flight and Notes About their Vocalizations

Another thing that makes Short-eared Owls so fascinating to observe is their vocalizations. These birds make sounds in a variety of ways. First, is their primary “hoot”. I have never heard this in person because this is primarily used by males in advertising for mates and establishing territories in the nesting season. You can, however, hear the barks and screams given by both males and females on their wintering grounds. The screams seem to be primarily given while in flight and the barks can be given in flight or while perched. I do not know the purposes of these two call types but will put this on my list to research. Another sound these birds deliver is the wing clap. This seems to be primarily used by males in their courtship flights and I have not observed this yet in Missouri.

The Short-eared Owl – More In Flight Shots

The Short-eared Owl is a unique flyer. Birder and author Pete Dunne described them as a “…pale beer keg on wings.” Just as apt, but completely different, many have described their flight as like that of a moth, with long, straight wings that give a buoyant and unpredictable pattern that is often mixed with long periods of gliding. They have the tools of a successful hunter and although they lack the speed and power of their neighbors – the Northern Harriers, their ability to fly agilely and without making a sound, allows them to pick up their rodent prey without much apparent effort.

Short-eared Owl – In Flight Shots and Some Natural History

As you know by now, the Short-eared Owl does not nest in Missouri. It uses our state as a wintering ground and nests in the plains states and up into the tundra of Alaska and Canada. It does the same in conducive habitats in South America, Europe and Asia and is even found in Hawaii. In Missouri winters, these birds of prey feed primarily on voles, mice and other small mammals but, in the summer, they expand their diets to include almost anything they can catch including arthropods, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Season of the Short-eared

I’ve been hunting and trying to photograph Short-eared Owls in Lincoln County, MO for nearly 10 years with mixed success. The past three years or so have been particularly challenging with lower numbers than typical, often without seeing a single owl on several outings. We hypothesize that a year or two of bad flooding in these areas adjacent to the Mississippi River have caused dramatic declines in the small rodents that these and other birds of prey need in order to spend their winters here.

Whatever the reasons, this winter (2021/2022) we are seeing incredible numbers of these long-winged beauties. Although primarily nocturnal, this species also exhibits diurnal and crepuscular habits and this is another area where we have been fortunate. I have spent close to 25 afternoons and evenings with these birds over the past six weeks, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends. On most of these days at least one or two owls were seen flying with the sun still well into the sky. This makes for excellent opportunities for observing their behaviors and working on better strategies to get the meaningful photographs we are after.

I have probably kept way too many photographs that will require purchasing new external drives much sooner than I anticipated and I have probably processed too many as well. Still, I plan on sharing many of these here over the course of the next several weeks. Hell, the season isn’t over. I’ll probably try for more before they head back to the great north for the breeding season.