The Short-Eared Owl: A Diurnal Owl

This owl gets its name from two tiny feather tufts that may or may not be raised and evident. Most owls are nocturnal, so the Short-Eared is an exception to the rule. We see them in open country, usually on a fence post or on the ground. They seem to favor this type of country where they can more easily spot the voles and mice that make up a large part of their diet.

This owl of open grasslands is widely distributed over the world. Because of its wide distribution, it has many “nick-names”: Evening Owl, Marsh Owl, Bog Owl, Swamp Owl, Grass Owl, Meadow Owl, Flat-Faced Owl, and Mouse-Hawk. It spends more time on the wing than other owls, flying low over fields and marshes with wings in a V configuration (dihedral). It flaps its wings in a floppy, moth-like manner.

Because they live in the open, they are a quiet species. Visual displays are more useful than vocal ones in open country. The abundance of trees makes the use of sound more vital in woodlands. Short-Eared Owls rely on their coloration for camouflage, but will feign death to avoid detection. When they do sing, it is a pulsating “voo-hoo-hoo”.

Nests are constructed by the female (who is darker colored than the male) on the ground. It is a scrape lined with grass, herb stalks, and feathers plucked from her breast. She will lay anywhere from 4 to 14 eggs – depending upon yearly rodent cycles and their abundance. It is interesting how environmental conditions can subconsciously affect physiology.

Our most frequent sightings of this bird have been in the BLM lands on the way to Milner Dam, and also in the open country on the way to north Heglar Canyon.

(Dave Hanks)

Hiding in the barrow-pit along the Milner road

Hiding in the barrow-pit along the Milner road

Bison: Remnants from Massive Herds of Yesteryear

The American Bison is not a buffalo. True buffalo are found in Africa and Asia. Bison, like cattle, are bovines. Incidentally cow (or bull) is not a species – they are genders. Bison can breed with our domestic cattle to produce a hybrid. Also, like cattle, they have four stomachs and chew their cud. Bison are the largest North American land animal and parallel our cattle in weight – bulls up to a ton and cows up to eleven hundred pounds.

Bison live on the prairie and on open, mountainous grasslands. They are most active in the early morning or evening (crepuscular), and even on moonlit nights. Mid-day usually finds them resting and cud chewing. This herd-type ungulate (hooves) has deceptive speed. A seemingly slow moving group always surprises me. They can be here and then gone in an amazing short period of time. Adults are a dark brown, but calves are a very attractive light, reddish-brown. At two to three months of age, the young switch to the darker adult color.

Depressions full of dust or mud are used as wallows. The wallowing helps shed hair and fight parasites. Bulls will do more wallowing at rutting time. Shaggy heads and shoulders are adapted to use as snow plows to reach winter feed or to face into blizzards. When faced with predators, calves and cows will move to the center of the herd – or when stampeding, in front with bulls at the rear for protection.

We have experienced Bison in Custer Park of South Dakota, Teddy Roosevelt Park of North Dakota, Canada’s Northwest Territories, and of course Yellowstone National Park. But, we find the National Bison Range, north of Missoula, Montana, to be the most interesting. The range borders the Flathead River. An Indian, by the name of Walking Coyote, hid four calves by the river during the age of the great Bison slaughter – thus the nucleus of this herd. The Bison in this park are managed to keep their range from being overgrazed. Each calf is branded a number according to its year of birth. In October, cowboys from surrounding communities drive the Bison into corrals where they are sorted, calves vaccinated, and an auction is held to dispose of the surplus.

American Bison

A massive front end – a formidable presentation to natural challenges

Anting: Another way of Bathing

I sit watching a Roadrunner. It’s a species of southwestern, dry grasslands or desert scrub. It is 23 inches long with a long tail that it continually “flicks” up and down. While sitting on a lookout perch, it can easily spot small prey (mainly lizards and snakes) which are then quickly grabbed and consumed. This bird often sits very still and fluffs up the feathers on its back – thus facilitating sun bathing. The resulting gray coloration, blending in with the gray earth, has a camouflaging effect. If you put suet in a feeding tray, upon the ground, you can lure him into your campsite.

As I sit watching the bird, I notice a cloud of dust over its body. It is lying on a pile of dirt and giving it a good stirring. I am reminded that birds have more than one way to bathe. Using water is the obvious mode – dusting is another. The dust helps rid the bird of parasites. But the most interesting and unusual method is called “Anting.”

“Anting” involves lying on an ant hill and letting the ants crawl through the bird’s feathers. The ants are searching for prey – parasites. Birds will also grasp an ant, crushing it in their beak, and then rub the ant up and down its feather shafts. The formic acid released from this action serves as a parasite repellant. Nature has some fascinating and unique ways of accomplishing her schemes.

	There he is!
	  Streaking through the Creosote
	    Body hunched down as he scoots along
	      Brown and speckled with a blotched, streaked chest
	        Pheasant-like head, body, and tail
	          Post sitter – Brush climber – Ground master – Lizard eater
	            Sometimes so very wary - Sometimes so very tame
	              He stops and cocks an eye
	                A perky, feathered streak!
The Greater Roadrunner

The Greater Roadrunner

Brown Thrashers: A Pleasant Find in Dinosaur Park

A bright, rufous-brown is scratching in the underbrush. Hopefully it will show itself. It’s a long-tailed bird that will only appear if it feels the stage is completely clear. It is in the brush, under the cottonwood trees, that lines the river which runs through Dinosaur Provincial Park in southeastern Alberta.

Most of Alberta is green – from her western mountains, to her grasslands in the east. This southeastern park is dry, however, except for a ribbon of trees along the river that runs through it. The name comes from a time past when the region was sub-tropical and was a habitat for dinosaurs (as evidenced by fossilized remains). The exposed bedrock, sand, and hardened mud flats have forced most of the wildlife to live along the narrow riparian zone. This park is like the “Badlands” and the animals have had to adjust to the lack of moisture, to high winds, and to cold winters. It’s no wonder that the river is such a popular place.

But the thrasher is working his way cautiously into the open. I see his prominent, gleaming yellow eye and curved bill. The extra long tail and heavily spotted chest makes this species one of considerable interest.

This is Georgia’s state bird, and it is closely related to the Mockingbird and Gray Catbird. It is much more reserved than its relatives, but like them, it’s a great singer, although it doesn’t sing as often.

Unusual for such reserved individuals, they will vigorously defend their nest. There are reports of them attacking humans, even drawing blood. This 11 inch bird forages on the ground by sweeping the leaf litter with its curved beak to find insects and other small animal species.

Brown Thrasher in Leaf Litter

Toxostoma rufum