By Ron Newberry
Special to the Record
Short-eared owls are unlike most owls. They flutter through the air like a giant moth, dipping and rising as they scan for movement in the grasses below. Sometimes, they’ll perch on a post or snag to groom themselves, seemingly without a care in the world.
But what’s most unique about short-eared owls is they do all of this in plain sight. These owls live in open terrain and are often active during the day, usually around dawn or dusk.
Each winter, they show up at Crockett Lake Preserve on central Whidbey Island, where they hunt for voles and other small mammals.
They’re a favorite of wildlife photographers because of their striking appearance and accessibility.
“I love their ‘eye-liner’ and piercing yellow eyes,” said Coupeville photographer Jennifer Holmes. “I love to watch them hunt for voles. Did you know they dive head first toward the ground before they extend their feet to catch their prey? When they’re flying, their wings move like silent paddles through the air. I can’t get enough of them.”
Holmes is a regular visitor to Crockett Lake and the adjacent Keystone Spit, where she photographs birds and other wildlife (many appear on her Facebook page, Jennifer Holmes Wildlife Photography). She generally sees short-eared owls at this location from December to March.
This winter, she’s seen three short-eared owls, the most since she started photographing them three years ago.
Holmes regards Crockett Lake and the Keystone Spit as her “wildlife Mecca.” Crockett Lake Preserve, permanently protected by the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, stretches over 423 acres. It is located along the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south flyway for migratory birds, and is designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.
More than 230 species of birds have been recorded at Crockett Lake. On a recent drive along the highway between the spit and the lake, one Land Trust staff member witnessed three bald eagles, a red-tailed hawk, two great blue herons and three short-eared owls on an unseasonably warm late afternoon.
One of the owls was flying low while the other two were perched not far off the highway.
“They’re so fun,” said Sarah Schmidt, a Whidbey biologist and avid birder. “They’re so mothy the way they fly.”
Schmidt said she’s seen short-eared owls at Crockett Lake every winter for the past 20 years. They’re also sometimes seen at Deer Lagoon on Whidbey and at the Davis Slough on Camano Island. Sometimes, they have company.
“Short-eared owls and northern harriers seek the same prey in the same habitats, and it’s not uncommon to see them hunting over the same meadows and even battling over food,” Schmidt said.
n The Whidbey Camano Land Trust is a nonprofit nature conservation organization that actively involves the community in protecting, restoring and appreciating the important natural habitats and resource lands that support the diversity of life on our islands and in the waters of Puget Sound. For more information, call 360-222-3310, visit www.wclt.org or email email@example.com