Floppy Wingbeats of the Short-eared Owl

March 09, 2017  •  2 Comments

The Short-eared Owl is an open-country hunter, much unlike forest-dwelling owls. They live in open terrain making them easier to see than most other owls and the best part is, especially for photography, they are often active during daylight hours, especially at dawn and dusk.  They are a very interesting hunter to watch as they fly low over the fields with floppy wingbeats somewhat resembling a giant moth.  The Short-eared Owl is often referred to as a marsh owl.

This is a compilation of my Short-eared Owl photographs made in the early months of 2017.  As usual, I like to toss in some information regarding the habits and habitat all while sharing my experiences.  I hope you enjoy the Short-eared Owl.

We were gaining a couple minutes of daylight with each passing day so I was unsure when the owls would begin to fly.  Most of the time they began to fly around the fields shortly before sunset leaving a short time for photography.  On this one day, with sunset an hour and 15 minutes away, I was very happy to see the owls in the air while the light was still good for photography. 

On a side note, in many of these images you will see cornstalks standing in a tee-pee formation called a "Corn Shock".  This is a practice followed by the Amish community to dry the stocks to be used at a later time for livestock bedding and other purposes.

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Of course, as I sit here in my Pennsylvania home, the Short-eared Owls that I enjoyed photographing in January and February are already on their way north to their preferred nesting grounds.

There are exceptions though.  If the food is good, some may remain to breed.  They nest in slight depressions in the earth or sand lined with grasses, weed stalks and feathers.  They also use bushes or clumps of weeds to hide the nest where the female lays 4-7 eggs.


As you can see in the map to the left, Pennsylvania is designated as a winter (non-breeding) location.

Short-eared Owls have a wide global distribution and can travel long distances over vast expanses of ocean. Witnesses have reported seeing these owls descending on ships hundreds of miles from land.

The map to the left is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

Aside from its North American range, the map also shows they are year-round residents of South America.  Not included on the map are Eurasia, and many oceanic islands, including Hawaii. 

Here is an interesting note: a Short-eared Owl subspecies, the Hawaiian owl or pueo (pronounced Poo-E-O), is Hawaii's only native owl.  It is said that Pueos may have descended from Alaska ancestors, taking hold in the islands after the first arriving Polynesians brought owl food in the form of the Pacific rat.

When not flying and looking for food, you can find Short-eared Owls sitting on a short perch or on the ground.

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It was such an enjoyable time watching these owls hunt the cleared corn fields.  The goal was to catch them on a close fly-by.  There was only one other photographer watching these birds on this one evening and we were treated with several close encounters.

I followed this bird as it flew past at a distance of approximately 50 yards.

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I followed in my lens and didn't stop shooting even when it disappeared behind a Corn Shock.  I was lucky to have its head framed in a small opening as it flew through the other side.

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Here is the last frame as it continued to fly past me.

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With their broad, rounded wings and short tail, the Short-eared Owl is considered a medium-sized owl.  They look very large in the images of this photo blog but consider this... they are about the same size as the American Crow.  See the size information below from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

American CrowAmerican Crow

American Crow

Length: 15.7–20.9 in

Wingspan: 33.5–39.4 in

Weight: 11.1–21.9 oz

Short-eared Owl

Length: 13.4–16.9 in

Wingspan: 33.5–40.6 in

Weight: 7.3–16.8 oz

I watched this owl fly around for a little while before it landed on this leaning fence post about 50 yards away.  The photo on the left was made just after the owl fluffed up and "shook the dust off".  It looks very proud in the photo on the right.

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The images I'm sharing with you in this photo blog weren't made in one evening.  This compilation was created over several days in one to two hour photography sessions.  Wildlife isn't very predictable.  Some days the owls began to fly later than other days and on a couple occasions, I didn't see an owl until it was too dark for photography.  One aspect I was grateful for is there were four owls occupying this location.  It was short lived but they gave us many opportunities.

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When Short-eared Owls roost during the day, they tend to practice a communal roosting behavior.  One day, a fellow photographer and I visited the field about 3 in the afternoon.  Standing roughly 80 yards away from the Corn Shocks, we used binoculars to thoroughly search each one for roosting owls.  After finding two inside or on the Corn Shocks, I continued to look on the ground and found the other two all within 25 yards of each other.

You can see in the photos below that they blend in well with their surroundings.

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This is a cell phone image of the field and Corn Shocks where the owls were roosting.  I don't expect you to be able to see the owls.  That's the point I want to make!  They are very well hidden.


Here is a short video that gives you another chance to get a look at the four owls roosting in the corn and on the ground.  It contains a short clip of each owl and yes, it was very windy!

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Short-eared Owls like large, open areas with low vegetation like prairies, meadows, tundra, marshes, dunes, and agricultural areas.  Their winter habitat is similar, but is more likely to include large open areas within woodlots, stubble fields, fresh and saltwater marshes, weedy fields, dumps, gravel pits, rock quarries, and shrub thickets.

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As you can see in many of the photographs, the Short-eared Owl hunts by flying low over the ground, often hovering before dropping on prey. It is reported that they find prey mostly by sound; sight is secondary.  They are a fairly silent owl but occasionally sounds an emphatic, sneezy bark, "keaw keaw", or a hooting call can be heard.

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The short-eared owl’s ear tufts are small and hard to see, but its ear openings are large and its hearing is excellent. 

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Although you can't tell, owls have long skinny necks.  Their long, thick feathers make it look short and fat.  Because of that long neck and the fact that a bird's head is only connected by one socket pivot, they can twist that long neck about 270 degrees without moving their shoulders.  I suppose that helps to accommodate for the fact that their eyes are fixed inside their heads.  They cannot roll their eyes around as humans do.  In order to look around, they have to move their entire head.

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During the winter, they favor low-light conditions which is unfortunate for wildlife photographers. It is fun to watch and photograph these owls flying low over the ground, sometimes hovering briefly.  I used a Canon 1DX MKII, Canon 600mm f/4L IS II, and a Canon 1.4 teleconverter III for all of the owl photos this season.  That equipment handles low light very well but it is still a challenge.  The test is to manage shutter speed with ISO (camera sensor sensitivity) for the best image quality possible.  Whenever I get home and delete 900 out of 1000 photos I realize how much improvement I have yet to make.  Of course, we also have the ability to lighten up the image in post-processing using software like Photoshop.

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As I said earlier in this blog, after flying around looking for food, they will sit down on a short perch or on the ground.

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Short-eared are extremely maneuverable in the air, able to drop suddenly to capture prey or climb to avoid pursuers.

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So as they fly around, just what are they looking for?  Mostly rodents.  They feed mainly on voles and mice.  They are also known to eat shrews, rabbits, gophers, small birds, and rarely bats and muskrats.

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They use acute hearing to hunt small mammals and birds.

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This Short-eared caught its dinner and is looking for a place to sit and eat.  Many times, other owls or Northern Harriers will try to steal the food.

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Short-eared Owl populations are difficult to estimate but there have been declines in Canada.  The declines are blamed on habitat loss from agriculture, livestock grazing, recreation, and development.

Since Short-eared Owls require large uninterrupted tracts of open grasslands, they are sensitive to habitat loss. There are habitat restoration programs, such as the Conservation and Wetland Reserve Programs, that have shown some success in restoring habitat on private land.

I hope you enjoyed the photographs in this photo blog.  There are many more images in my Short-eared Owl gallery if you would like to see these and many more photos of Short-eared Owls.

Thanks for looking,



Melanie Tepper(non-registered)
Very interesting Dan, and beautiful shots!
Donna Mohney(non-registered)
Really interesting article, Dan! I know nothing about these owls- well, I didn't! Now I do. Great photos! On my bucket list to get to see and photograph!
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