Short-eared Owls in Missouri during breeding season

SEOW_Brysons_0813_adjby Andrea Ambrose

When I signed on as a field technician in March for MRBO’s grassland bird studies, I knew that I was going to have quite an adventure learning new field techniques and also learning to identify many species of birds and plants that would be new to me, because up until this point in my career I’ve only worked and lived on the east coast. I had no idea that by the time I actually stopped to take a tally of all the new birds that I’d seen or heard since arriving in Missouri that I would come up with a total of 60 new species! This was an accumulation of seeing and hearing new birds at our banding stations, at educational events, on surveys, and also in my free time just birding with other MRBO staff who are knowledgeable about local flora and fauna. There is one sighting in particular that stands out the most in my mind and it’s an encounter that I’m not going to forget any time soon.

I was conducting a grassland bird survey at Bryson’s Hope Conservation Area early one morning in May, and I had only gotten a few minutes into my survey when two large birds flushed up from the ground about 70 meters ahead of me. While one disappeared fairly quickly into the distance, the second one started hovering and giving me pretty good views of it so that I could make an identification. My first instinct was that it was a species of owl, and I’d only ever seen an owl in the wild one time previous to this, so this was a thrill for me. I started staring at it through my binoculars trying to pick out any identifying features, and referring to my Audubon field guide to make a connection. The closest that I could figure, I’d just seen two short-eared owls! I didn’t know this at the time, but I’d come across something pretty unusual for Missouri. I excitedly reported my sighting and was gently asked if I was sure on my identification, as short-eared owls rarely breed in Missouri and are usually only seen here in winter. I offered to go out on another day to try to spot them again, and the second time although I only saw one of them, I was still pretty confident on my ID. A third time out I took a more seasoned birder with me but of course the owls were nowhere to be found on that day. The mystery was finally put to rest on a fourth occasion when Dana and Ethan went out and not only spotted the two adults but also a third juvenile owl, giving a pretty good indication that they were a family that nested out on the prairie.

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I was given the opportunity to fill out a report for the Audubon Society of Missouri since this was a fairly rare sighting, and it will be documented in their records. I feel privileged to have been able to see this amazing bird in its natural habitat, and to have the opportunity to do the work that I’m doing for this organization. If I had not been working on this grassland study, chances are that I might never have seen this species in the wild. There have been many amazing experiences for me out in the field while working here in Missouri, but this one stands out as the most memorable.

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