Watching short-eared owls make nests in eastern Idaho - East Idaho News
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Watching short-eared owls make nests in eastern Idaho

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The slow erratic wing beats with distinctive white wristbands on the wings indicated to me the long-winged bird was a short-eared owl. Leaving home in the early morning had paid off for me as I watched it glide over the dried grass north of St. Anthony.

Soon the owl was joined by another one as they began their aerial display of loops and dives of their mating ritual. Locking talons for only a brief second was a highlight of the morning for me.

After about a ten-minute display, hunting became their priority. Over the CRP ground, broke up by pockets of sagebrush, they hunted flushing a couple of sharp-tailed grouse. The slow owls were no match for the fleet grouse. A small rodent soon became breakfast for one of them.

Twice one of the owls landed on the same old fence post, so after it left hunting again, I parked nearby. Over an hour later the owl came back and posed for me, what a morning!

Short-eared owls have a body length of about 15 inches compared to their 42 inch wing span. With the slow, deep, rowing wing beats, their flight pattern has been described as that of a moth. Often, they will glide over long distances only a few feet off the ground in search for prey.

Short-eared owl.
A male short-eared owl tries to chase away a hawk that has come near its claimed nesting area. | Bill Schiess,

The flight pattern and the wing colors of this medium sized owl are the quickest ways to identify them. As it skims over the grassland mixed with sagebrush, observers easily identify its buff-white wing patches and dark crescent under wing.

Even though flight of the short-eared owl looks awkward at times, it can hover over prey for extended period when facing into the wind. Barely visible most of the time, their short ears are feather tufts used to attract other short-ears and warn of encroaching competitors.

The wet prairie habitat of southeastern Idaho is prime for this species for both migrants in the spring and for year-round residents. They feed on a variety of small mammals and birds. Voles, deer mice, moles and ground squirrels are easy prey for them. Songbirds and occasional game birds will also become breakfast or supper for them but are more difficult for them to capture.

Short-eared owl.
A short-eared owl lands on a bush in the CRP ground north of St. Anthony. | Bill Schiess,

The species are diurnal, mostly active during the early morning or late evening. This brings them into contact with one of their fiercer competitors, the Northern Harrier. Both species inhabit the same areas and compete for the same food, and both are ground nesters and often battle each other. Last week while observing five short-ears at Market Lake, I watched as a harrier flew very high to engage against a male owl.

The short-eared owls have poor reproduction success. Not only do harriers raid their nests, but skunks, coyotes, ravens, crows and fox take a large toll on the eggs and small chicks. After hatching, the chicks grow very rapidly and fledge in four weeks. This allows a pair to attempt to raise two broods each year.

Their courtship can be a spectacular aerial display. Males show off by flying high in the air, then making rhythmic and exaggerated wing beats they free fall “clapping” their wings below their body as the plummet toward the ground. At times the couple will engage in flight, locking talons and falling to the ground with the male holding his wings aloft.

Short-eared owl.
An owl shows its pattern of the underwing that helps identify short-ears. | Bill Schiess,

Good places to observe the short-eared owl are the marshy areas along the Snake River where the wetlands meet the sagebrush and grassland. Market and Mud Lake areas, Camas National Wildlife Refuge and CRP grounds in the Chester and Newdale areas are good places to look for them. Mornings and evenings are the best times to intercept them while they are hunting. They are very nomadic as they can be one place for several days and then move on without any apparent reason. But once a nest has been established, both females and males will be active parents and the male will supply food for the female and the owlets.

One might even see a short-eared owl attacking game birds or watching it being attacked by a northern harrier or a hawk. I have observed short-ears trying to drive other raptors from their nesting area.

There are still snow geese at Mud and Market Lakes and the Sage grouse are still displaying along the Dubois/Kilgore Road and the Red Road. Enjoy them while there is still time.

Short-eared owl.
A short-eared lands on a post, showing its “ears” made of feather tuffs. | Bill Schiess,

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