Short-eared Owl: Hidden Winter Resident of the Grasslands

The short-eared owl breaks common owl stereotypes — it migrates across continents, flaps its wings like a moth, and is active in the daytime

Text by Tarun Menon; Photos by Dhritiman Mukherjee

Amid all the species of owls found in India, I find the short-eared owl one of the most fascinating and unique. In the Palearctic region where it breeds, it nests on the ground, in open habitats like the prairies, tundra, savannahs, and meadows. The short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) is a wide-ranging species found across the Old and New Worlds and on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. It’s a winter visitor to the Indian subcontinent, one of the few species of owls known to migrate.

The short-eared owl is one of the few species of owl known to migrate, it travels long distances including, reportedly, over vast expanses of ocean.
Cover Photo: The short-eared owl’s streaked colouring provides it great camouflage in the tall grasses and scrubland it prefers; this one was seen in the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary in Gujarat.

It was the month of December and we were on a safari in the Little Rann of Kutch, travelling through the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary, which at 4,964 square kilometres is the largest wildlife sanctuary in India. That morning was quite nippy, requiring a sweater or two to keep warm, but by 9 am the sun was out and everyone had started stripping their extra layers. In the excitement of seeing a MacQueen’s bustard running for cover as a greater spotted eagle circled overhead, I completely forgot to take my sweater off. Once both these birds were out of sight, we decided to restart the vehicle and move on. We had barely moved 100 metres when we saw a flash of brown dart out from a bush on the left, scuttle across the path in front of our vehicle, sniff about the ground a bit before darting back into another bush and out of sight. The entire event transpired within a period of less than two minutes, so by comparing notes and photos we came to the conclusion that the “flash of brown” was indeed the white-footed fox also known as the desert fox, the Asiatic subspecies of the red fox. We decided to turn off the vehicle again and wait patiently in the hope of spotting the fox again. For nearly fifteen minutes all of us sat there motionless with our binoculars and cameras trained on the bush into which the fox had vanished. Soon I started to lose patience and decided to focus on animals that I could actually see, and I started watching a couple of ashy-crowned sparrow larks on the ground in front of me. All this while I had noticed a dark out-of-focus object in the corner on my binocular’s field of view. I presumed it was a rock and did not pay heed to it. But when I saw it move slightly, I decided to check it out.

A short-eared owl is a diurnal bird with a wingspan of about a metre. It usually flies close to the ground as it hunts for prey, but flies higher when migrating, or displaying its aerial skills during courtship.

I brought the dark blob to the centre of the frame and steadily turned the knob at the top of my binoculars. As it slowly started coming into focus, I noticed two bright yellow eyes staring right at me. It was a pale brown bird with streaks on its wings, a concave facial disc, and short hooked beak, which suggested it was an owl, and its brownish-black miniature ear tufts pointed to it being the short-eared owl. Those large yellow eyes surrounded by a pitch-black outline were reminiscent of a horror film character I must admit, and it did startle me initially. Moreover, an owl was the last thing I expected to find sitting there in the dried grass in the middle of the day. I quickly picked up my camera and took an “ID shot” before alerting the rest of the group (still searching for the fox) to the owl’s presence. As soon as I said “short-eared owl”, everyone immediately turned towards the direction of the bird, and scrambled to see it. Being the first person to spot it I was busy helping people sight the bird, which was well hidden in the tall grass. Sensing all the sudden movement and commotion the owl soon took off, but thanks to my foresight I had an captured an “ID shot”.

In the grasslands and arid scrublands of the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary in Gujarat, short-eared owls primarily perch at ground level and may be seen alone or in pairs.

In the grasslands and arid scrublands of the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary in Gujarat, short-eared owls primarily perch at ground level and may be seen alone or in pairs.

Apart from being diurnal and preferring open grasslands, the short-eared owl is also quite un-owl-like in the manner in which it flies. As the owl flew away, I noticed it flapping its wings in a slow irregular fashion making it look quite floppy and almost “moth-like” in flight. As the excitement of the last half hour died down, I finally took off my sweater, I was completely drenched in sweat but I didn’t care, I was basking in the glory of sighting an owl all by myself for the first time.

Deserts and arid grasslands are among the most neglected ecosystems in India and are often labelled as wastelands. Grasslands across the country are being dramatically lost to expanding agriculture, ill planned development, construction activities, and sand mining. Grassland birds are hence among the most endangered species in India, the list includes the great Indian bustard, the lesser florican, and the black-breasted parrotbill to name a few. Now although the short-eared owl is wide ranging and not threatened by extinction, further loss of grassland habitats will result in the bird choosing to winter elsewhere and India will lose the opportunity to host such a remarkable species.

Tarun Menon

is an avid naturalist, birdwatcher and a researcher with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). His interests lie in how birds respond to changes in their habitat.

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