Northern Utah Short-eared Owls

/, Box Elder County, Short-eared Owls, Utah/Northern Utah Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owl attacks CoyoteShort-eared Owl attacks Coyote – Nikon D810, f6.3, 1/1250, ISO 500, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

I spent yesterday morning in northern Utah and started off by spotting some very well hidden Burrowing Owls which I thought was great and then my morning got even better with seeing and photographing several Short-eared Owls.

I was photographing a pair of Long-billed Curlews in the grasses when way off in the distance behind one of the curlews I spotted some movement and aimed my lens in that direction because the curlew wasn’t doing anything exciting. What I saw was a coyote running away from two Short-eared Owls that were dive bombing it. I took several photos of the action and then the coyote disappeared in the sage.

This image was taken from a very long way from all the action and is a monstrously large crop (7% of the original 36.1 megapixel file) file but I can definitely see something in the coyote’s mouth. I suppose the coyote may have wandered close to where the owls were, caught some prey and they just attacked it because of that. Even blowing up the full sized image I can’t make out what is in the coyote’s mouth.

But it made me wonder is that a chick on the coyote’s mouth, is it too early for the owls to have chicks here in northern Utah? I’ve seen Short-eared Owls fledglings here the end of June but never this early.

I searched on Birds of North America and could only find information on other locations:

Occasionally late Mar, but mostly Apr; Jun in high arctic

In British Columbia, 32 clutches found 24 Mar to 9 Jul, most (51%) between 20 Apr and 15 May (Campbell et al. 1990). In Yukon, clutches found as early as May, but most in Jun (Sinclair et al. 2003). In N. Dakota, 26 clutches found 4 Apr – 1 Aug, peak in May and Jun

I suppose I will never know what the prey item was but it made me curious about how early the Short-eared Owls could have chicks in northern Utah. Plus the aggression of the owls towards the coyote was fascinating to see and photograph. I’d photographed the same type of interaction years ago in the Centennial Valley of Montana, also from a long distance.

I was happy to see the Short-eared Owls even though they were so far away because I haven’t seen them much the past few years but my owl experience wasn’t over yet.

Tumbleweeds with Short-eared OwlTumbleweeds with Short-eared Owl – Nikon D810, f7.1, 1/500, ISO 500, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

Later on and down the road I was able to photograph this Short-eared Owl perched on a fence post where tumbleweeds had gotten hung up in the barbed wire at the base of the fence. The light wasn’t the best at the time because of clouds overhead but I simply did not care. A Short-eared Owl perched on a gnarly old fence post with tumbleweeds on it? It felt awesome to see and photograph it.

Box Elder County male Short-eared Owl on wooden postBox Elder County male Short-eared Owl on wooden post – Nikon D810, f7.1, 1/1600, ISO 320, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

But then I had an opportunity with a cooperative Short-eared Owl up close when it didn’t move from its perch right next to the road. Of the owls I photographed yesterday it was this one who stole my heart, it was this one where I almost felt lost in his beautiful eyes. I am not always looking for action shots and although I know some bird photographers do there are times I personally crave the intimacy and connection with my subject that a close up shot conveys.

Male Short-eared Owl close up in UtahMale Short-eared Owl close up in Utah – Nikon D810, f7.1, 1/1600, ISO 320, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

I have images of a female Short-eared Owl up close that I photographed years ago in southwestern Montana but until yesterday I had not had the opportunity to photograph a male this close. I’m so grateful that the owl allowed me the pleasure.

Male Short-eared Owl staring at preyMale Short-eared Owl staring at prey – Nikon D810, f10, 1/800, ISO 320, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

The owl was actively hunting and seemed to be focused entirely on the pursuit. It would perched on a post and then dive into the grasses after prey. In the photo above it was intent on something in the grasses right next to the road. It dove down for it but came up from the grasses with empty talons. During the time I photographed it I never saw it catch prey.

Short-eared Owl on a metal postShort-eared Owl on a metal post – Nikon D810, f10, 1/640, ISO 320, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

Even though I prefer natural perches the old wooden and rusty metal fence posts they make suitable perches for the owls to perch on while they look for prey so I don’t mind them at all.

In the interest of full disclosure I did clone out a light colored spot near the top of this owl’s head that was from an out of focus fence post in background that was just distracting enough that I wanted it removed.

Short-eared Owl male in Box Elder CountyShort-eared Owl male in Box Elder County – Nikon D810, f8, 1/640, ISO 200, Nikkor 500mm VR, natural light, not baited

The light was nice when I took images of this male on a rusty fence post so I decreased my ISO because I wanted as much fine plumage detail as I could get and the results were wonderful. I love how relaxed this owl was even with a vehicle nearby, it just went about its business of being an owl.

Male Short-eared Owl back viewMale Short-eared Owl back view – Nikon D810, f8, 1/500, ISO 200, Nikkor 500mm VR, natural light, not baited

It was an absolutely wonderful morning with Burrowing Owls at their burrow, Turkey Vultures using the sun to thermoregulate, a third year Bald Eagle perched on a lichen covered boulder while a marmot voiced its displeasure, Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers soaring above.

Yesterday it was the northern Utah Short-eared Owls that made me so very glad that I am a bird photographer and that for a little while I am part of their world.

Life is good.



  1. lindy April 6, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    admire your photography, it is wonderful. it must take a lot of work and patience.

  2. Tommy DeBardeleben April 5, 2016 at 10:07 am

    Hey Mia,

    Spectacular photographs of the Short-eared Owl! It’s the only owl that I’ve seen that I haven’t been able to get good photographs of yet. Your photos are making me want to encounter one very soon. Well done!

    –Tommy DeBardeleben

  3. Mia McPherson April 5, 2016 at 7:09 am

    Thank you all for your wonderful comments on this Short-eared Owl post.

    Neil, I really appreciate the information on nesting Short-eared Owls in Utah that you provided. With climate change who knows how much earlier birds will nest… if they can adapt.

  4. Elephant's Child April 4, 2016 at 2:29 pm

    What a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful morning. Thank you for sharing some of the magic.

  5. Patty Chadwick April 4, 2016 at 1:17 pm

    I keep coming back to these images, especially the last one…the peeking-over the shoulder-back-at-you shot….

  6. Linda April 4, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    Beautiful series of photos!

  7. Millicent Lewis April 4, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    Thank you for that.

  8. Millicent Lewis April 4, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    Thank you.

  9. John sherrill April 4, 2016 at 10:01 am

    Beautiful pictures! Makes me want to move to Utah. John

  10. Patty Chadwick April 4, 2016 at 9:48 am

    Wonderful shots of a beautiful, interesting owl…love the detail in the close-ups…

  11. Neil April 4, 2016 at 8:23 am

    Hi Mia. It is very hard to see what is in the Coyote’s mouth but just an FYI – We had confirmed Short-eared Owl fledglings around the third week of April last year in Utah and Idaho so it is definitely possible! The BNA account is always great for detailed information, but there are always exceptions when in the field, as I am sure you know. Fantastic images!

  12. Larry Muench April 4, 2016 at 7:50 am

    I’m sure the coyote attack was fun to watch. Wonderful pictures of the owls, they really are stunning.

  13. Ian Holland April 4, 2016 at 7:19 am


  14. Kathryn Duchene April 4, 2016 at 7:04 am


  15. Randy Sokolik April 4, 2016 at 6:48 am

    beautiful shots! wouldn’t be surprised if the coyotes were grabbing chicks as the short ears are gound nesters. All owls are firece raptors.

  16. Bob McPherson April 4, 2016 at 6:45 am

    Absolutely spectacular photos, Mia. The Owls continue their favored status.

  17. Phil April 4, 2016 at 6:44 am

    Definitely captured a good picture with the post, owl perched upon it, barbed wire strung across, and tumbleweed snagged. I feel like I am there too.! The other pics, no.

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