All owls are inherently mysterious to us humans for any number of reasons. We don’t see even the most common species very often, and sometimes our only experience with them is hearing their calls far away in the dark woods. Barred owls are actually relatively common in our area. But how often do you really get to see one? A few winters ago, when snow and ice conditions apparently made it tough for barred owls to find food, the birds began coming out in the daylight to hunt, resulting in a spate of close sightings that made the news. We wrote about it in this column.
In the past month, Maine has had a small invasion of another mysterious owl species, one that is very infrequently seen in the state, the short-eared owl. When we lived in Ithaca, New York, the expansive farm fields across that region of the state regularly hosted wintering short-eared owls. We remember how the birders out that way use to say that if you watched a grassy field where northern harriers (a type of hawk) were hunting in the late afternoon, as darkness began to fall the harriers would suddenly turn into short-eared owls. Both hunt by flying low and quiet over the fields as they searched for an unfortunate mouse that they could suddenly drop onto with talons extended.
Here in Maine, short-eared owls are far less regular than in Upstate New York, and most records are for single-day sightings of migrating birds in fall and spring. But every few years, one or more may stay around a spot a bit longer. A couple of years ago a few did just that at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station where many birders got to see them at a respectful distance. This year at least two of them delighted many birders into early January as they glided over the marshes at the south end of Messalonskee Lake in Belgrade, and three birds were still hanging out at the eastern end of the Portland Jetport (as viewed from the public lot beside the MAC Jet facility on Aviation Boulevard for those inclined to go see for themselves). A few others have been seen around the state at other locations as well.
Short-eared owls were apparently first so-named to contrast the size of their feather tufts (the “horns” on the great-horned owl are also feather tufts, not ears) with those of the long-eared owl, which does have very prominent tufts compared to the often hard-to-see ear tufts of the short-eared owl. They could just as easily have been named for their preference for open habitats, which also contrasts with the typically wooded landscape preferences of the long-eared owl. Short-eared owls are creatures of open grasslands, prairies, tundra, heathlands, bogs, and agricultural fields. They nest on the ground in these open areas, some nesting as far north as the Arctic and south into the grassland expanses of the western U.S. Here in Maine, there are a handful of confirmed breeding records of a number of possible or suspected breeding records. All recent summer records have been from northern and eastern Maine.
One of the most fascinating things about short-eared owls is that they are one of the most cosmopolitan of owl species in the world. Populations also occur on some of the islands of the Caribbean, across South America, on the Hawaiian Islands, and throughout Europe and Asia. Some of these populations, especially those confined to islands, may eventually be delineated as separate species.
We will be checking our favorite farm fields over the next few weeks to see if we can find any short-eared owls, given the number that have been sighted already here in Maine. Keep your eyes open in open areas at dusk and maybe you will have the pleasure of finding one yourself!
Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular books, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).