Short-eared Owls


(This 1144th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 24, 2013.)


A Short-eared Owl

photo by Laurie Dann


Several winters back a hawk owl appeared near Lyndonville. When I wrote about the visit of this rare bird and the ease of seeing it during the day, many readers took advantage of the opportunity. The road was often lined with cars as families viewed the accommodating owl and I received a great deal of mail thanking me for providing the opportunity to see "their first owl."


In this column I call attention to another opportunity to see owls. These owls are almost as forthcoming as the hawk owl was and they are well worth a trip to see them. Go soon, however, as they will leave for the north in another few weeks.


I write here about the short-eared owls that have spent the winter in the fields and hedgerows along Posson Road in the township of Shelby.


To reach Posson Road find your way to Route 63 between Medina and the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. From there turn east on Fletcher Chapel Road. Posson will be the third road running south. Although the owls may be seen all along it, a good viewing spot is where Posson bends toward the east.


A few days ago Scott Meier and I drove out to see these birds. We arrived a little after 4:00 p.m. and another birder already there pointed out two of the owls roosting in the hedgerow that ran east from that bend. Among the grass and brush they looked like brown fence posts. When at rest like this they appear about the size of a crow. But owl size is exaggerated by their fluffed out feathers: a short-eared owl weighs only three-fourths as much as a crow.


Within minutes of our arrival, however, the real show began. The two owls took off and began patrolling the fields looking for voles in the snow. Farther up the road we could see three more in flight. It was hard to believe that these were the same birds. Their long broad wings made them appear much larger.


Short-eared Owl in Flight

photo by Laurie Dann


Their flight I find very attractive. Moth-like, they flap, glide and soar only a few feet above the ground, tipping and turning along erratic paths. When they turned away, we could see their nearly white undersides and when they banked toward us their mottled brown backs with light orange patches near their wing ends. Occasionally one would drop to the ground, but while we were there none appeared to find prey.


One owl lighted in a bush next to the road and we were able to approach in our car to within about twenty feet. We could make out its bright yellow eyes as it alternated peering at us and searching the ground around its perch.


Like most owls (except the hawk owl) short-eared owls are nocturnal, active at night. Their eyesight is designed for dimmer light. But these owls are also crepuscular, that is they are active at dawn and dusk. That is why observers seek them out within an hour or so of dark in evening or morning. The day after our visit I drove down Posson Road in the early afternoon and saw none of these birds.


Other birders had reported harriers in the same area but we saw none. Harriers were formerly called marsh hawks, an appropriate name given their hunting areas. These raptors often feed in the same fields and their appearance is somewhat similar to these owls. The harrier is easily distinguished, however, by a white patch at the base of its tail and its smaller head shape.


On our drive back to Buffalo our conversation turned to the reasons people nowadays rarely see or even hear owls. We came up with many. The owls retreat from our too well-lighted urban and suburban areas. But we provide ourselves few opportunities to interact with them in any case. We seldom venture out at night when we might see them. And we keep our homes sealed in winter to avoid heat loss and in summer to save on air conditioning. Thus we give ourselves no chance to experience the eerie whinnying of screech owls, the shrieks of barn owls, the toots of saw-whet owls or the hooting of the others.