Rippled across the plains in seas of grass, scattered on abandoned fence posts of wood and of rattlesnake master—which seems an unlikely support—sits an owl. Its forty inch wingspan belies its body length of 15 inches and weight of less than a pound. An archetype of grassland adaptations, this short-eared owl.
Rather than profiling the short-eared owl, the short-eared owl profiles a region and landscape and way of life. Like other grassland species, the owl nests on the ground, the only owl to construct its own nest.
As an apex predator, the short-eared owl lives mostly free from the worries of a song sparrow. As a result, the owl's courtship display celebrates a lifestyle of movement and freedom, the bird soars hundreds of feet into the air, plummets, then rises again while audibly clapping its wings... applause on the prairie.
The short-eared owl seems, by all accounts, a random bird. From year to year, paired birds will find new mates and new nesting sites. On Buena Vista Marsh in 1970, an explosion of short-eared owls occupied the grasslands along with high numbers of northern harriers. Most populous though, was their prey source, the meadow vole. Fran Hamerstrom's “vole index,” a measure of the abundance of voles on the marsh, was extremely high in 1970.
Previous records showed only one nesting pair of short-eared owls on the marsh in 1961. In 1970, “the year of the short-eared owl” there were 104 short-eared owls at Buena Vista.
The owls hold no fidelity to the same sites. In this way, the bird resembles nomadic peoples across the world, from Tibetan Drokpa to Great Plains Lakota. Movement characterizes these cultural identities, which some may consider primitive. Yet moving through a grassland of continental size allows efficient routes to emerge. Optimizing the phenology of their movements, these groups followed bison herds, spent hot summers in high altitude mountain meadows, and avoided areas of flooding or drought.
Likewise, the short-eared owls link their movements to efficient routes. The owls have been found to be synchronous with vole activity, optimizing their hunting. Their seasonal movements trace the availability of food resources. Overwintering in Wisconsin starting in November, they migrate from areas where snow cover becomes too deep, or where food availability has decreased.
I witnessed a short-eared owl in the Crawfish River prairies in late November, before deep snow cover. I haven't seen one since, though the prairies have been populated with harriers, kestrels, red-tailed and coopers hawks.
In Wisconsin, the short-eared owl follows the prairie fires of large grassland tracts, and breeds almost strictly on the Buena Vista Marsh and in Crex Meadows in Northwestern Wisconsin.
Most striking though, are the eyes. The eyes of a short-eared owl can only be described as fierce and piercing. Undiluted yellow lights up the bird like 90 watt bulbs.
Researchers wonder how often prairie fires occurred throughout the North American continent, and what combination of indigenous/lightning the fire was sourced from. These scientists overlook the short-eared owl, which starts a grassland ablaze with simply a stare.
I push my nordic skis down Prairie Lane as the sun begins to set, scooting through a rut in the snow to look for owls. Briskly, I slide down into the floodplain of the Crawfish River to the east. North and west, slivers of sunlight fill the horizon. Where I'm headed is gray, though I'm not experienced enough to keep my head up long enough to observe as I would when walking.
I make my way down to Martin and Tillotson Prairies and ensconce myself in the grass and rosinweed and wait. And I see nothing. A few tree sparrows and juncos, but that's all. Even the bald eagle's nest along the river is vacant.
Two days earlier, three birds were documented on ebird but this evening those ghosts haunting the prairie have vanished. Ethereal, these birds have been seen in 14 areas of the state in the past month. Part of this has to do with their declining numbers which corresponds with declining grassland habitat.
In a dream that night I see at first three short-eared owls. The number grows to fifteen as I wait, prone in a ditch. They surround me and behave like affable sparrows, pecking at the ground. I've read that if you stumble upon a short-eared owl it's reluctant to flush. In my dream would be almost all of the short-ears occupying the state this month.
It's not uncommon for short-eared owls to congregate in small groups to roost during the winter, but not in a group of fifteen, at least in Wisconsin. The dream birds peck at corn and gravel where there should be a sea of voles for them to hunt. Their eyes are not piercing yellow, but rather a dull brown.
These ecological mismatches wake me from my dreams. Even in my imagination, I can't seem to follow the thread of the short-eared owl, that haunting nomad.
Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward