August 8, 2012
On Monday, I did my regular monthly non-waterbird survey at Bear River Refuge and logged two adult Short-eared Owls, one on the west side of the auto tour loop and one behind the gates. I also found a dead baby SEO on the road to the refuge between mile posts 3 and 4. This bird had likely been hit by a car the previous night and was not mature enough to fly yet. I suppose that weighed on me a bit. I’m not sure why a driver couldn’t avoid a baby owl nearly as big as a Burrowing Owl on the road in such a wide-open place. I moved the carcass off the road so at least it could decompose in peace without the additional indignity of becoming flattened fauna.
This evening, I decided to return to the area with the hope of seeing the adults and more babies. Any surviving siblings should not yet be able to fly and the parents should still be in the area as well. And that was exactly the situation. I saw the first adult landing on the stubby grass south of the road and just east of the Texas low-water crossing within those two mile posts. I watched it for awhile before I continued west through the crossing. I saw the second adult also standing on the ground on low, scrubby grass, although a bit farther out. This area had some cover and clumps of greasewood, which I scanned until I saw one with a small, solid brown blob snugged against the bright green of the shrub. It was far enough out that I could only speculate that it was a young owl, although a slight movement gave me a pretty good clue. I wanted to be sure and to see this baby better. There was just one problem—I had arrived at the spot in a skirt and sandals with 3-inch heels, and trucking across the brushy playa dressed as I was brought grim visions of broken branches and pulverized playa working into my strappy shoes. No problem! Don’t all girls keep a set of knee-high rubber boots in their SUVs for impromptu adventures like striding through brush and playa to see baby owls? Of course we do.
I must say that knee-high rubber boots with vestigial mud from some earlier adventure paired with a skirt are quite a fashion statement when striding across a playa. I headed toward my quarry about 100 yards out to find that it was, indeed, a baby Short-eared Owl. These birds are so chocolate brown and fluffy you’d think they were plush toys from Toys R’ Us. This little guy’s buffy checkered flight feathers were starting to fill in as well, just like its road-killed sibling that I had seen on Monday. It stared at me fixedly and didn’t move, hoping not to be seen. It looked like the bird had been roosting at the particular greasewood clump for a little while due to the grass around the clump being tamped down in a ring. I also noticed single owl pellets and single drops of whitewash next to multiple clumps of greasewood on the walk back to the road, indicating the adults’ continuing presence.
I didn’t stay long. The adult was still standing farther out keeping an eye on me, although not alarmed because it wasn’t flying or barking as I’ve seen years ago when I inadvertently drove through a day roost and flushed both young and adults. I returned to the road and then continued to drive west until I found another adult Short-eared Owl flying along both sides of the road near mile post 2. This bird dove into the short grass multiple times, but didn’t come up with anything.
On the return past the Texas crossing, the first adult SEO east of the crossing was flying and landing along the road embankment, continuing east as I did. It finally landed on a small post right in front of the big brown Bear River Refuge sign and stayed as I pulled up adjacent to it and watched the bird for a long time just 10 yards or so away. This wasn’t the last one of the night. Another SEO was flying along the road at mile 6.3 and also landed out in the short grass for me to watch through what was murky twilight by this time.
I figured it was a pretty good trade-off: Five Short-eared Owls including a baby for the small investment of looking goofy for no one but them in a skirt and a pair of mud-covered Cablela’s rubber boots. Some things are just worth making a fashion statement like that.