It was a golden afternoon two days past the Spring Equinox. After a morning of deep chill and stiff wind, the day’s tempo changed. The sun prevailed in a powder blue sky, temperatures nudged into the 50s, and a hush fell over the plain.
I had driven to American Camp in the hope of seeing short-eared owls before they left for their breeding grounds. The spunky owls winter on San Juan Island and I love watching them. They are a crepuscular species hunting in the daylight and especially active at dawn and dusk. The “short ears” are specialists in low light so residing here under pewter skies and with an aura of gray hanging over the grasslands may suit them well but is less than ideal for those of us who enjoy viewing them. This warm afternoon seemed more favorable for a closer look at these intriguing raptors.
I have written before about Asio flammeus, a species of true owls in the Family Strigidae. It was first described in 1763 and is one of the most widely distributed owls on Earth ranging on every continent but Australia and Antarctica and inhabiting many oceanic island groups such as the Galapagos and Hawaii. Asio is the genus of eared owls, and flammeus is Latin for “flaming” or the color of fire that refers to its plumage. It is named short-eared owl for the feathered tufts on its head that give the appearance of ears but are display feathers only.
Marsh owl, swamp owl, prairie owl, mouse owl: all are monikers for this silent predator that flies low over grasslands and other open habitats using both its keen eye sight and acute hearing to find mice and voles, its primary prey. The length of its winter stay is predicated upon the population of these small mammals. In lean years, the owls will come and go quickly; in years such as this one they may stay all winter.
I was visiting with Ross Lockwood recently who mentioned having seen six short-eared owls hunting at American Camp earlier this year. They are a gregarious species often wintering together and even migrating in small flocks. We think of them as winter birds but last May 26th I photographed one flying below the Redoubt so these nomads may be adjusting their range a bit. While not uncommon, their numbers have decreased substantially in some areas due to habitat loss and to pesticide poisoning accumulated from eating compromised prey. Partners In Flight considers them a “species at risk”.
Luck was with me on my quest. I did not have to wait long to see the familiar silhouette of one of the earnest owls quartering the plains below the Redoubt then moving toward Pickett’s Lane. The formidable hunter was on a methodical prowl taking its time scanning the tall grass and occasionally wheeling down – feet first - for its prey. After a few forays, it perched on a fencepost perhaps to regain its perspective. Soon another short-eared owl appeared in a slow glide down from the Redoubt. The first owl lifted off its perch and joined its kin in a series of aerial wheeling, twists, and turns that, I imagined, only slightly rippled the warm air.
Listening carefully, I could hear a few soft chirps and barks exchanged by the duo. I assumed the choreography and vocalizations were a territorial display, although it might have been a preamble to the breeding ritual that would take place on their nesting grounds. In any event, it was memorable.
Then a female northern harrier, bronzed in the sunlight, cruised a little too close to the pair and one of the owls sped straightaway at the larger bird - its main competition for food here - shouting a harsher version of barking chants that stopped the intrusion. The spell was broken and the two owls went their separate ways – at least for the moment.
I watched the owls for nearly two hours and witnessed several more interactions as they hunted and perched to rest or regroup. I marveled at their fine design. Short-eared owls are considered medium sized at 13-17 inches in length. Their broad wings, measuring 43 inches from tip to tip, make them look bigger, and the owls are streamlined for speed and agility. Soft plumage and the comb-like leading edge of their primary feathers, and fringed trailing feathers, reduce turbulence giving them silent flight. They are cloaked in mottled shades of brown, buff and white, with streaky breasts, providing camouflage. True owls’ ears are set asymmetrically on their large heads. They locate prey in both horizontal and vertical plans simultaneously detecting even the subtlest movement in the grass. Short-eared owls are a classic example of form and function.
For some time, they continued to quarter the plain. As sharp-edged shadows began to gather by the Redoubt, they followed the light to the east. I read in the classic work Birds of America (1917) that short-eared owls are rather stupid. Really? As dusk approached, a mature bald eagle cruised by and I saw the prairie owls dive for cover in the tall grass as their nemesis passed. That seemed like a smart move, to me.
I noticed, as well, that the owls preferred their privacy and were reluctant to hunt close by when I was standing in the open with my binoculars. And so I retreated to my car along a fence line and admired these shy souls from afar - their beauty, dexterity, feisty chanting barks, and intuitive preference for perching on the rabbit proof fence as a prime vantage point. And I watched the sunlight leave sparkling pools of silver in Haro Strait, and clouds part to reveal the snow-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountains on the peninsula. Perhaps I did not need a close encounter with the owls to learn about them. Wasn’t it enough to simply sit a spell and ponder Nature’s grander scheme of things and how the owls fit into that. The sun continued its slow western descent as a sense of peace settled over the prairie. A red fox leisurely crossed the road and disappeared along a well-trodden trail. Western meadowlarks finally ceased their chorus of bubbling bird songs that had been background music to the afternoon’s events. Soon, they would be leaving too, perhaps going only as far as eastern Washington to breed.
The light was fading. I lost sight of the owls. It was nearly time to go.
Then the unexpected happened. One of the owls flew in from the east and perched on the split rail fence not fifteen feet away – back to me - facing the setting sun. The after glow of receding light and the tawny owl presented an ethereal scene. The owl turned its head and looked at me, blinked its golden eyes, and turned back to the sun. I held my breath. The owl glanced back a second time, stared hard at me, ruffled its feathers, then lifted off the fence and was 50 yards away before I remembered to breathe. It dipped once gently into the grass before it disappeared. Yes, it was time to go!
And so my perfect afternoon of sitting still with the twilight owls came to an end. Before I left I said to myself: remember this moment on those days when the sun doesn’t shine, the owls have gone north, and the meadowlarks song is six months away. Remember the sunlight playing on the golden grasses, the fox with the flaming red coat, and the rhythm of the plain, and be grateful you live in this extraordinary part of the world.
Note: American Camp is not the only place to see short-eared owls on San Juan Island. Scan San Juan Valley or other grasslands and agricultural fields and you may see this beautiful bird cruising the scape in buoyant moth-like flight making its living off our bountiful land.
SAN JUAN NATURE NOTEBOOK / SITTING STILL WITH TWILIGHT OWLS, copyright 2013 by Susan Vernon. No part of this column may be reproduced without the expressed written consent of the author. Susan Vernon is the author of RAINSHADOW WORLD – A Naturalist’s Year in the San Juan Islands.