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How to spot an owl in Washington (it's easier than you think)

You might assume that if you want to spy an owl, you’d have to stay up and wait late into the night. Which is what I’ve found myself doing often … waiting.

But Paul Bannick knows better.

He explains this to me as we jump into his Subaru and drive out to one of his special owl viewing spots about 60 miles north of Seattle.

“So we're in the greater Skagit Valley,” Paul says. “And the reason we're here is these are historical areas where open country owls come to take advantage of the moderate climate … this moderate climate in the moist meadows is the perfect habitat for voles.”

Voles are small rodents, like hamsters, that owls love to feed on. One way to find owls is to find the voles. Paul is a nature photographer and author with a fervor for owls. So he knows that you don’t have to wait up at night to see them. Sure, some owls, like the barred owl, are active at night. But the owl we’re about to go see likes to hunt during the morning and afternoon – the short-eared owl.

The short-eared owl has brown and white speckled wings. It’s a species that can be found on every continent except for Australia and Antarctica. You might come across them in the Galapgos or India, Holland or Chile. Or in Washington state in a wet, soggy meadow that we’re driving up to. Before we can get out of the car, Paul calls out “There’s a short-eared owl!”

That didn’t take long.

“In Europe they’re called marsh owls,” Paul says. "He's hunting."

I'm astonished at how quickly we had our first owl sighting.

Owls have both a good and bad reputation, depending on who you talk to. Still, there’s something about the owl that sparks our imaginations. For some it might be romantic — a solitary owl perched on a branch, silhouetted against the silver light of a full moon.

For others, owls are wise messengers like Hedwig from the Harry Potter series.

Some indigenous people think they mean good fortune. But for others, owls are ominous. Sir Walter Scott once wrote “owls are birds of omen, dark and foul.” In Medieval Europe owls were thought to be witches, and an owl’s call meant someone was about to die – which is easy to understand if you’ve ever heard the sound of a female barred owl calling for a mate. I’m amazed that it seems to work.

For me, owls are creatures of beauty: wild, mysterious and finely-tuned birds. And watching them in this soggy, wet meadow only confirms that perspective.

How to spot a short-eared owl

The meadow is perfect vole habitat with a combination of short and thick grass with muddy patches.

Paul pulls out a camera with a lens as big as my arm. At the same time, the owl vanishes as quickly as it showed up. It’s already my most successful owl hunt ever. We begin to walk out into the mud in search of more.

The best way to view an owl, Paul says, is to find a good spot — like a hunting ground with voles — and stay there. Don’t move.

“Let nature come to you," he says. “Whenever you try to hide too much and you're getting your stomach to crawl towards something, you mimic predators. But you're a big, clumsy predator; a big, noisy, clumsy predator. You're not fooling any owl.”

Two things make these owls highly efficient hunters: their flight and their hearing.

Flight: Their bodies are very light compared to the size of their wings. Butterflies are an extreme example of this — tiny bodies, huge wings. For the short-eared owl this physical advantage makes them extremely buoyant.

“Even against a wind, it can just hover in one place and you won't even have any perception of its wings moving,” Paul says. “It's just staying there as if it's being held up by invisible wires.”

Owls have serrated comb-like structures at the leading edge of their wings. This reduces the sound of wind turbulence. The backs of their wings have soft fringe-like feathers that dampen the sound even more. And because their wings are so big they don’t have to flap them as much.

“So the combination of a silent flight and the buoyancy allow it to be unheard for many predators and it can listen to what's going on and actually catch prey moving below the turf.”

Hearing: Short-eared owls find their prey by listening. And they do this with a remarkable auditory system that allows them to hear the precise location of prey.

“The actual ears of an owl are holes in the skull that are offset,” Paul explains. “So you and I, we have ears, they're on the same plane. So when we hear a sound, we have a great sense of the direction, we turn towards the sound. By having offset years, [an owl] has a sense of the height and the direction of the sound.”

Since one ear is higher than the other, owls can also tell what height the sound is coming from. That’s helpful while hovering above prey, trying to determine exactly where it is before swooping down for a catch.

Even owls’ faces are part of this hearing system. It’s called a facial disc – the circle around the eyes that give owls their distinct look.

“And the facial disc is essentially a ring of stiff feathers connected by a muscle that helps fine tune the sounds to the ears,” Paul says. “It's almost the audio equivalent of squinting so they can move this facial disc to give them a better sense to triangulate exactly where the sound is coming from.”

There are 19 different species of owls in North America, and 200 across the globe. They all have different facial discs. Paul says the more distinctive the facial disc, the more likely the owl relies on hearing for hunting. Otherwise, they rely on keen eyesight. Just think of how many years of evolution an owl had to spend fine tuning these natural tools – millions of years.

Another owl flies low over the grass, showing off these hunting tools.

“Right now, it's a coursing hunter,” Paul says. “So it's coursing over the fields. It's trying to cover all of the field, crisscrossing it back, forth, back, forth, flying really low … the lower an owl hunts, the more it's using this hearing."

“He’s flying probably 10 miles an hour. Maybe if he hears a vole, he can almost immediately stop and just hover there, silently, even if it's a little bit windy, hover over that one spot and get lower and lower and lower until he pinpoints exactly where it is or it goes right in and gets it.”

The owl does just that as it grabs a clump of grass. Hopefully, a vole is in there.

A species of concern

As magnificent as this hunter is, short-eared owls and all other species of owls that live in open, treeless landscapes are considered "species of concern" in North America. These are owls that are threatened or at risk often because of a loss of habitat.

Short eared owls need a landscape with tall grass because they actually build their nests right on the ground.

“Basically, the female scrapes a little groove, a little cup, maybe in the ground, lays the eggs directly on the grass, on the turf,” Paul says. “And she relies upon that tall vegetation to hide the eggs and to hide the young.”

This type of grass is often found on farm land, where farmers and ranchers like to cut, taking away the habitat. Which is ironic – one of the best ways to take care of rodent pests is to have owls around.

"If a farmer or a rancher that shared that land with the owl was aware of the needs of the owl, they could simply avoid grazing that land or cutting that grass during March or April when that owl is on a nest. Do it in May!” Paul says. "Owls don’t need much space."

Paul notes a time when a runway was shut down at Sea-Tac Airport. They stopped cutting the grass at that end of the field. And in the small space between two runways, voles came to live. And so did the short-eared owls. Six young were raised between the two runways.

“They don't need much,” Paul says. “A rancher can simply leave a little bit of the grass, uncut, perhaps along a canal or a watering area. They can graze the rest of it, cut the rest, but leave that spot a little shorter. As long as there are voles, they’ll find the voles. And guess what? There's no better rodent control than that provided by the owl.”

Another irony is that other methods of rodent control end up harming owls. Rat poison is a common treatment. But that just makes them easier prey for owls, which will eat the poisonous rats and become sick themselves.

“Yeah, oftentimes it dies,” Paul says.

After only a few hours, we've already spotted five owls. Paul starts to pack up his camera.

“It's kind of funny because my heart rate, when I'm around owls, at sunset or sunrise, my resting heart rate goes way down," says Paul. "It is just such a magnificent place to be and it makes it feel like, you know, things are right. These wild animals are out here among us. And if we can be with them and not change their behavior and watching them go about their lives, gosh, we can't have enough of these experiences.”

Paul Bannick is an award-winning author and nature photographer. He has two new books about snowy owls and great grey owls coming out in the fall. He’s also on the team at Conservation Northwest, an organization that has supported our storytelling. You can see some of Paul’s photos on our Instagram @thewildpod.

Audio recorded by Martyn Stewart, an audio/naturalist, was used in the audio version of this story.

THE WILD is a production of KUOW in Seattle in partnership with Chris Morgan and The UPROAR Fund. It is produced by Matt Martin and edited by Jim Gates. It is hosted, produced and written by Chris Morgan. Fact checking by Apryle Craig. Our theme music is by Michael Parker.

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