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The Mysterious, Rare, and Declining Short-eared Owl

Peter Flood
Image taken from Nauset Beach this past Sunday, December 15

I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that, for the second year in a row, the northeast is a little light on Snowy Owls. So far this year we have just a few from the Cape and Islands, significantly fewer than last year at this time. Even primo spots, like Nauset Beach in Orleans and Jeremy Point in Wellfleet have yet to generate a report, which is unusual. 


The good news is that sometimes the bird gods giveth when the bird gods taketh away, and this year they have giveneth us another winter owl to look for and enjoy – the mysterious, rare, and declining Short-eared Owl.

Since November, we’ve had many more sightings than usual of this uncommon owl of wide open grasslands. At least three were hanging around Crane Wildlife Management Area in Falmouth a few weeks ago, no doubt thanks to the recent efforts to expand these regionally important grasslands for the benefit of a laundry list of rare species.

Other recent Short-eared sightings have been from Seagull Beach in Yarmouth, Crosby Beach in Brewster, and Camp Edwards. Then, on this Sunday’s Cape Cod Christmas Bird Count there were at least three between Coast Guard Beach in Eastham and Nauset Beach in Orleans, including a bird seen at both dawn and dusk at Eastham’s famously scenic Fort Hill. 

Short-eared Owls are relatively cosmopolitan for an owl, breeding on most continents and embarking on long migrations, often over water. Willingness to cross water is rare in owls, but Alaskan birds sometimes land on ships well out in the Pacific. This willingness explains why Short-eared Owls are the only owl to colonize the hyper-isolated Hawaiian Islands, where they are known as the Pueo. Here in Massachusetts, they are just about caput as breeding birds, with a single pair barely hanging in there on a remote and sparsely inhabited island. They once bred in coastal moors and barrier beaches on Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and at Monomoy in Chatham, but not since the 1970s.

The decline here can be attributed to the loss of grasslands, heathlands, and pastures, but we still have enough of these open areas to host a few wintering birds some years, like this one.

Short-eared Owls have a characteristic floppy, bounding flight, and you should only ever confuse them with the surprisingly similar and even less common Long-eared Owl, which favors brushier, more wooded fields. Look for Short-eared Owls hunting voles and other small critters over big saltmarshes, farms, and large barrier beach systems around dusk, when they replace the day-flying Northern Harrier on vole patrol.

I can’t tell you how many Christmas Bird Count days over the last 20+ years I’ve ended by setting up shop at some big field or marsh, visions of Short-eared owls dancing in my head, only to be disappointed every time. But don’t be discouraged by my track record - with so many sightings this year, if you put in some time in likely places, I’m sure one of these special owls will flop its way into your view, and then into your heart.