I’ve birded the salt marsh along Port Mahon Road many, many times, and even knew that Short-Eared Owls inhabited the marsh. But until this past week I had never seen them. Why would I suddenly see them this week? I read in a fellow birder’s post that the Short Ears will hunt side-by-side with Northern Harriers. That was the clue I needed to see the Short-Eared Owls I had been watching all along.
There are similarities between the two species. The female Harrier and the Short Ears are similarly colored and are about the same size. And the Harrier does have an owlish face. At a distance across the marsh and at a glance, they look very similar. But the differences are distinct.
The Northern Harrier is a slender bird with broad wings. The most distinctive marking on the Harrier is the white patch on it’s rump where the tail meets the body. It has a long tail that allows the bird to hover, much like a helicopter, as it hunts close to the ground in search of small mammals. In fact, it is as much the differences in hunting habits that distinguishes the two birds as it is their appearances. The Harrier hunts low to the ground, flying with his wings in a dihedral shape until it spots a prey, when it flairs its tail and flaps its wings furiously to fly in place until it drops feet first on it’s prey.
The Short-Eared Owl is stubbier, and well, just seems more muscular. In some pictures the body is almost shaped like a cartoon cigar.
As the owl glides across the marsh, he holds his wings straight out until he banks to turn one way or the other.
The Short Ear hunts higher, circling slowly as he pivots his head in an almost circular motion.
Then, when he sights his prey, he pulls his upper wings in close to his body and plummets head first to the ground.
Side by side, the differences are quite distinct.