Monday, January 18, 2021

Long-Eared Owl

Judy and I visited Corn Springs on December 19, 2020 with Andrew and Michaela. I followed Michaela to the edge of a very large palo verde tree on the edge of the wash and two great-horned owls flew out and across the dirt road up into the huge tamarisk near the palm trees at the edge of the campground. I walked up to the tamarisk tree, trying to get a photo of the owls, and the owls flew back to the palo verde tree. Judy volunteered to go to the palo verde tree and flush out the owls so that I could try and get a photo of one of them flying - she got them to flush, but I didn't get a photo. I was very disappointed to leave without a photo, even a poor photo, after having seen them so many times. 

So I visited Corn Springs again on Saturday, January 16, 2021 and the first thing I did when I stopped at the oasis was walk to the palo verde tree on the edge of the wash. I had my camera drawn and ready to photograph any flying owls. I was gobsmacked then the whole tree erupted with wings and flying owls. I walked under the tree and several more owls exploded out of the branches. It was frustrating because I could not see them before they flew and I got no photos. I guesstimated 8 or 10 owls and reasoned that perhaps when we'd visited nearly a month earlier that the parents were protecting baby owls that must have been hiding in the tree and the baby owls were now fledglings. But how many owls can a great horned owl raise in a litter and wasn't it too late in the year for young owls? Note to research that one. 

I walked up to and approached the tamarisk very cautiously, scanning the branches looking for owls. I thought I saw one and circled around for a better view and it was either nothing, or the owl had moved. I circled back around and looked and looked, getting closer. Then I saw one. It was deep in the tree and was very long, and its ears were standing up quite distinctly. 
This is my first photo, cropped and lightened and out of focus. The owl I saw was mostly dark, no details. It is the wonder of modern photograph editing that allows the darkness to fade and the details to emerge.  

Later photos of the same bird. 

I noted that I'd not seen a great-horned owl with such distinctive horns (ear tufts). I approached slowly, taking a few steps, taking photos, taking a few more steps, photos, etc. Several other owls flew from the tree, then I noticed another owl in a nearby branch. I moved around, slowly, then was able to photograph the new owl. Eventually these owls flew and I circled back around to the palo verde tree. 

This time I approached much more cautiously and from a further distance. I scanned and scanned the tree limbs looking for owls. I started to notice them mixed among the limbs. As I approached several flew from one branch to another and I focused on them and got some of my best photos. They were good at making sure there were lots of branches between me and them and I spent quite a bit of time trying to maneuver for camera angles that would get me a view through to the particular owl. 

Individual owls started to fly and I got a few photos of them in flight, nothing great, but something. I noticed more and more and many flew, but just a few feet to nearby trees. Many of them flew back to the tamarisk. I'm guessing there were 10 to 18 owls. 

I went back to the tamarisk and this time got underneath and scanned and scanned. At one point I was kind of stunned when I could see four of them all within a few feet of each other in the tree. I think a few things were happening. One was I was starting to be able to "see" the owls, to know what to look for. I think the other was that my slow deliberate approach made it so that the owls did not flush as easily and stayed put so that I could find them. 

By this time as I had what turned out to be more than 400 photos of them and I was discounting the baby owls hypotheses and wondering if owls migrated. Those could not all be from one nest. 

When I got home and started to work on my photos and sent the first one to iNaturalist, I was shocked when the first suggestion was a long-eared owl, but no indication that they were found nearby. I went to photos of long-eared owls and saw exactly what I'd been seeing, particularly the long ear tufts on top of the head and the white lines from the fore-head down to below the beak. 

I noted that long-eared owls are partially migratory and generally use the same migratory routes and wintering sites annually. "Another fairly unique characteristic" is that it has "roosts that are often shared by a number of long-eared owls at once." Bingo. "During daytime, long-eared owls tends to roost in an upright position on a branch, not infrequently close to the trunk, oftentimes within dense foliage. In winter [it] often stays close to the same tree or grove of trees...Usual[ly] when approached, the owl will freeze with its body stiffly upright, eyes closed to narrow slits and ear tufts erect. This is called the “tall-thin position”...If approached closed, the owls will alternately open and close their eyes (apparently having stirred but trying to fool potential predators into thinking the owl is still at rest), finally lowering ear tufts, fluffing body plumage and flying to another roost...In the non-breeding season [they] are often prone to occur in aggregations of owls while roosting. Such grouping may not uncommonly include up to 6 to 50 owls at times, with a European record of about 150 owls at a single roost."

It is one of the most widely distributed and most numerous owl species in the world, but I'd never seen one and don't recall ever hearing mention of one. 

It is "slim" and long-winged with "prominent erectile ear tufts positioned closer to the center of the head" than many other owls, like the great-horned owl. It is a hue of ochre/tawny "with a grayish or brownish wash... The base color is commonly overlaid with variable blackish vertical streaks (and occasionally spots), which are usually more apparent about the wings and back. The scapulars are usually marked whitish, which provide further contrast when seen against the base color and blackish markings. The wing's dark carpal patches can also display broad panels of buff or almost orange on the wings across the base of primaries, which represent a more richly emphasized version of a pattern shared with other owls that tend to be vole-hunting specialists, like short-eared owls (Asio flammeus) and great gray owl (Strix nebulosa). On the underside, the body tends to be a somewhat paler [ochre-tawny] compared to the upperside. Long-eared owls tend to have dusky streaks on the upper breast, below which they may be heavily marked with herring bone pattern (which is created by dusky shaft-streaks and crossbars on these feathers). There is much individual and regional variation in markings with owls dwelling in more extensively forested regions tending to be of a darker hue, often so densely washed above as to appear largely dusky brown on the back and the underside largely overlaid with bolder dusky-blackish marks. Meanwhile, in some desert-like regions, the plumage may tend towards a somewhat more washed out look, at times appearing fairly cream or yellowish, with sparser and lighter dusky markings overall. The facial disc is visibly well developed and variably colored (see subspecies) in the species, rimmed dusky often with white running down along the center through the bill, while at times the white lines form a “moustache” and/or extending to the inside of the facial disc rim. The ear tufts are usually dusky in front and paler tawny on the back. [It] possess a blackish bill color while its eyes may vary from yellowish-orange to orange-red.." The toes are feathered. 

The subspecies of long-eared owl found in the U.S. is "more vividly marked" than Eurasian subspecies. "The facial disc is bright rufous, with a strong blackish rim and extensive white about the disc. The eyes are typically a deep yellow. Meanwhile, the markings on the underside usually are quite blackish and prominent with distinct cross bars."

They are strictly nocturnal. Studies in Idaho showed that they were least active from 8 to 10 p.m. and 5 to 6 a.m. and most active from 10 to 12 p.m. and 3 to 5 a.m. 


  1. I love your amazing photos. There are a couple near the end where the owls have their eyes closed and partially closed that are really fun. These photos are clearly the result of great patience, and your narrative is a good outline of how to "see" wild animals--lots of time, lots of photos, new approaches to looking, etc. (And can I just add--thank goodness for digital photography. Can you imagine developing 400 prints/20 rolls of film for this?)