Short-eared Owls a Sight to See at Crockett Lake
Wintertime visitors are active during the daytime
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 (visit 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 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. Just last week, a short drive along the highway between the spit and the lake revealed 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.
Evidence suggests that Short-eared Owl populations have experienced a substantial decline over the past 40 years with loss of habitat considered a primary factor. You can help this species by participating in a Western Asio Flammeus Landscape Study (WAfLS) designed to better evaluate how their numbers are faring.