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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.