Encounter with a Short-eared Owl - p 1 of 1


18 February 2012
"Chance," said Louis Pasteur, "favors the prepared mind."  So it does.  Today, as I drove I-35 north to Kansas City; then, I-70 east to Columbia, Missouri, past a billboard exhorting me to accept Jesus, and another pointing out the adult video store ahead, I was prepared.   I had read the posts by Missouri birders [birdingonthenet.com].  I knew that Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area was a haven for waterfowl and raptors, including of course the Bald Eagle.
    Eagle Bluffs is 4431 acres of pools and wetlands along the Missouri River, maintained by the Missouri Department of Conservation.  The river, notorious for changing course over the years, can also be treacherous for navigation.  Buried somewhere in the sandbars here is the steamship 'Plow Boy,' which sank in 1877. 



MO-Mallard.jpg (248782 bytes)
MO-Shoveler-male2.jpg (331702 bytes) The most easily photographed ducks have green heads - male Mallards and  Northern Shovelers.  The rule here, of course, is to photograph these guys just about tea time, when the low angle of the sun lights up their iridescence and adds a touch of gold to the water..
I was also prepared for Short-eared Owls.  The MO birders regularly report 2 or 3 and sometimes more at Eagle Bluffs.  I was not expecting, however, that one would emerge from its daytime roost in the grasses over an hour before sunset.  The owl posed quite obligingly at the edge of pool #14. 



SEOwl-on-rock.jpg (328936 bytes)


SEOwl-flight-3.jpg (242110 bytes)


Then the owl lifted off and began to soar low over the marsh.  After one or two acrimonious encounters with a Northern Harrier, the owl's daytime predatory counterpart, the hawk ceded the area to the owl.
    With a good half hour of sun left, I adjusted the camera settings.  The ISO was 640, giving me a shutter speed of 1/1500" or faster, with the lens opened to f/7.1.  The autofocus was set on AI Servo.  Each time I pressed the shutter button, the camera fired at 8 frames per second. 



Occasionally the owl turns and swoops down, disappearing into the tall grass.  But it had no luck during the time I photographed it.  This owl seems to enjoy a varied diet.   It eats grasshoppers, beetles, and cutworms.  But the staple of its diet is rodents, with a few birds mixed in.  In 1932, ornithologist Paul Errington found in the pellets of Short-eared Owls the remains of 68 meadow mice, 115 deer mice, a Snow Bunting, and a meadowlark (A.C. Bent, Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey, Part 2, 1938).  SEOwl-flight-4.jpg (219994 bytes)


SEOwl-flight-5.jpg (165852 bytes) There are 10 subspecies of Short-eared Owls throughout the world, even in Hawaii and the Galapagos.  Our subspecies, Asio flammeus flammeus, inhabits Norht America, Europe, and northern Asia.  This owl, along with the ones in Oklahoma, will migrate north in a month or two, nesting from the Dakotas into Alaska.
    Young Short-eared Owls have a curious habit of straying from their nest on the ground into the nearby grass, weeks before they can fly. 
In 1924, Mabel Densmore described finding a young owl:  "a bundle of feathers, dumped down in the short prairie grass, with no semblance to a bird except the eyes." While the parents flew excitedly around, the young continued to "play possum" and could be moved about and handled freely without showing a sign of life except in its eyes (A.C. Bent, Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey, Part 2, 1938). 



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