Comparing Short-Eared Owls and Northern Harriers

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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.

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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.

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The Short-Eared Owl is stubbier, and well, just seems more muscular. In some pictures the body is almost shaped like a cartoon cigar.

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As the owl glides across the marsh, he holds his wings straight out until he banks to turn one way or the other.

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The Short Ear hunts higher, circling slowly as he pivots his head in an almost circular motion.

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Then, when he sights his prey, he pulls his upper wings in close to his body and plummets head first to the ground.

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Side by side, the differences are quite distinct.

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Short-Eared Owl

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I was so excited to get this photograph today. Driving along Port Mahon Road, I saw several raptors flying over the salt marsh. They just didn’t seem quite like the Northern Harriers that are so common in that area.

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They were just more, well, substantial.

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And their wings were huge in comparison to their bodies.

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Then he banked and looked back toward me. There was no doubt. It was a Short-Eared Owl.

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Short-Eared Owls are birds of open country. They are found across North and South America,  and Eurasia. Unlike other owls, the Short-Eared Owl hunts day and night, though they are most often seen at dusk and dawn.

A Few Ducks at Bombay Hook

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I always enjoy photographing the ducks at Bombay Hook. During my most recent visit, there was only one area of open water close to the road with a few ducks. But I love Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers, so it worked out just fine! The first photo is perhaps my favorite because I finally captured the iridescence of the Bufflehead’s black feathers on his head and neck without blowing out the white feathers on his breast and wings.

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I also love the Mergansers, particularly when the male and female are in the same photograph.

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There are also times when the photograph I take ends up with a painting ‘texture’ to it that I kind of like. Not that I know how I’m getting that effect. It seems to happen when the lighting is not great, and when I crop the photo to a fairly large degree. But I’d like to figure it out, because there will be times when I want to deliberately create this effect!!

Life or Death

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These are the hunger days in mother nature. The ground and still waters are frozen over, covered with snow, seemingly barren. Food is hard to come by, and animals begin eating food sources that they normally pass by earlier in the winter. Such was the case this morning.

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I drove by a spot on the Chesapeake Bay with a swift current and patches of open water, watching some gulls attack what I assumed was a floundering fish.

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Only it wasn’t a fish. A lone Ruddy Duck, in search of its own food, strayed too far from the flock. Vulnerable, foraging by itself in the cold waters, the gulls began attacking, wounding it enough that it could no longer fly away from the growing threat.

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Every few passes a gull would grab it by the wing or the head and struggle to remain aloft with the flapping duck in its beak.

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Invariably, the gull would lose its grip and the duck would fall back in the water.

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Over and over it happened, the duck too exhausted to dive under the water and too wounded to fly away from its attackers.

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Only the gulls weren’t alone in their quest for a morning meal. Two Bald Eagles flew in to see what all the fuss was about, and one of the eagles grabbed the duck and took off to evade the growing crowd of predators.

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Over the open waters of the shipping channel, the eagles and the gulls fought for possession of this meal…

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… as the duck struggled in vain to escape from the talons of the eagle.

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Finally, some unspoken signal exchanged between predators. The almost-mature Bald Eagle was victor, and he settled on a patch of ice with his still struggling prey.

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It only took a moment for the Eagle to kill the Ruddy Duck, and only a few more before he consumed his meal…

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… and took off once again in search of more prey.

A Cold Day at Blackwater Refuge

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02 14 15 Blackwater 020 #2  This is the first photo of an American Kestrel I’ve gotten without a telephone wire in the photo!!

02 14 15 Blackwater 024 #2  Bald Eagles were everywhere, actively hunting the rivers, sitting on the ice, perched in the snags. One was even ice fishing, punching a hole in the ice and plucking small fish from the river!

02 14 15 Blackwater 004  A mixed flock of Starlings and Meadowlarks foraged near the road…

02 14 15 Blackwater 009  … though this was the closest I got to photographing their beautiful yellow chests!

02 14 15 Blackwater 027  A few Great Blue Herons found some open water in the canals from which to hunt.

02 14 15 Blackwater 012  Here’s another one of the Eagles, this time a juvenile, who appeared to be watching the fish under the thin layer of ice on which he stood.

A Very Cold Morning At Indian River Inlet

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I was supposed to take a pelagic birding trip out of Lewes, Delaware this morning. Alas, it was cancelled due to very cold temperatures and high winds. So the alternate trip? A morning trip to Indian River Inlet followed by a drive up to Bombay Hook. The trip to Indian River Inlet served to prove how wise it was to cancel the boat trip. It was brutally cold and windy. But the birds posed ever so nicely.

01 31 15 Bombay Indian River 039  Buffleheads swim along the jetty…

01 31 15 Bombay Indian River 044  … then fly to the other side of the inlet.

01 31 15 Bombay Indian River 051  Sanderlings and Purple Sandpipers forage along the rocks.

A Walk Around Greenbelt Lake

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I got a ‘snow day’ today, a nice day to take it easy and take a walk around Greenbelt Lake before running some errands. I was pleasantly surprised at the variety of birds on this cold, wet day. Here are a few of the birds that were out and about:

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This Canada Goose looked more like a Bloodhound pointing at his target while the Red-Tailed Hawk played peek-a-boo.

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The Hermit Thrush was foraging in a muddy stretch of the path while the Chickadee was foraging in the briars.

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A lone Red-Head Duck (the only one I’ve seen this season) was dozing off in the midst of a half-dozen Ring-Necked Ducks.

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One of the Ring-Necks swam close enough to really show off his colors.

A Little Bit of Color on a Rainy Winter Day

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It’s always a delight to watch an Eastern Bluebird, but especially so during our grey days of winter in the Mid-Atlantic region. A small group of Bluebirds were foraging for insects in the tall grasses along the water this morning. I know that they’re found around here year-round, but somehow when I see them on a January day, they make me think of spring with their bright, royal blue jackets.

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