Posted by: atowhee | February 12, 2008

Stalking the Short-eared Owl we were undone

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These three shots were taken by Dan Elster.  The Meadowlark’s on top to show that Dan really knows his way around a camera.  Some of the male Meadowlarks were singing on a mild winter Sunday morning.  The bottom owl shot is what they looked like through our binocs, one doing sentinel duty from the far end of the field.  In thre middle is a blown up version of Dan’s best owl pic…so far. 

Dan Elster is a super nature photographer here in the Rogue Valley.  To see some results from his more successful photo hunts click here,

In the owl field there were two of us and six of them.  Not only were we out-numbered, we have paltry hearing capabilities and we walk through dried weeds like clumsy mammals.  Duh.

Dan’d asked if we could try to track down the Short-eared Owls wintering near the Medford Airport.  So there we were, walking through a hundred acres or more of dried weeds, wet clay, volunteer pear saplings and chest-high teasal stalks from last fall.  Just the sort of dense, low cover SE Owls love.  We first found some of their ground roosting spots and at least three dining areas.  One had the still-furred shin bone of a jackrabbit.  We saw a couple of live ones during our field trip in this field.  Here was the remains of owl feasting on jackrabbit tartare.

Later we found the obvious feathered leftovers from a Mourning Dove done in.  The other pile of feathers puzzled me, Three-inch medium-brown wing feathers with no markings.  Some subtle streaking on soft underbelly feathers of a bird larger than a dove.  Finally I decided it might have been a young Kestrel that fell to the silent predation of an SE Owl.  Not positive, however.  Only the owl knows for sure.

We neared the northwest corner of the field, not far from the fenceline of the Medford International Galactic Hyperhub and Airport.   All six of the owls were in a loose cluster, within a fifty foot radius of one another it seemed.  They heard our klunky footsteps and conversation and took to a swirling getaway.  Their incongruously long wings flexed and fluttered and raised each bird into circling flight.  As if planned, they circled around us and landed in different quadrants of the field.  Two perched in far-off short saplings and eyed our laborious, lumbering mammal gait and seemed content that we were too dim-witted and slow to be of any real dnager, so they too settled into the weeds again.  We did manage to re-annoy a couple of the owls and send them back into the air.  Each time they landed another five minute walk away, in the weeds, unseeable, unphotographable.  And with our inability to move silently we were out-sensed, out-flown, undone.  But we have a plan for another go, and we will return.  If nothing else, to prove that we’re half as clever as the owls if not so silent in stalking.

We had earlier tried for the roadside Snipe picture, but one open car door sent them whirling off to snipe-knows-where. 

At Gold-ray Dam Dan and I saw seven species of ducks including my first-ever male Barrow’s Goldeneye in Oregon.  And there was a Blue Heron who clearly knew the purpose of the fish ladder around the dam.  He stood on the edge of the ladder doing his own fishing.  Downstream the human fishers were forced to stand on a sandbar and fish in a fast-moving Rogue River too muddy to see into.  Meanwhile the fish ladder’s stairs and shallow water afforded Mr.Heron a perfect view of any fish that came his way.  Just another example of how birds are better at doing their work than we are at imitating them.

Out-fish a heron?  Get close to a Snipe with a large optical eye?  Sneak up on a Short-eared Owl?  The last one we’ve not forsaken.  We’re going back with a devious plan that may recover some of our lost pride at being such clever creatures.  After all, we have a camera and they only have those superb ears and telescopic eyes.


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