Spring isn’t too far off, but we’ve still got a thick slab of winter to get through. It can be a tough few weeks: Maybe you forget what sunshine looks like. Maybe a you-shaped hollow starts to form in your couch. (Maybe I’m projecting.)
Maybe what you need is to go find an owl.
Short-eared, specifically. Hauntingly beautiful, with long, graceful wings and keen yellow eyes set in a distinct facial disk, Short-ears are not shy about showing off their good looks. They’re active in daylight and gravitate to open areas, where they hunt voles, lemmings, and other rodents, and are much easier to spot than more secretive owls that hunker in deep woods.
This combination of elegance and accessibility makes Short-ears a winter favorite for many birders and photographers. In the long, cold months between migration seasons, watching these birds hunt is one of those niche pleasures—like finding a flock of winter finches or scoping out some weird ducks—that can buoy your spirit and remind you of winter’s quiet allure.
Among the planet’s most widely distributed owls, Short-ears have made good use of their powerful wings. “They have quite a range around the world, including on the Galápagos and in Hawaii, and apparently made it there on their own,” says bird expert and Audubon field editor Kenn Kaufman.
They’re year-round residents in much of the northern United States and large swaths of South America, as well as on islands in the Caribbean and around the world. They breed across a vast territory, nesting on the ground in tundra, grasslands, and other open spaces of Alaska, Canada, and northern Eurasia. And in winter, Short-ears can be found across just about all of the Lower 48, though Kaufman says their presence in a given area can vary from year to year, and even within a single season.
Their huge range makes Short-eared Owls a findable species for just about anyone willing to go look. But where to start? The Audubon Bird Guide app allows you to easily find nearby hotspots: Search for the species, then click the “sightings” tab to view recent records of birds spotted near you. The eBird platform is another tried-and-true option. Listservs or Facebook pages run by local birding groups can also offer updates about where owl-seekers are finding success.
A more Luddite-friendly tip from experts: If you’ve had any encounters with Northern Harriers, try those spots for owls. These long-tailed hawks prowl the same habitats as do Short-ears, often competing for prey. Harriers hunt primarily during the day and Short-ears are most often spotted around dawn and dusk, but things can get rough-and-tumble come shift change. “They kind of share space, although not always very willingly,” says wildlife photographer and Audubon contributing editor Melissa Groo. “Sometimes you get these fascinating clashes between them.”
Location scouting aside, there’s always a chance you’ll luck into a Short-ear while driving through farm country or other suitable habitat. If a large bird catches your eye, it shouldn’t be too hard to tell if it’s the species you’re after: “They have a really distinctive floppy flight that’s hard to describe,” Kaufman says. “They’re very buoyant-looking in flight.” Groo says a Short-ear on the wing looks mothlike: “It’s very uneven and unpredictable in ways, but it’s always very graceful and agile.”
Groo is drawn to the birds not only for their beauty, but also because she loves the increasingly rare habitats they rely on. Grassland birds are some of our fastest-declining species, and Short-ears are among those finding fewer and fewer places to make a home. Their population status is tricky to gauge, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in part because of their nomadic and crepuscular habits. But while the species is still widespread and considered of least conservation concern globally, it has lost an estimated 65 percent of its North American population since 1970, according to the Partners in Flight network. Seven states in the northeast consider the Short-eared Owl threatened or endangered.
Fortunately, the species isn’t as likely as many other owls to be disturbed by birders and photographers, according to Kaufman. Social media tends to trigger a flood of visitors when someone reports finding, for example, a Great Gray Owl—a species whose low population density, excellent camouflage, and mostly nocturnal habits make any sighting a newsworthy event in local birding circles. In recent winters, crowds drawn by reports of Great Grays or other elusive species, such as roosting Long-eared or Northern Saw-whet Owls, have led some birders to accuse others of harassing the sensitive birds. But Short-ears are more conspicuous, so there’s less pent-up demand to see them in the wild, and they don’t seem overly stressed by a few birders and photographers observing them while they hunt, Kaufman says. Still, there are limits. In 2019, state conservation officers had to be called in to address trespassing and other irresponsible behavior by owl enthusiasts in western New York, including pursuing the birds with a drone.
“We can love these birds to death quite easily,” Groo says. To ensure your admiration of Short-ears doesn’t cause them harm, keep to roads and trails and stay off of the fields where owls hunt and nest. Drive slowly and extra carefully in owl habitat to avoid clipping a bird that’s focused on hunting. Avoid loud talk and other intrusive noises. And if you can, consider visiting Short-ear haunts during the week, when there are typically fewer visitors. “It’s about respect,” she says.
To get a great shot without disturbing an owl’s hunt takes a lot of glass—Groo recommends a 400mm lens at minimum, and 500mm or 600mm is even better. For a bird in flight, you’ll want to shoot at least 15 or 20 frames per second, ideally using a camera with good auto-focus capability. One of Groo’s favorite ways to shoot Short-ears is from her car. Sling a bean bag over your window to stabilize your camera and you can get great shots from inside a vehicle, which has the added benefits of keeping you largely hidden and relatively warm.
After talking with Groo and Kaufman about the beauty of Short-eared Owls, I was itching to get outside and find one for myself. So, the other day I went to look for them at a local nature preserve. Its floodplain forest opens onto several acres of prairie where I thought I might hunt if I were a Short-ear. I waited until just before dark—no owls.
I did, however, see Hairy Woodpeckers hammering away in the bare trees, and a Belted Kingfisher swooping low over a broad river near a chatty raft of Mallards. I saw three deer munching away as a heavy snow began to fall, and when they winded me and bolted, another dozen I hadn’t noticed materialized and bounded away and faded again into the forest. By the time dusk arrived, seeing a Short-eared Owl almost seemed like too much to ask for. Maybe I’ll try again tonight.