This winter, silent hunters descended on the wet meadows of Saltese Flats. A group of long-eared owls, Asio otus, roosted along the hedgerows that occupy the old pasture lands of the Saltese Flats near Liberty Lake. These nocturnal hunters favor the dense hawthorn growths on their hunting grounds along the irrigation channels, which make excellent nest locations and launching perches.
Long-eared Owls get their name from the long feather tufts that are, in fact, not ears. Some researchers believe these tufts may act as a form of body language communication, as with great horned owls. They are lanky-bodied and their cryptic feather patterns allow them to have effective camouflage while on their roost sites. They do not build their own nests, but instead use old nest sites from other stick builders including red-tailed hawks, magpies, and crows.
Long-eared owls are somewhat unusual, as many owls tend to be solitary or dwell in small family groups. During winter, the Long-eared owls will roost in large numbers, from 20 to 100 individuals, like they have at Saltese. Due to their relatively slender size, it is thought that this grouping may create a form of safety in numbers.
My friend Ang Maire is an excellent wildlife photographer and tipped me off to this hooting of owls at Saltese. She described her experience finding these hunters: “Without knowing the owls were there, I would have easily walked right on by a parliament of 18 long-eared owls roosting close together. [They were] so incredibly well-hidden among the thick, thorny maze of branches. The early bird got the worm, and I had the great fortune of a stare (36 eyes) all to myself the first couple hours at sunrise …”
Staring aside, owls have many adaptations that make them excel as nocturnal predators. Looking at individual owl feathers, they appear almost fuzzy on the margins due to an extra layer of down that allows these birds to have a silent flight. Owls also have asymmetrical ears, with one ear being slightly lower than the other. An owl’s dished facial features allows them to direct sound toward the ear. This lets them hear in 3D and locate prey with incredible accuracy in complete darkness.
Like many owls, Long-eared owls swallow their prey whole and then regurgitate the indigestible parts into pellets. These pellets make excellent science lessons and can demonstrate a lot about rodent anatomy and diets of the owls. You can often locate an owl nest by the presence of these pellets littering the ground.
Although I didn’t see any owls on my recent trip to Saltese Flats, I was reminded of the abundance of life that lives—largely unseen to us—just below the surface of the grasses. With snow recently melted off and the grass still lying flat, I could catch glimpses of the pathways that meadow voles have been creating just above the ground and below the snow all winter. This subnivean (below snow) behavior allows them to forage for grass seed and woody vegetation while mostly being protected from the elements and predators.
As I walked my dog along the trails, I was also reminded of the more-than-human senses of other animals. My canine companion frequently lunged into the grass at the sound of a meadow vole scurrying under the grass. It was a great reminder of the life that goes often unseen by humans, but that many other animals, like the long-eared owl, have senses attuned to find. //
Adam Gebauer writes the Nature column for each issue of Out There. His last article highlighted restoration efforts on Hangman Creek in eastern Washington. You can read more of his Nature columns online at Outthereoutdoors.com.