A short-eared owl at Market Lake WMA.
With the door slowly closing on October and beginning to open on winter, the flush of migrating birds will rapidly diminish. Soon, we will only have the birds that have determined to winter in our country, including those that live here year-round and those that migrate to our climate for the winter.
There are a surprising number of birds that stick around all winter, finding the lack of competition satisfying. Most of our raptors will leave, but many owls seem to find the winter hunting just as productive as summertime. One of these is a medium-sized owl called the short-eared owl.
This owl, smaller than a great-horned owl yet larger than a northern sawhet, is one of the most widely distributed owls in the world. It is found throughout most of North America, South America, Asia and Europe. In fact, the only continents it is not found on are Antarctica and Australia.
Unlike many owls, the short-eared owl is a capable long-distance flier. Reports of this bird landing on ships far out to sea are not uncommon. At some point, it even found its way to the Hawaiian Islands where the new subspecies became known as the pueo, the only native owl in the island complex.
Short-eared owls are fairly easy to recognize. They have a round head with a pale facial disk. Yellow eyes are set in dark eye patches, and overall, the bird is heavily barred. It has long rounded wings with barred wing tips that show up in flight. Don’t look too hard for the feathers described as “ears” as they are truly short and hard to see.
This owl further distinguishes itself by being one of the few owls to nest on the ground. It typically finds a small rise in grassy country and constructs a nest—another anomaly as most all other owls do not construct their own nests—where they raise up to six youngsters.
If you are a small mammal, you have a lot to fear from this silent predator. Mammals such as mice, voles, shrews and pocket gophers, top the list of preferred foods and one bird may eat four a day, but birds, even adult nesting shorebirds, are fair game if mammals are scarce. They decapitate and eviscerate small mammals before swallowing them whole and may remove the wings from birds.
If you enjoy watching predatory birds on the hunt, short-eared owls are for you. They live in open country such as marshes and grasslands where they are easy to see. In addition to being here in the winter, they are also active at all times of the day, but especially early and late in the day. They are fairly easy to spot perched on fence posts at Market Lake and Mud Lake WMAs and Camas National Wildlife Refuge. In flight, watch for a ragged, “moth-like” flight as the short-eared owl flies with irregular wingbeats. They hunt by flying over grasslands just a few feet about the surface, diving down when they spot or hear a potential meal.
Just like in my garden, where the red stems of dogwoods added “winter interest”, short-eared owls add enjoyment all winter long when snow covers the ground and other wildlife might be hard to find.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho