Last week I spent a lot of time photographing more than a dozen Short-eared Owls in various locations around northern Utah. Some were chicks, fledglings, females and males. I was able to see and photograph a long Short-eared Owl preening session where I could see the owl’s ear canal, uropygial gland and some extremely interesting and twisted poses.
When the male owl didn’t take off after it roused I decided to move my Jeep a little bit to avoid having the bright out of focus rocks in the distance behind the owl while I photographed it. They distracted me even through the viewfinder.
The owl wasn’t bothered when I moved that little bit or by my presence, it just looked around the fields in front of it and behind it. I was starting to think the owl was going to go to sleep on me.
But then he started to preen and I locked my focus on him, taking frame after frame while enjoying and being enthralled by every move he made. The funny looks…
The poses it got into… The owl is actually rubbing the back of its head on its uropygial gland, or preening gland, in this frame. The owl looks topsy-turvy, doesn’t it? I kind of wish it would have had its eyes open when it did this but I’m happy with what I got.
Then I was pleased to get a few images that show the exposed uropygial gland, that little pointed pink nub in among the grayish feathers in the middle of its back.
The uropygial gland produces an oil which the birds then spread onto their feathers, the oil helps to keep their feathers flexible, helps to form a barrier where water beads up and runs off, might have an antiparasitic effect and some studies have indicated that the uropygial gland may be involved with the production of pheromones in females.
And he gave me a great view of his sharp talons when he held out one leg right before scratching himself with his foot.
He was so focused that he ignored me completely and preened his tail…
And drew it through his bill to spread the preening oil all the way to the tip of the tail feather.
He did seem to be keeping his eye on the other owls and harriers in the area and would occasionally stop preening to stare off into the distance which also lead to some interesting poses for me to capture with my camera.
He preened the feathers under his wings…
And when he preened the wing furthest away from me I was able to capture some images that showed his ear canal, the pink area of exposed skin just behind the dark area of his closed eye.
Short-eared Owls rely heavily on their hearing to capture prey and it isn’t often that I have been able to see, let alone photograph the ear canals of owls because they are typically well hidden under their feathers. In some owls their ear canals are asymmetrical, with the left ear lower than the right to be able to hear sounds below the owl and the higher right ear hearing the sounds above the owl, in some owls the flaps of skin that cover the ears “directs” the sounds. I believe, but am not positive, that the ear canals on Short-eared Owls are nearly symmetrical and that the flaps of skin over the ear canals direct the sounds in parallel pathways to the brain. I tried to research it but ran into dead ends.
If you want to dig deeper into sound localization in owls Wikipedia might be the place to start.
Now this pose… if I had to describe it to someone who could not see the image I would most certainly fail! I have never before seen such a wildly wonderful, twisty, curvy pose from an owl! Its head is nearly upside down and bent over its back at the same time while preening the underside of its right wing. It almost looks like a feathered capital Q.
This pose seems tame compared to the previous one! I do have eye contact though and I could describe this to someone who couldn’t see the image.
The Short-eared Owl completed its preening session and gave me the chance to photograph it staring off into the distance before he lifted off and flew away. The entire preening session lasted about six minutes and I took 444 images during that time.
I know I sat there with a grin on my face for a while after it flew off and I quietly savored each of those 6 minutes spent photographing and watching the owl through my viewfinder.
Life is good. I love what I do and my subjects too!